An open letter to US President Donald J. Trump
Dear President Trump,
As you prepare to meet Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on July 22, you have a grand opportunity to reset this fractious misalliance so that it no longer remains an unhappy marriage between unequal partners. You can help change it from merely a transactional relationship focused on the US exit from the failed conflict in Afghanistan, to a strategic one covering not just Pakistan but also greater South Asia, opening a large market for US goods and services, and creating a democratic bulwark against autocracies and religious zealotry.
The key to this is connecting with the Pakistani people not just making deals with their leadership. You must understand and address Pakistan’s economic and security needs, as well as its legitimate regional interests.
Like you, Prime Minister Khan is a political disrupter with a message of change. After twenty-three years in the political wilderness, building a reputation as a social dreamer who set up a successful cancer hospital, he upended Pakistan’s dynastic political system in 2017. He energized Pakistan’s dominant and burgeoning youth to come out and vote. And, with alleged help from his military supporters in key districts that taint his democratic credentials, he managed to sweep the polls at the center and form coalitions in key provinces.
He has announced a battle against corruption and is attempting to revive Pakistan’s flagging economy, although his fledgling and fractured government is running into headwinds. The United States has begun to help him by bringing in financial aid from international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank, and Khan has been bolstered by the discipline these funds require.
Reviving bilateral US aid and trade will further help Khan’s effort to jumpstart the Pakistani economy, which is in dire straits. Foreign currency reserves and foreign direct investment have been falling. The tax system is in a shambles, as barely one million people out of a population of over 200 million pay their income tax. More than 23 million children are not enrolled in school.
Despite its economic challenges, Pakistan has a large military (similar in size to the United States Army), equipped with nuclear weapons and advanced delivery systems. It faces a huge and hostile neighbor to the east in India and an existential threat of Islamic fundamentalism and militancy at home. Pakistan fears India’s growing and hostile influence in Afghanistan. It is challenged by an insurgency in its Western Marcher regions from militants who now use Afghanistan as a base, after Pakistan cleared most of the terrorist bases and training camps in its western Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
All these fears have led Islamabad closer to China, its neighbor and friend since the 1960s.
You cut $300 million of US aid to Pakistan in September 2018 and have even withheld the $800 million Coalition Support Funds reimbursements owed to Pakistan for its counterterrorism operations. Don’t stiff the Pakistanis. You were told that Pakistan had not done anything for the United States, but were not told that since 2000 64,000 Pakistanis perished fighting terrorism, including more than 20,000 civilians and more than 7,000 security personnel. Pakistan’s officer-to-soldier fatality ratio is one to ten, and includes general officers too. (Data from former army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani for my new book The Battle for Pakistan, forthcoming Penguin Random House August 2019) The economic cost of Pakistan’s war against terrorism is estimated at more than $126 billion.
Additionally, some $2 billion of US development assistance under the bipartisan Kerry-Lugar-Berman program lies undisbursed due to inadequate Pakistani preparations and haphazard approach to development financing by the US Agency for International Development during the Obama administration. There is enough blame to go around, but Washington must now re-assess its assistance to Pakistan.
It is time to rebuild your relationship with a critical Muslim power that straddles the Middle East and South Asia, by avoiding the mistakes of your predecessors. Leave Afghanistan, but ensure that Kabul gets the economic aid that will guarantee it can sustain its progress in improving its security and society. Former US President Barack Obama went in to defeat and dismantle al-Qaeda. Once that was done, he dithered, allowing many different wars to continue within Afghanistan, run by different segments of his government. The “necessary war” became an unending one.
Both he and former US President George W. Bush changed generals at a speed that defied all military logic. Since 2001, the United States and its allies had eighteen commanders in Afghanistan. Not a great way to fight a war. US ambassadors in Kabul also were zipping through a revolving door. Mission creep took over and a publicly announced withdrawal date by Obama at West Point on December 1, 2009 gave sustenance to the Taliban insurgents.
You did the right thing to give Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad the remit to foster dialogue among the Afghans to come up with a fresh balance of power. Khalilzad has adopted a regional approach, including seeking Pakistan’s help in getting the Taliban to the table. Whatever deal he hammers together will not be perfect, but then it will be up to the Afghans to make it work.
Afghanistan may well be the immediate issue that brings you and Prime Minister Khan together. He is bringing his army chief and intelligence chief along to Washington to ensure that what you hear is a joint statement from both poles of power inside Pakistan, especially as the military traditionally calls the shots on security and key foreign policy issues.
