Donald Trump tweet on Pakistan – hold back the champagne

It was just a tweet – about 50 words but it literally caused a mini earthquake in India and Pakistan. Here is a President saying the exact truth without any diplomatese. But that has always been his style and character.

But if India and Indians are sensible, everyone starting from the Government of Narendra Modi to ordinary Indians raving and ranting in forums and twitter should hold back the champagne bottle. It is too early.

Let us look at some specifics re the run up to this tweet.

  1. It is no big secret that Pakistan has been double crossing United States for decades now. Ground level commanders, senior Army generals, CIA heads, Defence secretaries and so many analysts and strategic experts of all shades have said exactly this for years. Even Hillary Clinton’s famous snake in backyard remark is well known.
  2. Yet US governments, over years, kept pumping funds into Pakistan, essentially funding terror against their own soldiers and citizens as well those of allies including Afghanistan and India, to the tune of $33b. We know the count.
  3. The excuse was that Pakistan was necessary for supply routes and the China factor. Pakistan learnt to perfect this form of blackmail to a fine art and learnt to issue statements that will immediately set cash registers ringing with new aid. Its ministers even openly “threaten” to go with the Russians or Chinese.
  4. If “liberal” governments are in power this blackmail took on other forms – “Apre moi la deluge” theme where essentially Pakistan puts a gun to its own head and blackmails the POTUS for funds to spend on terror. Even this was well known but no one dared to say “be my guest, go ahead and fire the bullet”. Of course, Pakistan would never try this trick with a conservative President.

So have things really changed?

No doubt Trump is a very different President with very different ideas on how to use the power of the seat to get things done. He owes nothing to no one and is his own man. Unlike other career politicians, he has been remarkably consistent for decades on most core aspects of his policy as well as personality. His 18 year old interview on North Korea which he recently re-tweeted is just one such case in point.

Yet it pays to be cautious.

For one, Trump’s mercurial personality can cut both ways. Once again the China-NK tweets offer clues. After blowing hot on China, he immediately went soft, without getting anything in return other than empty words.

Secondly, Pakistan has been there, done that. It knows how to work the system.

The only difference is now we have Modi in control and he is not going to give any room for Pakistan to wiggle from Indian perspective – the pressure will be on. A left controlled UPA by now would be shedding tears for its long lost brother and rush to its rescue.

We have to look for clear, incontrovertible evidence of ACTION not just words. If Trump says “It’s only words, and words are all I have”, we should be ready not to give our hearts away.

The action can take many forms

  1. Best of course, is a clear military deadline to the generals. The “bomb back to stone age” threat of Bush administration shortly after the 9/11 incident type. And a few bombs to be sure it is heard and understood.
  2. Hold back aid beyond the peanuts $255 million that is being bandied about.
  3. Firm message to China to stay clear and not queer the pitch or face other actions.
  4. Strong ground action in the Af-Pak border that puts some teeth to the words
  5. Actively work with India and Iran perhaps, on Plan B.

We will watch the space with considerable interest but equal measure of skepticism.

Special note addendum:

The “fall in China’s lap” blackmail

As we noted earlier, Pakistan, over the years has perfected the art of blackmailing Uncle Sam. One such technique is the threat to “fall in China’s lap”. This is often used as excuse by pro-Pak establishment shills within and outside USA to write even bigger cheques without asking for value in return.

This if fake. Pakistan is already in China’s lap. Only Uncle Sam was paying the bills! That’s taking art of cuckolding to Jupiter’s escape velocity, as Pandit Rahul Gandhi might put it!

Perhaps when China is asked to pay the bills, which is known to be extremely reluctant to do, calculators will be out and new approaches emerge.  Can’t be any worse than what it already is, at least for India.

 

 

 

 

 

The Afghan mess

The flurry of recent high level visits in the region and the impending US pullout no doubt has put Afghanistan on the front burner at least from a regional perspective. There is apprehension that India’s role in Afghanistan would diminish and India would be asked to ‘take a hike’ now that big boys are coming together to play a game that is in a different league.

Is India’s Afghan policy doomed?

Commentaries of this nature have appeared in local media. C. Raja Mohan writing for Indian Express doesn’t sound too optimistic. Of course, commentators like M K Bhadrakumar play up this doomsday scenario, primarily to scare Indian Government into ‘accommodating’ Pakistan’s demands. Bhadrakumar for one, has been prophesying about the grand and imminent victory for Pakistan’s Afghan strategy for a few years now. The victory has always been around the corner and is likely to remain so.

Much of the hand wringing and breast beating (we seem to be experts in this) over India’s ‘diminished role’ or even a strategic nightmare unfolding in the coming months may be unwarranted.

The mistrust

Afghan Pakistan mistrust is a result of years of Pakistani double dealing and it would be insulting Afghan intelligence to attribute it entirely to some deep Indian conspiracy. Even the Taliban fighters have been quoted bad mouthing Pakistan and its Army. Ahmed Rashid’s recent BBC article is but one example.  They probably alternate between being used and using the ISI to further their own agenda. Their reluctance, even while in power, to accept the Durand line as the official Afghan Pakistan border has often been cited as an example of this mistrust and independent agenda. What is also surprising is the level of hostility towards Pakistan amongst ordinary Afghans be they villagers or educated elite. What this means is that even if Ashraf Ghani has entirely signed up for the Pakistani plan, given his own fractured verdict and shaky hold on power in a country full of ethnic and other fault lines, he is not going to wave a magic wand and transform Pakistan’s image problem in Afghanistan.

His rival Abdullah, who is “CEO” under the power sharing system worked out after last elections is much more friendlier towards India.

