Written By: Hussain H. Zaidi
The South Asian portion of the NSS is thus a continuation of Trump’s Afghan strategy announced in August 2017, which at that time represented a flip-flop on his previous opposition to America’s costly involvement in foreign wars. With the Afghan Army having proved unequal to the task of holding itself against the heightened Taliban onslaught and the IS taking root in Afghanistan, American exasperation is on the rise. What can be a safer haven for militant outfits than a country like Afghanistan where the writ of the state is conspicuous by its absence, an overwhelming majority of the population has been condemned to live in abject poverty and squalor, and where sufficient ideological support exists for radical Islamist groups?
Pakistan, maintains that it does not follow the policy-notion of good and bad militants and that by accusing it of backing Afghan militants, Washington is tilting at windmills. Not only that, it is the militants based in Afghanistan who are responsible for several acts of terrorism on Pakistani soil. So it is Pakistan which is paying the price of continuing instability in Afghanistan. If any country has a cause for complaint against its neighbour, it’s Pakistan over Afghan security forces failure to rein in terrorists on their side of the international border.
The new National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States unveiled by the Donald Trump administration outlines the fundamental concerns and objectives of the domestic and foreign policies of the globe’s sole superpower. It also has significant implications for South and Central Asia including Pakistan.
Before discussing the major contours of Trump’s NSS, it may be a useful exercise to look at similar documents drawn up by his two immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
President Bush’s NSS, announced in 2002, was based on the doctrine of pre-emption which committed his administration to acting against emerging “threats” before they were fully formed. “We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best… In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and security is the path of action,” said the Bush era NSS document. The doctrine of pre-emption implied indubitable belief in the power of America to alter the course of the world. It was by invoking that doctrine that the U.S. forces invaded Iraq.
The NSS of President Obama, unveiled in 2010, was more realistic in substance and more conciliatory in tone. “To succeed, we must face the world as it is,” admitted the opening paragraph of the NSS document. The strategy reiterated America’s role in shaping a global order capable of grappling with the 21st century challenges including wars over religion, ethnicity, nuclear proliferation, and economic instability and inequality. However, the NSS acknowledged that no single country was capable of meeting those challenges on its own. Hence, American interests were to be pursued through a rule-based international system in which all nations had rights as well as obligations.
In a departure from Bush’s pr-emption doctrine, Obama’s security strategy embraced engagement with “hostile” nations and collective action as the means to pursuing U.S. strategic objectives. Be that as it may, in the name of the rule-based multilateral system and collective action, NATO troops intervened in Libya in 2011 to bring the Gaddafi regime down. The U.S. also sided with some Middle Eastern countries in their unsuccessful pursuit to topple President Assad in Syria.
Any punitive measures, while they may put Pakistan in a spot, would make it difficult for Washington to hit the bull’s eye in Afghanistan. Whether Americans like it or lump it, alienating Pakistan will further frustrate the cause of peace in the war-torn country. Constructive engagement with Islamabad rather than penalization – or even “putting it on notice” – is the only viable policy option for Washington.
“To disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda and its affiliates” was described by the Obama administration NSS document as a key strategic objective of the U.S., which was to be achieved through a “judicious” use of American power both military and civilian. Pakistan together with Afghanistan was termed the “epicenter” of terrorism. Recognising the importance of Islamabad in defeating Al-Qaeda, the strategy sought to “foster a relationship with Pakistan founded upon mutual interests and mutual respects.”
What difference does the Trump administration’s NSS bring? The NSS paper starts with a profession of America First, which may be regarded as the keystone of the entire strategy. The opening paragraph reads: “An America that is safe, prosperous, and free at home is an America with the strength, confidence, and will to lead abroad. It is an America that can preserve peace, uphold liberty, and create enduring advantages for the American people. Putting America first is the duty of our government and the foundation for U.S. leadership in the world.”
What is the significance of putting the central emphasis on America first? Does it mean that previous governments had subordinated American interests to some over-riding value, principle, or mission – a “blunder” that Trump will abjure? Or does it mean a return to the isolationism that had characterized U.S. foreign policy until nearly a century ago?
It is customary for American leaders and policy-makers to describe their actions in terms of a mission being guided by universal values, such as democracy, freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. In fact, pragmatism has always been the mainspring of U.S. policies and actions. A self-styled torchbearer of democracy, America has supported absolute monarchies and other forms of authoritarianism whenever it is deemed to be in its interest. The nation, that in theory respects international law, has from time to time intervened in different parts of the world to pull down “rogue” regimes. So, in a word, it has always been a case of couching perceived national interests in the garb of some ennobling principle.
The authors of the new NSS have only been blunt, in keeping with the tantrums that their president can’t resist making. In its own words, “It is a strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology. It is based upon the view that peace, security, and prosperity depend on strong, sovereign nations that respect their citizens at home and cooperate to advance peace abroad. And it is grounded in the realization that American principles are a lasting force for good in the world.” One can note here the typical protestation of moral superiority of the U.S. over other nations.
In the beginning of his presidency, Trump did give the impression of harking back to isolationism, when, for instance, he had his country walk out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade treaty. But subsequent developments supported by a reading of the NSS document contradict this impression.
To begin with, the above quoted opening paragraph of the NSS makes it clear that the U.S. will continue to provide leadership to the world. In point of fact, “America first” will better enable the leadership to fulfil that role. In a subsequent page, the paper argues that when the U.S. does not lead, “malign actors” fill the void to the detriment of its interests.
The strategy paper recognizes that the Americans live in a competitive world; and thus as U.S. goes about accomplishing its leadership role, it will face competition mainly from two other nations, viz China and Russia. Both the competitors are criticized for representing “unfair” (economically) and “repressive” (politically) systems, as opposed to the “fair” and “free” system espoused by the U.S.