Declaring the Balochistan Liberation Army a terrorist group does Pakistan a favor. They have returned it by arresting yet again Hafiz Saeed, who you have declared a terrorist. Next may be the release of Dr. Shakeel Afridi by Pakistan for his role in the killing of Osama Bin Laden and may be release by you of Dr. Afia Siddiqui for allegedly trying to attack the US military in Afghanistan.
You can move to a higher plane in this relationship, by showing the Pakistani people the benefits of healthy engagement with the United States. Allow Pakistan’s superb entrepreneurs to benefit from trade within their region and with the United States. Help Islamabad build the infrastructure and software needed for the woefully underfunded education and health sectors in Pakistan. Assist Pakistan but make it responsible for equitable and productive economic investments. Help construct the critical road and rail networks that China has left unfinished. A major opportunity to leave a lasting US legacy beckons.
Isolating Pakistan would be a blunder. Help construct the critical Western road and rail economic corridor from the north of Pakistan through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan that the Chinese did not undertake. Connect a tributary from Afghanistan. These will become lasting symbols of the US investment in Pakistan, like the famous Mangla and Tarbela Dams and the great educational institutions and economic planning bodies that America helped set up in the earlier decades of our friendship. Use your moral persuasion and links to the leadership connections in the region to open direct and unhindered trade between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. And finally, reopen the hastily broken links between the US with and the Pakistani militaries by restarting and expanding the International Military Education and Training Program, through which was previously training over 200 officers a year in recent years. You could enhance these training opportunities by adding attachments with US military units. This approach, used by the Europeans, builds person-to-person ties and a deeper understanding of each other between Pakistanis and Americans.
You may have been told of polls showing that a majority of Pakistanis consider the United States a threat to Pakistan. You were not told that the same polls indicate that a landslide majority of Pakistanis want better relations with the United States.
You can lay the foundation for those better relations now on the basis of mutual trust, honor, and respect, rather than threats and hostile rhetoric.
Shuja Nawaz is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. His new book The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighborhood (Penguin Random House) is due in late August.
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford arrive in Islamabad on September 5 for a fresh episode of Mission Impossible: to bend Pakistani leaders into submitting to their wishes in the losing war in Afghanistan. They hope to persuade Pakistan’s newly minted prime minister, Imran Khan, and army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, to move against militants inside Pakistan, especially those who use Pakistani soil to fight the United States, NATO, and the Afghan troops in Afghanistan. A sense of déjà vu hangs over these talks.
On September 1, the US Department of Defense announced it was suspending $300 million of Coalition Support Funds (CSF) for Pakistan because of that country’s failure to take action against terrorists. This action followed a statement by Pompeo that the United States would not support International Monetary Fund (IMF) financing for Pakistan if Pakistan used those funds to repay Chinese loans related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The United States has been down this road before: trying to bully Pakistan into doing things that do not appear to suit Pakistan’s regional interests.
In early 2009, on his first visit to the region as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a well-meaning Richard Holbrooke criticized the role of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies before leaving Washington with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen for Islamabad. Holbrooke received a cold shoulder from the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, and army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Mullen was forced to return to Pakistan shortly afterward to mend fences.
That was a time when US financing for Pakistan was on an upward trajectory, approaching a peak of well over $4 billion a year in overt funding in 2010. Pakistan was moving more troops to its border with Afghanistan and getting financial support via reimbursements of its associated costs under the CSF. But it did nothing to evict the Afghan Taliban leadership or their followers from the border region.
Today, US financial leverage over Pakistan is virtually nonexistent. The $300 million being withheld is peanuts compared to Pakistan’s expenditure on the war against militancy within its own borders—a problem many Pakistanis believe emerged out of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The United States is already in arrears on CSF reimbursements to Pakistan. It is widely understood in Pakistan that CSF is not aid; it is payment for Pakistan’s services.
Pakistan made a series of mistakes in signing up to assist the US war effort, and by agreeing to CSF reimbursements rather than asking for direct support for its military in the form of equipment (especially helicopters), training, and spare parts, or a fixed amount without having to account for every penny spent. Over time, CSF payments dwindled as the United States increasingly rejected Pakistani bills.