Ghani’s gambit

That brings us to the new President, Ashraf Ghani. Ghani obviously will have Afghan interests as his bottom line. He may be convinced, rightly or wrongly that being friendly to Pakistan will further that interest. He has certainly kept India at a safe distance, avoiding a visit. He even cancelled long pending arms request which India was reluctant to provide anyway. Sooner or later he may have to change tunes. This is because Pakistan will continue to play games and expect a one sided relationship where its own demands take precedence and offer nothing in return. Pakistan’s generals are in cocky mood, congratulating themselves for hoodwinking the Americans for decades. They were successful in bilking billions of dollars even as they actively sabotage American interests and lives in the region. It is likely they continue to believe this can be done for many more years profitably. If the mighty Americans can be fooled for so long, it would be even easier to do so with the Afghans who can’t even hit back.

However, not having any results to show after several months of bending over backwards to Pakistan’s demands would destroy whatever little credibility Ashraf Ghani enjoys now.

The Taliban

But if one were to assume that the Pakistani Army has turned a corner and is now a truly anti-jihad (which incidentally is their official motif) that makes things even more interesting and complicated. Ahmed Rashid, a well known Pakistani author and commentator is sceptical about Pakistan Army’s clout over the Taliban. They may have been stooges or useful idiots in the past, but have their own plans. They are not going to accompany Gen. Sharif to the slaughterhouse like a lamb. With support from sections of the radicalised Pakistani public, elements in the army itself and sectarian terror gangs like TTP and Al Qaeda/ISIL they may even become openly hostile to Pakistan. If anything, effort by Pakistan to bulldoze Taliban into some ‘settlement’ not entirely to their liking will only confirm Taliban’s suspicion. Getting the Taliban to agree to a compromise that also satisfies Tajik and other Afghan tribal interests would not be easy particularly for a bunch of generals trusted by no one.

Any strong arm tactic to please the Americans or soften up the Talibs for talks would probably end up making matters worse. Yet this may become the unintended collateral consequence of the airstrikes and bombings as well as hangings that have followed the Peshawar school massacre.

Although Obama administration has recently started calling the Taliban ‘armed insurgents’ and not terrorists, they are not another Indian or African National Congress simply fighting for their country’s independence. Their goals and agenda go much further. In fact pressure from even greener Islamist groups like IS would force them to adopt increasingly tough line, simply to keep their flock from defecting. Any defeat at the negotiating table, when they feel they have pretty much driven away the Americans and “won” in the battlefield, is not only unlikely but unrealistic to expect. On the contrary a victory for Taliban would not only be unacceptable to large sections of Afghan public including Pashtuns, it will have long term consequences for Pakistan’s own western provinces as well as its core interests. Islamist forces would see that as a template worthy of implementing in Pakistan itself.

America’s endless generosity?

America’s vital interests in the region have been overestimated. Unlike dictatorships like China, frequent regime changes in America makes it easy for any President to disown and walk away from the mess his predecessor has created and trumpet that as an achievement in of itself. That is exactly what Obama has been promising to voters and doing as well. Unlike George Bush, President Obama has very little ‘face’ to lose because it was simply not his war. A new President even if from the same Democratic party, assuming power after elections next year would be even more distant from the mess and would not want to invest a dollar more.

Frankly, America is least bothered as its oil dependence has dropped considerably. It’s reliance on Middle East oil is insignificant and declining by the year. It’s strategic priorities lie much further to the East and West. In other words, the Pakistani generals and their fan club members like Bhadrakumar that are expecting huge dowries and ransom in exchange for facilitating some sort of grand bargain, are simply day dreaming.

American eagerness to drop this can of worms on China’s lap is seen by some as a great victory for China and a ‘proof’ of its rise, but it is more like American companies getting rid of some dirty or dangerous assembly business to the Chinese because it makes sense.

The China hand

That brings us to China! It should be obvious that China lacks the money to spend the tens of billions of dollars Americans could spend in the Af-Pak theatre each year. It wants to make money, not throw it in a bottomless pit. It’s interests are entirely commercial and self centered. It has two main concerns – the Xinjiang issue and long term economic interests. China has never given big bucks even to its most trusted slave Pakistan, mostly confining itself to flowery words and empty promises. Commercial deals, if any, have been on terms massively in its favor.

China has been enjoying Pakistan’s ‘services’ pretty much free of charge with Uncle Sam footing the bill. It may not have any interest in funding the Afghan economy or much worse, its Army. The trillions of dollars of mineral wealth supposedly waiting to be tapped are worth a lot less for its economy given the price crash of most commodities and the global glut. It may announce a few grandiose projects, more flowery words and poetry and fund some of these projects to some extent and rapidly cut losses and get out if the going gets tough as it did in Africa. For example, its much hyped copper mining project in Aynak have not seen any investments and is simply announcement-ware.

Net Net

All said, Pakistan army is nowhere close to getting what it wants and the only ‘victory’ it scores are in the political arena when it plays games with its own elected civilian leaders. In fact more than India, it is Pakistan that faces the risk of ‘heads you win, tails I lose’ scenario unfolding in Afghanistan.

As far as India is concerned, its legitimate interests merely lie in ensuring Afghanistan does not become a backyard for anti-Indian terrorists or a ‘strategic depth’ for Pakistan. This is achievable in all but the most pessimistic of scenarios, even if Taliban were to share power.

In fact, it may make a lot of sense to just lie low, open a large bag of pop corns and watch the fun from a distance as Pakistan slowly finds its goose cooked to perfection in a mess of its own making.