By M D NALAPAT
Although Trump made several strong statements on Pakistan, in practice there appears to be growing congruence between the US and Pakistan, as shown by the fact that Pompeo will pay a courtesy call on the new PM of Pakistan in Islamabad before sitting down for talks in Delhi.
Those familiar with the planners active within GHQ Rawalpindi, including within the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), claim that Prime Minister Imran Khan is “doing brilliantly” in fulfilling Phase I of an “integrated strategy for Afghanistan and India”. Planning for this began 26 months ago, and went into high gear about eight months ago, the preliminary stage being the selection as Prime Minister of former Pakistan cricket captain and heartthrob of several well-connected women in India and the UK, Imran Khan. From that time onwards, key institutions within Pakistan and overseas “got the message” as to who would be the next formal Head of Government in a country where the military has been holding the reins of authority directly or otherwise since 1953. Khan was told to “concentrate on US policymakers, especially through influential contacts in the UK” so as to convince Washington to accept a greatly expanded role for the Taliban in the dovecotes of power in Kabul. From around mid-2015 onwards, GHQ Rawalpindi had been ensuring a plentiful supply of weapons and cash to Taliban elements in Afghanistan, with the result that forces loyal to President Ashraf Ghani have steadily lost ground to the extremist militia. GHQ’s “Imran card” has been in operation since mid-2015, with the result that the US administration has killed off most of the key Pashtun militia leaders hostile to GHQ Rawalpindi, leaving mostly those amenable to instructions from the Pakistan military. The Barack Obama administration was in a hurry to get its troops out of harm’s way in Afghanistan, and was tempted by the ISI’s offer to facilitate a situation whereby attacks by the terror militia would be concentrated on the Afghan National Army and police, rather than, as was the case previously, on US forces. Meanwhile, aware that President Ghani “listens only to the US administration and to no one else”, the Pakistan military has intensified its off-camera discussions with US counterparts on Afghanistan, mainly on inserting the Taliban into the Afghan government, thereby creating a Trojan horse that would quickly ensure the replacement of the Ghani government with that run by another Pashtun leader, but who this time would be a client of the ISI as was the case in the past, before 9/11 altered the situation.
Being a Pashtun, it is expected that Prime Minister Khan’s carefully cultivated pro-Taliban image will assist in making the militia coalesce around GHQ in the manner that they did during the 1990s under the direction of the Clinton administration, whose affinity for the militia was on public display rather than hidden. Over the past seven months, Imran Khan has established contacts with more than 30 Taliban functionaries, and seems to have done as expert a job of winning their trust as he has with policymakers in the US and the UK. Ex-wife Jemima Khan, who converted to Islam to marry the cricketer, “is still close to him”, and as a consequence, “Imran is welcomed into high society in the UK with an access not available to any other Pakistani”. His UK contacts have worked hard at linking Khan to policymakers and think-tankers in Washington, which is probably why the Trump administration seems to be following a line on Pakistan very different from the no-nonsense tone set by the 45th President of the United States early in his term. The National Security Council in particular seems to have (according to those involved in GHQ Rawalpindi tactical planning) “accepted Imran’s arguments”. There has been a period of worry for the ISI when first the Obama and later the Trump administration moved towards accepting the Indian position on Afghanistan, which was almost identical to the views privately and to a lesser extent openly held by key members of the Ashraf Ghani administration in Kabul, including NDF chief Masoom Stanekzai, who is known to be close to the UK. Almost as soon as he was sworn in as Prime Minister, Imran Khan began continuing rounds of consultation with Chief of Army Staff General Bajwa and ministers known to be fully within the ambit of the military, such as Foreign Minister S.M. Qureshi and Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, who backed the Pakistan army’s brutal crackdown of Pashtun nationalist elements in Khyber Pakhtunkwa, especially since 2013, when he took charge of the province as Chief Minister. The link between the army and Khan is illustrated by the fact that 12 out of the 21 ministers appointed by him previously served “Kargil Commando” Pervez Musharraf, who too “managed to charm the US into adopting a policy that preserved the prerogatives” of the Pakistan army. GHQ expects that Imran Khan will persuade Prime Minister Narendra Modi to go the way of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who gave international legitimacy to coupmaster Musharraf by inviting him to talks at Agra in 2001, when the military rulers of Pakistan were being condemned across the globe for destroying what little democracy there was in Pakistan till the military coup against an elected Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. While PM Modi has welcomed the swearing in of Imran Khan, he seems in no hurry to trust the word of interlocutors that the new civilian government in Islamabad represents a genuine change from the India-phobic policies that have long been the staple of GHQ Rawalpindi.
Once a GHQ-controlled Taliban seizes power in Kabul, the next stage of the “Af-Ind” strategy worked out by ISI planners will focus on Kashmir, and will be designed to ensure that the civil and military administration across much of Jammu & Kashmir (that part remaining in India’s control after the 1949 ceasefire) “melts down” as a consequence of violent unrest. The intention is to “ensure effective control of (most of) J&K by agents of GHQ Rawalpindi, while nominally the Central government in Delhi remains in (formal) charge “but no longer in control”. While timelines have been decided for both the Afghanistan as well as the Kashmir stages, those contacted were ignorant of what these were, except that “it will be in years and not decades”. It is no accident that civilian casualties in Afghanistan have been higher during the past six months than during the previous period in 2017. Although President Donald Trump made several strong statements on Pakistan, in practice there appears to be growing congruence between the US and Pakistan, as shown by the fact that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will pay a courtesy call on the new Prime Minister of Pakistan in Islamabad before sitting down for talks in Delhi with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. The Pakistan-friendly policy first championed by Trump’s former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster seems to have returned. The US administration has even agreed to direct talks with the Taliban and “these are taking place with increasing frequency” with the blessings and assistance of GHQ Rawalpindi. Signals appear to have been given to interests and individuals in the Gulf Cooperation Council that “it is once again all right to give large amounts of money” to the Taliban. According to those contacted, the Trump administration “wants to put the Afghanistan situation aside and focus on Iran”. The hope is that GHQ will deliver on its promise that the Taliban will desist from attacking US forces, so that most of the 6,000 active combat elements there can be removed from the country in an atmosphere where US casualties have come down to very low levels. What impact a Talbanized Afghanistan will have on Central Asia and India seems to have been considered as scantily as plans for the post-war situation in Iraq were worked out by the Bush administration when it took out Saddam Hussein in 2003.
It may be that the folly of devising plans that see GHQ Rawalpindi as the solution rather than as part of the problem facing Afghanistan may yet dawn on the National Security Council and other agencies in the Trump administration that are pushing for a US return to Musharraf-era policies towards Pakistan. In the meantime, hopefully India will itself deepen its security links with the US (while at the same time expanding commercial links with China), including by signing the remaining two Foundation Defence Agreements, an amended CISMOA and BECA. Once these are out of the way, there needs to be a joint India-US surveillance system located in the Andaman Islands that would keep track of developments in the Indian Ocean segment of the Indo-Pacific. Despite continuing Vajpayee-era hopes of reconciliation between Islamabad and Delhi, it seems likely that the overall situation in the region will get worse before it gets better.