Following the September 11, 2001, attack by al Qaeda on the United States, Pakistan gave the United States free access to its territory and air space for the invasion of Afghanistan in which then Brig. Gen. James Mattis participated as head of the Navy’s Task Force 58. Pakistan did not charge the United States for use of its the ground lines of communication (GLOC) into Afghanistan, not for the air lines of communication (ALOC), without which the United States would have found it logistically challenging, and more costly, to conduct the war.
A series of agreements and memoranda of understanding were hastily signed by Pakistani military officers and defense ministry officials who blindly acceded to US demands and accepted without demurral the texts of agreements crafted in the Pentagon. Over time, the United States began to ask Pakistan to do more. The Pakistanis pushed back and anti-American sentiment simmered.
Today, all this has come to a head. The choices before the United States and Pakistan—two so-called allies—are stark. Does the United States cut off Pakistan and try to isolate it internationally? Does Pakistan push away from the United States and move toward China and other regional partners? Does Pakistan cut off US access to ALOCs and GLOCs and renegotiate the bad deals it cut in the past? Will Pakistan learn to stand on its own feet? More importantly, how will the discussions in Islamabad be conducted?
In 2009, Reuters reported: “[Pakistani] Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Pakistan wanted to engage with the United States with mutual interest and respect and he had flagged in talks with the Americans Pakistani ‘red lines’ that the United States should not cross.
“‘The bottom line is (the) question of trust,’ Qureshi told a news conference with Holbrooke and Mullen. ‘We can only work together if we respect each other and trust each other.’
“US commanders say tackling militant enclaves in ungoverned ethnic Pashtun tribal lands in northwest Pakistan, from where the Taliban launch attacks into Afghanistan and al Qaeda plots violence around the world, is vital to success in Afghanistan.
“At the same time, attacks by militants across Pakistan are reviving US concerns about the stability of its nuclear-armed ally.
“Pakistan for years used Islamists to further foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan and the Kashmir region, which both Pakistan and India claim.
“Some US officials say they suspect Pakistani security agents still maintain contacts with militant groups while Afghanistan says Pakistani agents support the Taliban.
“Pakistan denies that.”
That was what appeared in a Reuters dispatch in April 2009! It is funny how the past has suddenly become prologue.
The way ahead
Early signals out of Islamabad seem to suggest that Pakistan thinks it can talk its way out of this current contretemps. After all Shah Mehmood Qureshi is once again Pakistan’s foreign minister. But Washington’s new muscular approach to foreign policy is built more on hope than reality. It hopes that a new prime minister facing serious economic difficulties will yield to financial threats.
After the meetings in Pakistan, Pompeo and Mattis will meet their Indian counterparts in New Delhi on September 6 to try to cement a new partnership with India, Pakistan’s arch rival. But they will face difficulty in trying to persuade India to drop its massive S-400 Triumf missile air defense system deal with Russia, let alone commit militarily to Afghanistan. Neither will they find resonance for their Afghan plans in Iran and China, two countries that are on US President Donald J. Trump’s hit list, nor in Russia that is also attempting to strike defense deals with Pakistan.
If the United States wishes to exit Afghanistan without a debacle on its hands and the region aflame, it will need all the regional partners it can find. Even a difficult Pakistan. Some of the old timers at the State Department could have told Pompeo that, but they are long gone. As the French say, so eloquently: tant pis!
Shuja Nawaz is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. He was the founding director of the center and is currently completing a new book on the US-Pakistan misalliance since 2008.
Commenting on a BBC study, which claimed that the Taliban is still openly active in 70 percent of Afghanistan, Shuja Nawaz, Distinguished Fellow at the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council, told Sputnik about the chances of beating this militant group.
NOTE; SERIOUS TRANSCRIPTION ERRORS! LISTEN TO ACTUAL RECORDING BELOW! SHUJA NAWAZ
Sputnik: Some experts have said that Trump’s comments suggest that he sees a military victory over the Taliban, do you think this is likely?
Shuja Nawaz: The military doctrine has not been defined by anyone so we don’t know what the criteria will be that will be applied to victory in Afghanistan.
We had much reduced the US presence and even with the mini-surge, it’s not going to be more than a fraction of what a total of 150,000-odd US and coalition forces were at the peak.
So it’s not clear what it is meant by a military victory. The only change that has occurred is the fact that for the first time the United States is not declaring any date for exiting the country.
That is what deepened the Taliban engaged in the fight because the principal demand is that the United States and coalition forces should leave Afghanistan and that demand has been satisfied with the fact that the US is now staying there indefinitely.
