Opinion

Is a new US-Pak romance underway?

UDAY BALAKRISHNAN | Updated on January 13, 2018

Pakistan is cashing on its indispensability quotient in the US’ fight against Islamic terror. This should worry India

Not many give Pakistan much of a chance with Donald Trump, even less so than people did back in 2001 after 9/11 attack. They were wrong then and they all are wrong this time around too.

It is now history that just when India in 2001 assumed it would be a principal player in taking on terrorism, it was unlikely Pakistan, always an almost-outcast, that rebounded smartly and became the centrepiece in the war that the US and its allies unleashed, engulfing almost every country from North Africa to next-door Pakistan and Afghanistan in violent conflict while also spawning ISIS.

It is not just Trump who, as his first phone conversation with President Sharif shows, has cozied up to Pakistan. There is a broad Republican consensus on the centrality of that country to the US war on terror going far back in time. This has been best articulated recently by Trump critic, fellow Republican and the very influential Chairman of the US Senate Committee on Armed Services John McCain.

Ally in Af-Pak

Writing in the Financial Times in July last year McCain said : “First, the US mission in Afghanistan is the same today as it was in 2001: to disrupt and defeat terrorist networks that seek to attack its interests and homeland and to deny them safe haven. That mission remains urgent, and it is unfortunately not over yet. Second, the US mission in Afghanistan is immeasurably more difficult without Pakistan’s co-operation in taking on terrorists that operate across the Afghan-Pakistani border at will.”

We are showing irrational exuberance in quietly cheering Trump’s determination to stamp out Islamic terror, hoping that Pakistan will be targeted by him soon. But the worst to have happened so far is that its citizens face ‘extreme-vetting’ before being admitted into the US. It is a safe bet to conclude that this will not last, and that Pakistan will be back in favour as the partner of choice for Trump to bring on board to continue to combat ‘Islamic terrorism.’ It has credentials to flaunt.

Pakistan, as everyone knows, was, and still is, a breeding ground for extremist Islamic terror. Nevertheless, few countries are perceived to have more often come under attack by extremist groups than Pakistan. The complex reality is that Pakistan’s efforts to counter such forces have been sustained, but selective. In doing so, Pakistan has successfully managed to keep terrorist committed to taking over Kashmir alive and active, while quietly retaining western as well as Chinese support — a legerdemain no other country has pulled off so successfully, for so long.

Old ties

Its very popular former army chief, General Raheel Sharif who mounted a widely-acclaimed campaign, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, to stamp out Islamic militancy in Pakistan now heads the 34-country, Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) whose avowed aim is to fight those Islamic terrorists Trump too has in his crosshairs. It should also not be lost on us, that the only large Muslim State not in the Islamic Military Alliance, is America’s favourite enemy, Shia Iran, a state challenging the US, Israel and Saudi power in West Asia.

It is precisely this sort of an alliance, bolstered by the participation of Pakistan, that the US is most likely to encourage to take on the likes of ISIS on the cheap. Pakistan has the expertise to do so, and is not unwilling to deploy it strategically to push its interests. India, by contrast, is ill-placed politically, and geographically challenged, to put ‘boots on the ground’ or replace western ones in parts of the world where Islamic terrorism is most rampant — West Asia.

The depth of Pakistan’s relationship with the US is inadequately appreciated by Indians. The Pakistan-US alliance is one that has been cemented over decades, starting from the early 1950s; the two countries have long been fused at the hip. It was from Pakistan that US spy planes took off, routinely overflying the then USSR until the U-2 Gary Powers was flying, was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. The opening up of China to the US and the West was facilitated by Pakistan, and, lest we forget, it was Pakistan’s cooperation that greatly contributed to the defeat and withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan.

Thus, when the US led intervention in Afghanistan once again became inevitable in 2001, Pakistan was the country of choice for the US to collaborate with. The US continues to be dependent on Pakistan for supplies to reach its bases in Afghanistan and there can be little doubt, that a lot more than intelligence is shared between the two countries than is generally known or acknowledged.

A new bonhomie

No wonder then, that there are renewed calls within the US to restore a workable relationship with Pakistan. As the conservative US think tank, Hudson Institute put it in a recent report, A New Approach to Pakistan, “the Trump administration should both publicly and privately maintain avenues for Pakistan to become a US ally, as well as trade and investment partner, in the future”. It is also no accident that neither Uri nor Pathankot figure in the list of Islamic terror attacks worldwide cited by the Trump administration in defence of his moves to ban the entry of Muslims of many countries.

As America turns inward under Trump, there is little reason to doubt that it will be Pakistan, the US will be turning to, and not India, to combat Islamic terrorism everywhere. It is precisely this ‘indispensability factor’, which will enable Pakistan to continue to milk the US for all it is worth in military and civilian aid and remain a formidable threat to India. A new phase in the US-Pakistan romance is subtly emerging. The sooner we recognise that, the better prepared we will be to counter it.

The writer is visiting faculty, Centre For Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru

Published on March 10, 2017

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