Good Morning, Afghanistan! It's Zero Dark Thirty time

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The United States' policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan — as articulated by recent decibels from Donald Trump and his foreign policy chief — shows it is donning its geopolitical handyman gloves. But their expectations of India are not so clear.

Presidents of the United States have historically sought to 'fix' the instability in the Asian subcontinent with artillery might. Now, it's Donald Trump's turn. | AFP

I think the Pakistani Army specialises in taking the Americans for long rides, usually into the sunset after which there is total darkness. To be fair to the Americans, they don’t need help from Pakistan if you think of what they have managed to do without them in Iraq but the Pakistani establishment makes the ride even more memorable, and gives the American soldiers much more to write home about. After which, sometimes, Hollywood takes over. Think Abbottabad. The ride Americans have been taken for in Afghanistan is the longest yet — sixteen years, and counting. Now, with President Donald Trump’s U-turn on Afghanistan, it looks set to continue for at least another sixteen.

 

This is good news as well as bad news for us Indians. I am not talking about Trump’s ability to make such sharp U-turns. The good news is it gives us yet another opportunity to tell the Cowboys exactly how conniving and wily the Pakistani establishment is, with suitable examples. The bad news is this gives the Americans another chance to reintroduce the hyphen in their relationship with India and Pakistan as they fine-tune another “regional” strategy to fix the mess in Afghanistan. Worse, it will also give Pakistanis more opportunities to use the ‘B’ word. No, not the one popular in our part of Punjab and theirs. Balochistan, which became popular after Sharm-al-Shaikh.

Things are indeed interestingly poised, if you consider the scene the American President has set. Here are excerpts from his speech that must have made our policy wonks drool quite a bit. I take serious note of it because Trump seems to have approached Afghanistan the same way I would have approached Titian’s Venus of Urbino. And I quote Trump: “So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle.” For eight months.

“In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear: We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America, and we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter.”

“America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”

“We are not nation-building again.  We are killing terrorists.”

“For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.  The threat is worse because Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed states whose tense relations threaten to spiral into conflict. And that could happen.”

I have a quibble with his use of the word 'often', because harbouring the bad guys has been part of Pakistani statecraft and the Yanks know that pretty well by now. But more worrying is this throwaway line by the American Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who amplified Trump’s announcement, implying that the 45th President of the United States of America was going to fix it better than any other American president had fixed it. Better than Clinton, who sent cruise missiles to attack goats in Afghanistan, better than Bush Junior who attacked many caves at Tora Bora from a great height, better than Barack Obama who attacked Abbottabad and thought he had given it a decent sea burial and by pulling out the Americans afterwards.

 

 At least Tillerson was candid enough to say that he called up Islamabad to give them a heads up as to what to roughly expect from Trump’s speech. Did Washington tell us (India) what its expectations of us are?

Now its Trump’s turn. What I like about the Pakistanis is the way they make sure there is enough left over for successive American presidents to fix better and better. The irony is, the more they 'fix it' the worse it gets. I digress, but here is Rex Tillerson: “The U.S. alone is not going to change this dynamic with Pakistan. India and Pakistan, they have their own issues that they have to continue to work through, but I think there are areas where perhaps even India can take some steps of rapprochement on issues with Pakistan to improve the stability within Pakistan and remove some of the reasons why they deal with these unstable elements inside their own country.”

There you have it. Not a single clarification was sought in that State Department press opportunity as to what Prime Minister Modi should do before, as President Trump put it, Pakistan changed its behaviour “immediately”. For those with especially short memories, this is what Trump said: “Pakistan has also sheltered the same organisations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harbouring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilisation, order, and to peace.”

Could all this have been thought up without consultations with a putative regional strategic partner, not a potential UN Security Council Permanent Member, viz, India? At least Tillerson was candid enough to say that he called up Islamabad to give them a heads up as to what to roughly expect from Trump’s speech. Therefore, there was not much of a surprise for the generals in Rawalpindi, who are having a quiet laugh over this new development. And, lost in all the public gloating in New Delhi over Washington’s new evangelism on Afghanistan is the burden of expectations from New Delhi. It cannot possibly be restricted to throwing more money at Afghanistan.

 

Did Washington tell us what its expectations of us are in terms of taking “some steps on rapprochement on issues with Pakistan to improve the stability within Pakistan and remove some of the reasons why they deal with these unstable elements inside their own country”? Think of it, who could these “unstable elements” be that Pakistan deals with inside their own country? Are unstable elements the same as terrorists? Or could they be, in Pakistani lexicon, freedom fighters?

I am a bit of a conspiracy theorist. But tell me, why can’t I figure out how India can be a factor for stability within Pakistan just so the Americans can get Pakistan’s friends, the Taliban, over to Camp David and thence a soft political landing in Kabul? By implication does it mean that if Pakistan is not stable enough to get the Taliban over by, say, Thanksgiving, we are somehow responsible for it? Do you wonder what our Pakistani friends have been telling the Yanks behind our backs? In the bad old days all this used to be called something else. But, opportunity knocks.

I have a sneaky feeling that this is not something our Prime Minister is going to be tweeting about or talking about in his next Mann Ki Baat. Meanwhile, stay tuned for the fine tuning. And bear with the static that comes along with it.

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