Sputnik: What can you say about the effectiveness of the US policies and what do you think is their aim in currently keeping their presence in the country?
Shuja Nawaz: This has been the issue of the US war in Afghanistan, the so-called forever war. The aims have been shifting overtime and it’s not clear what the aim is this time.
If the aim is to restore the sovereignty of the Afghan government and to assist in providing governance of overall territory, then that it can only be done by working with the Afghan government and the regional governments.
And the regional part of the American strategy is not yet fully articulated. There is very little effort, for instance, to draw Iran into the process because if you look at the map, a substantial proportion of the territory Taliban controlled and even the ISIS (Daesh) is in the Iranian sphere of influence. It is not bordering Pakistan.
So there’s a need to bring Iran into the process and Iran would want a stable Afghanistan on its border so it can also prevent the outflow of narcotics into Iran which has been initially prevented.
Russia needs to be involved [because] it has expressed its desire to be a partner in this process and it has actually hosted some meetings [on the matter]. China needs to be involved because it has huge investments in Afghanistan and also has partnership relationship with Pakistan.
The views and opinions expressed by Shuja Nawaz are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect Sputnik’s position.
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On January 4, the United States announced the suspension of nearly all security-related assistance to Pakistan until Islamabad could prove its commitment to fighting terrorism and cut its ties with militant groups such as the Taliban. This decision came just days after U.S. President Donald Trump had accused Pakistan, on Twitter, of giving “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.” Pakistani leaders responded with a familiar refrain, claiming to have moved against all militant groups without distinction and pointing to the enormous costs in terms of money (over $120 billion) and lives (nearly 80,000 civilian and military dead) sustained by Pakistan in the fight against terrorism since 2001.
For Trump, it may feel good to vent his frustrations about Pakistan, especially now that his administration is desperate to salvage something from the United States’ prolonged and losing conflict in Afghanistan. These new sanctions, however, are unlikely to influence Pakistani behavior, which is rooted in realities on the ground that the United States has little ability to change.
Pakistan is a complicated country in a tough neighborhood. Its main strategic concerns are to contain the surging power of its neighbor and rival, India, and to combat Islamist militancy inside its own borders—in particular, it wishes to fight the Pakistani Taliban, which now operates from sanctuaries in Afghanistan. Pakistan launched a military operation in 2014 to clear the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of insurgents, including the Pakistani Taliban, many of whom escaped across the border into Afghanistan. Pakistan, however, is reluctant to please the United States, which it considers a distant and fickle ally, by moving against the leadership of the Afghan Taliban. The United States, for its part, regards Pakistan as a duplicitous partner that is willing to take U.S. funds but unwilling to cut ties with militant groups or eject Afghan Taliban leaders, particularly those affiliated with the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based faction that has orchestrated high-profile attacks in Afghanistan, particularly in Kabul.
The dwindling and now relatively small amount of financial assistance that the United States currently provides Pakistan is another reason to suspect that its threats will be ineffectual. Pakistani officials have been defiant. Miftah Ismail, the adviser to the prime minister for finance, revenue, and economic affairs, told Reuters, “Aid cuts will not hurt us,” since U.S. aid has been “reduced drastically over the years.” (Annual U.S. aid to Pakistan peaked at about $3.5 billion in 2011, before declining to about $1 billion in 2016.)
Pakistan also has its own leverage against the United States. Islamabad could, for instance, threaten to cut off the United States’ air- and ground-based supply routes to Afghanistan. That leverage has been diminished somewhat in recent years, both by Washington’s reduction of U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan (thereby lessening its need for supplies) and by the proven efficacy of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which moves supplies through Russia and Central Asia. In 2011, for example, when Pakistan closed its ground routes to the United States, the NDN allowed the International Security Assistance Force commander, General John Allen, to store nearly six months of reserve supplies inside Afghanistan. Yet Pakistan’s ability to threaten U.S. logistics is still formidable: in 2015, Russia shut down the NDN, and there is always a chance that Moscow could decide to play hardball if the United States sought to reopen it. In 2014, the United States lost the use of its Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan, the last U.S. base in Central Asia, as the Kyrgyz government sought to win favor with Russia. Another option is for the United States to use an Iranian land route moving through the port of Chabahar, but this is likely off the table given the heightened war of words between the Trump administration and Tehran. Depriving the United States of its air routes into Afghanistan, moreover, would end Washington’s ability to conduct air support with Gulf-based fighters and bombers.
