On August 21 President Trump gave the first prime time address of his presidency, focusing on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. He outlined a new approach to the conflict in that country, with the goal of finally winning the war that has tied down U.S. forces for the last 16 years – the longest-running U.S. war anywhere in the world.
In the speech there was much emphasis on “winning,” and on the certainty of doing so. Among the examples of winning cited by the president was the Vietnam War. So if there was any hope to be derived from his remarks, his reference to Vietnam would have ended it.
In fact, there wasn’t much substance in the president’s remarks, and not much that was new, except he laid the blame for the current situation squarely on the shoulders of Pakistan. He called on Pakistan to “demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order and peace.” The U.S. could no longer stay silent, he said, about Pakistan’s “safe haven for terrorists.” And, to make sure his new policy would really turn out to be counterproductive as far as action by Pakistan, he invited India to play a larger role in Afghanistan.
Much has been said and written about Pakistan playing a destructive role in Afghanistan, while happily receiving U.S. aid. While Pakistan is surely not without blame in this matter, one never hears about Pakistan’s concerns and aims for any resolution to the Afghan conflict. Pakistan has continued to host 2-3 million Afghan refugees for the better part of the last three decades. So any insinuation that Pakistan wants to destabilize Afghanistan makes no logical sense.
I recently attended a panel discussion about the situation in Afghanistan at The Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. The panelists included the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., a politician from India, and Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who has served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and to the U.N. As usual, Mr. Khalilzad put all blame for the current state of affairs on Pakistan. He proudly claimed he had been part of U.S. policy and actions in Afghanistan for several decades, right from the time when it was U.S. policy to round up every nut case zealot from around the Islamic world and arm and train them to fight the Soviets who were occupying Afghanistan at the time. These are the forebears of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS. And then there was the policy of pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into Afghanistan with not much to show for it. No wonder Mr. Khalilzad is earnestly looking for someone to blame.
So what does Pakistan want to see happen in Afghanistan? Pakistan’s biggest concern is to avoid the emergence of a government in this neighboring country that is hostile to Pakistan and allows its territory to be used to destabilize Pakistan.
Why would that be? To begin with the government of Afghanistan, this one and all preceding governments, refuses to recognize the Afghan–Pakistan border as an established international border. Afghanistan continues to lay claim to large parts of Pakistani territory, even as Pakistan hosts millions of Afghan refugees. In addition, almost all international trade conducted with Afghanistan transits through Pakistani territory and is the basis for much smuggling of goods into Pakistan, hurting its economy. And there is the Afghan drug trade to contend with.
The last thing Pakistan wants to see happen in Afghanistan is the emergence of a government closely aligned with India and influenced by it.
Calling on India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan, while at the same time questioning Pakistan’s commitment to “civilization,” is the surest way to make sure Pakistan will not be inclined to help the U.S. achieve its goals, particularly when it involves creating conditions in Afghanistan that run counter to Pakistan’s interests and security concerns.
If the U.S. government really wants Pakistan’s cooperation in helping resolve the situation in Afghanistan, it should start by pressing the Afghan government to rescind any territorial claims against Pakistan. In addition, it should press India to reduce any efforts to gain influence in that beleaguered country. After all, India has not been carrying the burden of hosting millions of Afghan refugees. It can afford to invest in Afghanistan to “win hearts and minds,” but at what cost to the region?
One effect of this new policy and language toward Pakistan would be to drive Pakistan even closer to China. After all, China is investing over $50 billion in Pakistani infrastructure projects – and the people of Pakistan are starting to see the results of these investments. After all is said and done, this new policy by President Trump would be remembered as yet another step by this U.S. administration in helping China expand its influence in the region and around the world.
S. Qaisar Shareef concluded a career of nearly 30 years with Procter & Gamble Company in 2011. He is the author of When Tribesmen Came Calling: Building an Enduring American Business in Pakistan, published in August 2017 by Blue Ear Books. He lives outside Washington, D.C.