President Donald Trump has called on India to play a greater role on Afghanistan, while chastising Pakistan over its alleged support for Afghan militants – an approach analysts say will probably not change Pakistan’s strategic calculations and might push it in directions Washington does not want it to go. President Donald Trump committed the U.S. to an increase in troop levels to Afghanistan and enlisted India’s help in the 16-year conflict.
In a televised prime-time address to the nation from Fort Myer, Virginia, U.S., August 21, 2017, Trump criticized Pakistan for providing “safe havens to terrorist organizations” and warned Islamabad it had much to lose by supporting insurgents battling the U.S.-backed Kabul government. “We are committed to pursuing our shared objectives for peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region,” he said.
Pakistan, he said, has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists. “It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate a commitment to civilization, order and peace,” Trump said, adding that 20 organizations designated as terrorists by the U.S. operated in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror,” and noted the threat was heightened when two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, lived side-by side.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear, said the president. “We must stop the re-emergence 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,” Trump said.
Successive U.S. administrations have struggled with how to deal with nuclear-armed Pakistan.
In some ways, the US is dependent on the South Asian nuclear nation. The United States has no choice but to use Pakistani roads to resupply its troops in landlocked Afghanistan. U.S. officials worry that if Pakistan becomes an active foe, it could further destabilize Afghanistan and endanger U.S. soldiers.
According to reports, Trump did resist some advisers’ calls to threaten to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism unless Islamabad pursued senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani network. “Pakistan should not be reassured by this speech, but it could have gone a lot worse for them,” said Joshua White, a National Security Council director under former President Barack Obama. “There were voices within the administration who wanted to move more quickly and aggressively to declare Pakistan not just a problem, but effectively an enemy.”
“Trump’s policy of engaging India and threatening action may actually constrain Pakistan and lead to the opposite of what he wants,” Zahid Hussain, a Pakistani security analyst, was quoted to have said. “It is kind of putting Pakistan on notice,” said Rustam Shah Mohman, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Kabul, predicting a bumpy road ahead for relations. Hussain said Trump “crossed a red line” as far as Pakistan was concerned when he implored India to deepen its involvement in Afghanistan.
Relations between Pakistan and the United States have endured strain during the 16-year war in Afghanistan, especially after al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces inside Pakistan in 2011. The Obama administration had already begun trimming military aid to Pakistan. Last year, the Pentagon decided not to pay $300 million in pledged military funding, and Congress effectively blocked a subsidized sale of F-16 jets to Pakistan.
Analysts say Trump is likely to further curtail military aid to pressure Pakistan. But any effort to isolate Pakistan would face problems from China, which has deepened political and military ties to Islamabad as it invested nearly $60 billion in infrastructure in Pakistan. The “billions” would stop flowing, Trump said, and outlined a sharp contrast toward India with which he said, Washington would strengthen the strategic partnership as a major pillar of South Asia and the Indo-Pacific policy.
Mohman, a former ambassador, said if the United States kept putting pressure on Pakistan, then Islamabad would drift farther from the American sphere of influence. “We have options,” he said. “We can go to China and Russia, and I think the U.S. can’t afford that.”
The Pakistani government said Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif met with the U.S. ambassador on Tuesday and would speak in coming days with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “on the state of play in the bilateral relationship as well as the new U.S. policy on South Asia”.
Indian-Americans have welcomed the tough stance on Pakistan, and the public recognition of India’s positive role in Afghanistan as a successful culmination of their years of advocacy in every administration to recalibrate South Asia policy. “It’s definitely a positive change — a clear, unquestionable, and open pivot to India,” said Krishna Srinivas, vice president and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based bipartisan non-profit, US-India Security Council. “There are no ifs and buts about it,” said Srinivas.
“This is a drastic 180-degree change,” in U.S. policy, Dr. Sampat Shivangi, a longtime Republican activist from Mississippi, and current president of IAFPE, said. “For decades, we have been fighting hard to have Washington lean toward India and see Pakistan for what it is,” Shivangi said. “U.S. administrations have always ultimately bowed down to Pakistan,” not so now, Shivangi said.
Fareed Zakaria, an Indian-American talk-show host on CNN, contended Trump’s remarks on Pakistan were not a strong break from the previous administration. “… people appear to have forgotten the unusually blunt testimony that Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave to Congress in 2011,” Zakaria noted.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, said, “The president made a strong pitch for assistance to Afghanistan and noted India has already contributed $3 billion in aid (to Kabul). It signals a very positive development. The two countries are going to grow closer.”
“Pakistan has to be fairly nervous this morning,” Richard Rossow, senior adviser and Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “We’ve got a president who has shown he is pretty willing to turn on a dime,” he said.
Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, largely praised Trump’s speech, noting that New Delhi was likely breathing a sigh of relief as Trump re-committed to combating terrorism in the region, repudiating his past position before he sought office, in which he sought to end the longest war the U.S. has ever engaged in, which has thus far claimed an estimated 2,400 American lives.
“A rising Taliban creates dilemmas for New Delhi that it cannot live with,” stated the Indian American researcher. New Delhi welcomed the hard line Trump took on Pakistan, insisting it must cut off support for terrorist groups of face strict consequences, said Vaishnav. “Indians have reveled in this harsh rhetoric.”