The current standoff is further complicated by this year’s electoral calendar. The United States faces midterm elections in November, Pakistan has a parliamentary election in June, and Afghanistan has one in July. India, too, might bring forward its elections, currently scheduled for 2019, to this year. In all of these countries, then, domestic politics will dominate decision-making for the foreseeable future. Pakistani Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif’s belligerent, rapidfire Urdu tweets on the U.S. sanctions, which pronounced the death of the alliance, are a good illustration of how this domestic focus could make compromise with the United States difficult. Trump, meanwhile, is anxious to show that the United States is winning in Afghanistan, which might lead him to increase pressure on Pakistan by imposing additional sanctions. (As strategic thinker Harlan Ullman’s recent book Anatomy of Failure maintains, the United States has never won a war that it started.) Meanwhile, Afghanistan and India could support U.S. attempts to influence Islamabad. This would in turn fortify Pakistan’s perception of an international conspiracy against it.
A final obstacle in getting Pakistan to change its policy is the fact that it currently has an ersatz government run by a competent, albeit weak, prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. Abbasi has no political clout within his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which still bears the name of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was forced to step down over corruption allegations in July but continues to call the shots. Dynastic politics in Pakistan weaken civilian governance and democratic legitimacy, allowing the wellorganized military to dominate policymaking and take a strong position against U.S. demands. Since 2001, moreover, the United States has tied itself to successive unpopular, autocratic, and corrupt administrations in Pakistan, including that of the dictator Pervez Musharraf. In doing so, it has failed to build a relationship with the 200 million people of Pakistan, a majority of whom, even at the height of the Afghanistan war and U.S. drone strikes on their country, wished to have better relations with the United States.
Against this backdrop, it is unlikely that threats to cut off U.S. funding—or Trump’s inflammatory tweets—will have much effect in terms of changing Pakistan’s behavior. Rather, they will only inflame tensions between the two and worsen the situation in Pakistan. After all, the last time that such a break in ties took place was in the 1990s, in the wake of Pakistan’s development of a nuclear weapon and the United States’ withdrawal from the Afghan theater following the end of the Soviet occupation. Pakistan was left to cope with the aftershocks of the Afghan war on its own. The United States also stopped all U.S.-based training programs for Pakistani military officers, beginning with the Pressler Amendment in 1985 and lasting through the 1990s. This “lost generation” was deprived of contact with its American counterparts, leading Pakistani officers to develop a view of the United States as an untrustworthy ally. Yet today, more than 200 of the brightest Pakistani officers come to the United States for training purposes every year. If the U.S.-Pakistani relations continue to deteriorate, this training program may disappear again.
Indeed, the current public contretemps will likely produce a train wreck for the U.S.-Pakistani relationship unless meaningful dialogue resumes. It is important that the discussions between the two be led by diplomats, rather than politicians, so that solutions can be found that build on the two countries’ dependence on one another and serve both of their interests. It is important, moreover, for Washington to inform and engage with the people of Pakistan in these exchanges. Washington is right to favor results-based assistance. Why not let Pakistan set attainable targets for aid, and agree with the United States on these before aid is disbursed, rather than quibble over reimbursements, as is the case now? The United States, meanwhile, could use its influence with India and Afghanistan to develop a more sustainable, long-term regional plan to fight terrorism and militancy. If Trump can pull this off, he can declare victory before exiting Afghanistan. If not, the current dispute could portend a messy defeat.
© Foreign Affairs
Based on interviews with civil and military officials and politicians, this report details the poor governance and imbalance of power in Pakistan and offers key recommendations for the military, civilian institutions, parliament, and civil society to achieve the goals and objectives outlined in Pakistan’s National Action Plan (NAP). The need for an assessment of the National Internal Security Policy and subsequent NAP became evident as the heightened military action under Operation Zarb-e-Azb entered its second year. Much remains unclear due to the lack of transparency in operations of both civil and military institutions and the absence of active parliamentary oversight.
- Pakistan resides in an unsettled and hostile neighborhood and faces an existential challenge from domestic forces of sectarian and ethnic militancy and terrorism.
- Many of Pakistan’s domestic problems are related to poor governance and the imbalance of power and operational ability between civil institutions and the military.
- Shortsighted policies of successive civil and military governments and a dynastic political system have hobbled efforts to develop a strong, stable polity and economy.
