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July 26, 2019

Ramifications of Trump’s U-turn

Top Story

July 26, 2019

Prime Minister Imran Khan was clearly flabbergasted by President Trump’s favourable somersault on his erstwhile hostile attitude towards Pakistan, and kept his cool despite his very harsh remarks about the “subversive role” played by Pakistan during the war on terror and most despicable rant of wiping off Afghanistan from the face of the earth.

Perhaps, despite his bewilderment during the press talk at the White House, Imran Khan found greater consolation in Trump’s revelation about Indian Prime Minister Modi’s request to him to mediate (or meditate?) in Kashmir. Indeed, Trump’s remarks ignited greater storm both in India and Afghanistan, rather than help Imran Khan who has termed his US visit as a sort of yet another ‘world cup’. However, the Prime Minister and his delegation were overwhelmed by the unheard praises that Mr Trump showered on Pakistan.

Lamenting the US role as policeman in Afghanistan for 19 years, the US President desperately sought Pakistan’s help “to extricate ourselves” from what is dubbed as an “unending war”.

The Prime Minister’s working visit, according to the diplomatic sources, was arranged by Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) through his close friend and son-in-law and senior advisor of Trump, Jared Kushner. One of the most influential senators Senator Lindsey Graham has also been very active along with some of the Pentagon’s officials. No less important was the effective channel between the GHQ and the Pentagon that worked hard to make the IK’s first visit to the US a palpable success, besides minutely working out COAS General Bajwa’s interactions with the Pentagon and the State Department. Interestingly, the official US channels, State Department in particular, were bypassed by the White House. Though various issues were ironed out in advance, everyone was keeping one’s fingers crossed over the mercurial character of the two populist leaders. Imran Khan looked quite anxious, as his body language showed, but remarkably kept his cool. But Trump remained of his usual temperamental self and remained tough and soft. However, both the leaders went out of the way to massage each other’s egos.

This was the same Trump, who in his New Year message on 1st January 2018 had tweeted: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over 15 years and they have given us nothing but lies and deceits. They gave safe haven to the terrorists (Taliban) who hunt (our troops) in Afghanistan. No more”. The Coalition Support Fund (CSF) that was held back earlier was cut down by $700 million and remaining $300 million were subsequently suspended with arears accumulating up to $ 9 billion. In fact, more than de-hyphenation of the US-Pakistan transactional ties from US-India strategic relations, President Trump’s South Asia policy took a great leap towards building a strategic partnership with India by transforming US Pacific Command at Hawaii to the Indo-Pacific Command and the signing of Communications, Compatibility and Security Arrangement (COMCASA).

Countering China’s increasing influence, a realignment of forces took place by pampering India to play a greater role not only in Indo-Pacific region but also in South Asia. Indo-Us trade increased up to $ 87.5 in 2018 billion and was projected to go up to $500 billion as desired by President Obama. But soon Trump started to get disappointed with India not ready to take the burden of additional security burdens, in monetary terms in particular. Instead of buying US weapons, Modi went ahead to shop weapons elsewhere, including S-400 missile system from Russia. As US trade deficit rose up to 24.2 billion, Trump got impatient and withdrew trade concessions that were granted earlier. Similarly, India’s limited aid to Afghanistan evoked a reaction from Trump.

But what made Trump to take U-Turn on his South Asia policy was his eagerness to get out of the quagmire of Afghanistan before his re-election bid since he had promised to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and elsewhere in his last election campaign. He had quite reluctantly increased the level of troops to 14000 while putting his commanders on notice that if they did not deliver he would pull the rug. Failing to see any progress in the stalemate in the Afghan warfare, he opened his doors for negotiations with the Taliban last year.

With the persuasions of Pakistan, the Doha talks between Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban have produced a framework of an agreement. While US has agreed to a timeframe of withdrawal of US-led coalition forces, the Taliban have undertaken not to let an international terrorist outfit use Afghan territory against the US and its allies. So far, the Taliban have not agreed to talk to the Ashraf Ghani government and is adamant about the ceasefire. As time runs out, America’s intention to pack up and leave has boosted the confidence of the Taliban who are keeping up their military offensive while bargaining hard at Doha. The US is aiming to conclude negotiations by September, the Taliban are not in any hurry.

The Prime Minister’s visit was arranged to seek Pakistan’s last bit effort to persuade Taliban to talk to Ashraf Ghani government for an intra-Afghan reconciliation and future setup of Afghanistan, besides pushing them towards a ceasefire. Primarily the objective of the Trump-Khan Summit was to build on concurrence of interests in the concluding phase of 19-year war. The Pakistani establishment ostensibly wanted to bring the Taliban at the centre stage of the post-war political setup in Kabul in exchange for an “honourable exit” of the US and allied forces from Afghanistan.

But this is a very complex phase and there are many forces and regional players who have to be on board. Most difficult part would be on the future setup of Afghanistan and the share of various competing forces in it. Afghanistan of today is very different from what it was in 2001. The greatest danger is that it may not slip into yet another phase of an internecine conflict the way it did previously after the Geneva Accord and the exit of the Soviet forces. Most importantly, who would subsidize Afghanistan to the tune of approximately $10 billion per annum to ensure its economic survival and stability? Greatest danger is that the US would pack up and leave and Pakistan and other neighbours of Afghanistan will be left to take the burden of the debris of yet another foreign war in Afghanistan. There has to be a reconstruction and rehabilitation plan to carry on the nation building of a war-torn country and alleviate the sufferings of our Afghan neighbours. The current bonhomie between the US and Pakistan is also transactional, but quite helpful in getting out of international isolation. Pinning high hopes would be expecting too much.

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