The United States (US) has quietly replaced its threat of sanctions against Pakistan with renewed engagement — and rewards. Desperate to finalise a “peace” deal with the brutal and thuggish Taliban, President Donald Trump is wooing its sponsor, Pakistan, to help the US “extricate ourselves” from Afghanistan. The courtship has been highlighted by a $6-billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for Islamabad, the US designation of the leading Baloch separatist group as “terrorist”, and Trump’s re-hyphenation of India with Pakistan, including offering to mediate the Kashmir conflict — the equivalent of a red rag to a bull.
Look at this paradox: The Taliban, despite countless attacks on US forces, are still absent from the US terrorism lists. Yet, to appease Pakistan and China (whose interests and citizens have been targeted), the US on July 2 listed the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) as “terrorist” under Executive Order 13224. The action provides Pakistan international legitimacy to go after the group and step up its dirty war in Balochistan, even as it shields State-nurtured terrorist outfits.
By handing Pakistan a major diplomatic victory, BLA’s listing balances India’s gain from the earlier US-aided UN designation of the Pakistan-based Masood Azhar as a terrorist. Similarly, as if to balance its $10-million bounty on the India-sought Hafiz Saeed, America last year announced $11 million in reward money for information on three of Pakistan’s most-wanted men linked to Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It then assassinated TTP’s third consecutive chief, even as Saeed’s very public life continued.
Meanwhile, Trump, by hosting Pakistan’s Imran Khan at the White House, has bestowed legitimacy on a figure derisively called “selected prime minister”, a reference to how the military generals engineered his ascent to power. Indeed, Pakistan’s army chief and Inter-Services Intelligence head chaperoned Khan on his US visit and attended the White House meeting. Khan is one of the weakest PMs Pakistan has ever had. Almost servile in his fealty to the military, he has shown himself to be a willing puppet — more loyal than the king.
Pakistan, in the run-up to the White House meeting, made some seemingly right moves, including arresting Saeed, agreeing to create the Kartarpur Corridor by November, and reopening its airspace to east-west overflights after more than 15 weeks — a closure that forced airlines to incur additional costs by taking detours but also cost a cash-strapped Pakistan $55 million in lost overflight fees. The new moves signal anything but behavioural change.
Take Pakistan’s revolving-door policy on Saeed: Pakistan has enacted a catch-and-release drama eight times since 2001. Saeed will again be released once pressure on Pakistan eases. The real issue is not his detention but whether Saeed will be tried and convicted for international terrorism.
Make no mistake: America has ample leverage to reform Pakistan but is loath to exercise it. In contrast to Trump’s sanctions-heavy approach to Iran, preposterously labelled “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism”, he — like his predecessor — is relying on carrots to handle the real epicentre of global terror, his public threats notwithstanding. Trump’s suspension of security assistance to Pakistan and several other nations was intended to signal that there is no free lunch — much like his recent expulsion of India from the Generalized System of Preferences. Washington retains Pakistan as its “major non-NATO ally” and refuses to bring Pakistan’s military to account for exporting terrorism.
Hoping that Pakistan on its own would reform and be at peace with itself is akin to expecting a dog to straighten its tail. Coddling terrorists seems to be second nature for Pakistan’s generals. Refusing to bail out Pakistan’s economy could perhaps have yielded as good results as the use of military force. Instead the US, despite enjoying veto power over IMF decisions, has done the opposite. The IMF bailout actually opens billions of dollars more for Pakistan from other international lenders. And by freeing up Pakistani foreign exchange for debt repayments to Beijing, it also bails out China’s projects in Pakistan.
Narrow geopolitical interests guiding America’s Pakistan policy will likely continue to impose costs on India, as has been the case since the 1950s. Although US-India relations have been radically transformed, Washington’s engagement with Pakistan still gives it leverage it values over India. Significantly, the US-Pakistan relationship is on the mend just as Indo-US ties are being tested by Trump’s transactional approach, including punitively increased duties on 14.3% of India’s exports to America.
Another factor at play is Trump’s determination to pull out most US troops from Afghanistan before he seeks re-election. Under the US-initiated “peace” process, Trump is preparing to sell out democratic Afghanistan’s interests to the Pakistan-Taliban axis. India’s exclusion from this process is a blessing in disguise because India must stay away from the sellout, which will bring anything but peace. Indeed, Trump’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban will only embolden Pakistan’s military by proving that sponsoring cross-border terrorism pays.
Karl Marx famously said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”. Nothing better validates that than America’s Pakistan policy.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist. The views expressed are personal.
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