- Civil and political institutions remain weak and dysfunctional; a well-organized and disciplined military continues to dominate key strategic sectors related to foreign policy and security and currently retains control over the Afghan border region.
- Recent military operations to clear the northern border regions abutting Afghanistan of terrorist bases have had some success, but the effort inside Pakistan remains unfinished.
- A well-defined objective and longer-term timetable are needed for the use of the paramilitary Rangers in Punjab and Sindh. Karachi may be the test for these efforts.
- Governance would be strengthened with better coordination and collaboration between civil institutions and the military.
- Greater willingness by the military to bring civilians into their military campaign planning processes and to train and assist civil institutions (particularly the police force) in growing into their roles and responsibilities would bolster security.
- The central government should establish a clearer vision and a process for decision making related to antiterrorism and antimilitancy efforts; devote more resources to its security institutions; and better organize its relationships with individual provinces.
- Parliament should play a more active role in defining and measuring the success of efforts to counter terrorism and militancy.
- Civil society must play a more active and informed role in this process.
About the Report
The need for an assessment of the National Internal Security Policy and subsequent National Action Plan of the government of Pakistan became evident as the heightened military action under Operation Zarb-e-Azb entered its second year. This report is based on conversations with civil and military officials and politicians inside Pakistan and on focus group sessions with leading civil and military thinkers, including retired officials, members of the media, and members of the police force. Much remains unclear due to the lack of transparency in operations of both civil and military institutions and the absence of active parliamentary oversight or questioning of operations. A key element of the review was the ability of the military and the civil government to work together effectively at both the federal and provincial levels. As a corollary to this, it was important to see the opportunity for the central government to assert its supremacy. This report focuses on the civil-military nexus, especially in the context of the Apex Committees at the provincial level, and identifies areas that demand attention if the National Action Plan is to succeed.
About the Author
Shuja Nawaz is a Pakistani-born strategic analyst based in Washington, DC. He was the founding director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council, where he is now a distinguished fellow. He writes for leading newspapers, journals, and websites and speaks on current issues before civic groups, at think tanks, and on radio and television worldwide. He has also advised and briefed senior government and military officials and parliamentarians in the United States, Europe, and Pakistan.
As President-elect Donald Trump finalizes his cabinet and receives his intelligence briefings, among other things, he will be told about the potential for a nuclear conflagration in South Asia. This populous region with its age-old religious and sectarian rivalries has posed a challenge to US policy makers. Other than a departure plan for an unfinished engagement with Afghanistan, we still do not have a clear or comprehensive regional policy for this volatile yet critical part of the emerging global order. For too long, we have adopted a band-aid approach and single-country policy or at best hyphenated pairs of countries in this region (as in the Af-Pak odd couple). We now have the capacity to craft a broader approach and thus sustain peace and stability in Greater South Asia while opening up larger markets for US goods and services. We need to create relationships that will endure. This demands a regional overview, one that will save the US taxpayers expenditures on fighting wars and US exports and influence in Greater South Asia.
An effective regional policy for Greater South Asia has to include more than India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal; Afghanistan and Iran have ancient cultural, economic, and religious ties to the region. Indeed, for example, more Pakhtuns live in what is now Pakistan than do in Afghanistan. And Pakistan has a Shia population that exceeds 40 million, and more Shia live in India and Pakistan than the total population of Iran.
When previous US piecemeal policy failed, our government abandoned the region in frustration. For much of the post-World War II period, the US and India were not in the same camp. Today, they are. For the first time in recent history, the United States has developed relations with all the countries of the Greater South Asia region, one that contains around 1.7 billion people and perhaps the largest agglomeration of the Middle Class in the world. South Asia may well be the engine of growth and stability of Asia as a whole in the 21st Century and provide a counter balance to the growth of China.
The United States now has an opportunity to help knit together this region to foster trade within South Asia, between South Asia and the Pacific region, and between Central Asia and China. South Asia already has powerful economic ties to the Middle East, providing much of the expatriate labor force that has built up the Gulf States and Arabian Peninsula economies. According to the World Bank, in 2015 more than $116 billion of the total $581.6 billion of remittances from the Middle East flow to geographic South Asia. The slowdown of the Middle Eastern economies following the drop in oil prices will likely have serious consequences for the region. Further, as the Economist Intelligence Unit states “The expected raising of US Federal Reserve policy interest rates from 2017 will also add to downward pressure on the [Indian] rupee and, to a lesser extent, on those of its smaller neighbours.” Creating a regional market, with US help, could help the countries of the region and the United States.
