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USA - The Dragon in Afghanistan

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A SOUTH ASIAN crisis is still brewing after US Secretary Rex Tillerson’s speed visits to Afghan­istan, Pakistan and India. The brief encounter in Islamabad confirmed the gulf in Pakistan-US positions.

What the US and India want from Pakistan is impossible for it to deliver.

The US has decided to ‘stay on’ indefinitely in Afghanistan. It knows it cannot defeat the Afghan Taliban. It is unwilling to accept an equitable political settlement. It wants to utilise Afghanistan as a base to contain China, resist Russia, push back Iran and coerce Pakistan to target the Afghan Taliban, in particular the Haqqanis, in order to make its ‘stay’ in Afghanistan as ‘comfortable’ as possible. The US also wants Pakistan to suppress the Kashmiri militants and restrain its nuclear and missile programmes. These latter aims are, of course, fully shared by India.

In his public remarks, Tillerson cloaked US demands in the garb of concern for Pakistan’s stability. In fact, Pakistan is most certain to be destabilised if it accepts the US and Indian demands.

In the Zarb-i-Azb and subsequent operations, Pakistan expelled the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani fighters from its soil. Some Taliban leaders periodically cross into Pakistan, Iran and other neighbouring countries. In the past, Washington encouraged Pakistan to maintain contacts with Taliban leaders to promote a political settlement in Afghanistan. Now, however, it wants Pakistan to kill or capture them.

In the crisis unfolding, China could do several things to support Pakistan.

If Pakistan does start doing so, it would produce two outcomes: one, the Afghan Taliban would join the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaatul Ahrar and the militant Islamic State group in perpetrating terrorism against Pakistan; and two, it would foreclose the possibility of a political settlement in Afghanistan since there would be no one left in the insurgency with the authority or stature to negotiate such a settlement. This will prolong Afghanistan’s civil war, the suffering of its people and instability in the region.

The consequences of forcibly suppressing the Kashmiri militant groups are similarly predictable. Two of these organisations, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, were placed on the Security Council’s terrorism list when the previous government in Islamabad agreed to this under US pressure. But these groups and others, like the Hizbul Mujahideen, enjoy considerable popular support in Pakistan. Military and police action against members of these pro-Kashmiri groups who have not committed any crime will produce a public outcry and possibly a violent reaction and intensify, not restrict, extremism. A programme for deradicalisation of extremist groups through job creation and social reintegration is the best option. This would be easier if India halts its oppression in held Kashmir and agrees to a peaceful resolution of the dispute.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s reasonable concerns fall on deaf ears in Washington and, of course, in New Delhi. Encouraged by US patronage, the Modi government is brutally suppressing the latest revolt of the Kashmiri people. It has also adopted an aggressive posture towards Pakistan: sponsoring anti-Pakistan terrorism from Afghanistan; intensifying ceasefire violations along the Line of Control; and issuing repeated threats of ‘surgical strikes’, ‘limited war’ and a ‘Cold Start’ attack against Pakistan.

Not only has the US not opposed Indian brutality in held Kashmir and aggression and threats against Pakistan, it has itself threatened Pakistan with sanctions, drone strikes and military intervention unless it complies with US demands. American drone strikes appear to be already under way. If Pakistan does not respond to unilateral US strikes, India may feel emboldened to carry out its threats of military incursion. A South Asian conflict could be ignited by miscalculation if not design.

To twist an idiom, it is time for the dragon in the room (China) to make an appearance.

America’s new alliance with India, its intention to arm India to the teeth, and its endorsement of New Delhi’s aim to kill the Kashmiri freedom movement, are designed to secure India’s collaboration to contain China’s rising power across Asia. Tillerson made no bones in spelling this out in his CSIS speech before visiting the region.

Likewise, the US decision to ‘stay on’ in Afghanistan is designed in large measure to restrict China’s growing influence in South and Central Asia and, more specifically, to challenge, if not disrupt, President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Defence Secretary Mattis objected that the Belt and Road passed through ‘disputed territory’. Tillerson last week criticised the conditions of Chinese financing for the Belt and Road projects.

So far, China has responded somewhat passively to the US-India strategy. After Trump’s Aug 21 speech, the Chinese foreign minister defended Pakistan’s counterterrorism credentials. The Chinese foreign ministry refuted Mattis’s comment against CPEC. However, given the anti-Chinese genesis of the two-front threat which Pakistan faces today, and China’s strategic stake in the success of CPEC, it appears essential that Beijing extend strong political support to its oldest ‘strategic partner’ and ‘do more’ to equalise the South Asian equation that is presently tilted against Pakistan.

During all previous Pakistan-India crises, especially the 1965 and 1971 wars, China extended diplomatic, material and military support to Pakistan.

In the crisis now unfolding in South Asia, China could do several things to support Pakistan:

  1. — strongly endorse Pakistan and the UN’s demand for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan and help build a regional coalition in favour of such a settlement;
  2. — call for a just and peaceful resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute in accordance with international law and denounce India’s brutal repression of the Kashmiri people;
  3. — oppose all threats of use of force against Pakistan from any quarter and declare that any aggression against Pakistan will evoke an appropriate Chinese response;
  4. — affirm that CPEC’s security is the common and joint responsibility of Pakistan and China;
  5. — offer Pakistan advanced and appropriate weapons systems to defend and deter aggression from the east or the west.

The forthcoming visit of President Trump to China offers the opportunity for a powerful President Xi Jinping to convey China’s opposition to America’s India-centric policies and destabilising demands on Pakistan, and to propose a plan for comprehensive Sino-US cooperation to advance security and prosperity across Asia, including South Asia and the developing world.
"The dragon in the room" by Munir Akram, a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
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