India’s huge trade of nearly $100 billion a year with China rivals that with the United States. This economic codependency may help keep these powerful nuclear neighbors from pursuing the path of conflict. Similarly, Pakistan and India have the potential to increase their trade from the current paltry $2.6 billion that favors India to five times that number in the short run, and eventually a high approaching $100 billion a year, helping cement economic ties and shifting the focus away from conflict. The United States needs a game plan to assist in these directions and away from conflict. China is working with Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan to establish closer trade routes and economic ties. Its One Road, One Belt policy hopes to knit economic ties with Central Asia and other neighboring areas. This fits in nicely with the United States’ New Silk Road initiative, as former Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman recently argued. And both initiatives could tie the China Pakistan Economic Corridor into trade routes between Afghanistan and Pakistan and Central Asia and the Gulf.
The US, with its European partners, should be crafting policies that will assist the creation of a thriving regional economic network in Greater South Asia, based on infrastructure and development of human capital. Helping Afghanistan will be key. Pushing for an extension of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement to India should be among these objectives. This will assist the United States in developing economic and political ties to the people of these countries rather than with status-quo elites or military clients alone.
As a start, President Trump should drop the outmoded Af-Pak model. Reviving and revivifying a Central and South Asia Bureau in State and a reorientation of countries in two regional commands, PACOM and CENTCOM, in the Pentagon, to bring all of South Asia into the same orbit would be important changes to consider. This would allow, among other things, for the Indian and Pakistani navies to work together to protect the sea-lanes of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Despite the rhetoric of collaboration across the Pentagon’s regional commands, the walls between them are too high and impervious.
A big challenge will be to help Pakistan transform itself from what was once termed an “Ally from Hell” to a partner in creating regional growth and stability. Helping Pakistan effectively fight terrorism and militancy inside its own borders, opening up South Asia trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia, and allowing Pakistan to benefit from access to Iranian gas and oil as a first step to linking Iran’s oil pipelines to India’s refineries should be high on the priority list. Further securing its nuclear weapons from radical groups would involve building on the already well-established ties between its nuclear community and that of the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Pakistan also needs help in transforming its anachronistic educational system laden with radical Islamist dogma to an open-minded curriculum. The British government is concentrating on rebuilding the education sector. The US could ride in the British wake. Greater communications and cooperation between India and Pakistan on the nuclear front and on water and glacier management, especially in disaster management planning and control are also areas where the United States’ research and experience can play a key role.
If countries in the region are willing to benefit from this enhanced US engagement, economic and financial assistance and advice could then be provided via the International Financial Institutions where the United States has a powerful voice and vote. Afghanistan will need such aid for many years to come. Pakistan has just graduated from an International Monetary Fund program but is not out of the Bretton Woods yet. It relies heavily on World Bank project lending and grants and credits from its subsidized lending programs via the International Development Association. India is not an IMF borrower but still has World Bank and IDA loans and grants on its books. However, it could benefit from advice, as needed, as does Iran.
All these are opportunities waiting for a strong and clear-headed policy leadership in Washington. This will involve taking a harder position with countries that demand US assistance so that they take greater ownership of their projects and programs and set attainable benchmarks for success. The US aid program should not be taken for granted or as an entitlement, as was the case with Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past. Further, we need to work more directly and closely with grass roots and civil society groups so we can empower them rather than the often corrupt elites in the capitals of aid recipient countries. And we must forge a partnership that spends aid money in the countries rather than siphon it off back to consultants inside the Beltway or allows aid to be spirited to offshre accounts of ruling elites. Results-based budgeting in this process is a must. This will help us get out of the trap of cash-for-hiring local partners that has characterized our lending and grant making for decades.
A clearly enunciated regional policy for South Asia will help remove the doubts surrounding an impending pell mell withdrawal from the region. Afghanistan must not be left in the lurch again, as we did in the 1990s. Engagement is also critical with the other countries of the region. A stable and growing South Asia would not only be good for the region but will also help the United States fulfill its global obligations as a leader and friend of democratic forces and expand the market for our own exports. Delay in addressing the needs of South Asia will add to the list of potential flashpoints around the world and detract from President Trump’s ability to tackle the emerging issues at home. Opportunity is knocking.
Shuja Nawaz is Distinguished Fellow at the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council in Washington DC and author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within, (Oxford 2008) which he is now updating to the current period.