From the competitors, the NSS passes on to the threats. In the first place, there are “rouge” states like North Korea and Iran, which are set on destabilizing respective regions (Middle East in case of Iran, and East Asia in case of North Korea) and threatening American allies. Then there are transnational criminal and cataclysmic organizations, such as the so-called Islamic State (IS). While competitors and threats may call for different responses, the fundamental contest is seen to remain between those who put value on human freedom and dignity – Washington and its allies — and those who “oppress and enforce uniformity” – the adversaries.
At this point, the strategy paper makes a case for departure from the policies of previous administrations. Those policies, the argument goes, were based on the largely mistaken assumption that engagement with the rivals would turn them into partners; instead they (rivals) capitalized on the opportunities and now they pose an even greater threat to U.S. interests. The best way to grapple with such challenges is to make America more competitive, which calls for an America first strategy. The first responsibility of a government, the paper notes, is to its own people.
The strategy is based on four pillars: The first is protecting the American people, the territory and the American way of life. This will be done by preventing nuclear, chemical and biological attacks; blocking terrorists from reaching America; safeguarding the critical infrastructure; and deterring, disrupting, and defeating potential threats before they reach the country. The language here reminds the reader of the Bush doctrine of pre-emption.
The second pillar is promoting American prosperity. This goal will be achieved by reinvigorating the economy, addressing trade imbalances and unfair trade practices and maintaining the lead in research and technology. Preserving peace forms the third pillar, which calls for military and technological strength and exhorts the allies to share their responsibility in meeting common threats. The fourth and final pillar is advancing U.S. influence by leading in multilateral organizations and spreading American values of free enterprise and democracy.
The NSS will be tailored taking into account specific regional dynamics. Regions characterized by instability and weak governance are deemed to offer both threats and opportunities to U.S. interest: threats because such regions provide an environment conducive for terrorist organizations to thrive; opportunities because such a situation can serve as a springboard for ratcheting up security and prosperity.
Pakistan figures in the subsection on South and Central Asia (SCA). The authors of the NSS are well aware of the enormous importance of the region: It accounts for a quarter of the world population; it has two nuclear states (Pakistan and India), quite a few emerging economies; and “a fifth of all U.S.-designated terrorist groups.” Logically, the more important the region, the greater are the challenges that it presents to American policy-makers. One of these challenges takes the form of “threats from transnational terrorists and militants operating from within Pakistan,” which, it is believed, can endanger the security of the U.S. as well as that of its allies (read India and Afghanistan). Then there is “the prospect for an Indo-Pakistani military conflict that could lead to a nuclear exchange.” The paper also mentions the possibility of nuclear weapons or technology falling into the hands of terrorists.
The goals set by the NSS for SCA include maintaining American presence in the region sufficient to neutralize the security related threats, having “a Pakistan that is not engaged in destabilizing behavior,” and securing an Afghanistan that is stable and self-reliant, and making the region resistant to becoming a safe haven for the so called jihadi organizations.
In order to achieve these goals, a set of policy actions encompassing political, economic and security related measures will be taken by the U.S. The first such action described by the strategy paper is deepening strategic partnership with India and supporting its “leadership role” in the region. Pakistan will be “pressed” to beef up its counterterrorism efforts and take a “decisive” action against militants “operating on its soil” – failure to do so will undermine Washington-Islamabad partnership, so goes the threat – and “encouraged” to continue to demonstrate that its nuclear assets are safe. Afghan peace and security will be promoted by supporting Afghan forces in their fight against militant outfits, such as the Taliban, the IS, and Al-Qaeda. On the whole, SCA states will be helped to maintain their sovereignty against rising Chinese influence in the region.
The Americans will also encourage economic integration of SCA, which for all practical purposes means unrestricted trade between India and Pakistan and pressing Pakistan to allow Indian exports’ overland access to Afghanistan. India will be encouraged to increase its economic assistance in the region. U.S. trade and investment relations with Pakistan will be strengthened subject to its improved counterterrorism efforts. In other words, if Pakistan expects generous capital inflows from the U.S., it must measure up to the latter’s counterterrorism standards.
The South Asian portion of the NSS is thus a continuation of Trump’s Afghan strategy announced in August 2017, which at that time represented a flip-flop on his previous opposition to America’s costly involvement in foreign wars. With the Afghan Army having proved unequal to the task of holding itself against the heightened Taliban onslaught and the IS taking root in Afghanistan, American exasperation is on the rise. What can be a safer haven for militant outfits than a country like Afghanistan where the writ of the state is conspicuous by its absence, an overwhelming majority of the population has been condemned to live in abject poverty and squalor, and where sufficient ideological support exists for radical Islamist groups? Nearly two decades ago, it was these characteristics of Afghanistan that provided a fertile ground for Al-Qaeda to thrive in the country.
Exasperation clouds judgment. Instead of setting the Afghan house in order, the finger is pointed at Pakistan for being the “prime cause” of the squalid state of affairs in its north-western neighbour. The ultimatum to stick the knife into Pakistan in case it does not mend its ways has not come as a surprise. The Americans have been making such threats for years. The Trump team has only been more obtrusive in the choice of words.
Exasperation clouds judgment. Instead of setting the Afghan house in order, the finger is pointed at Pakistan for being the “prime cause” of the squalid state of affairs in its north-western neighbour. The ultimatum to stick the knife into Pakistan in case it does not mend its ways has not come as a surprise. The Americans have been making such threats for years. The Trump team has only been more obtrusive in the choice of words. On the other hand, India’s leadership role in Afghanistan will be supported, which may be seen as one way to punish Pakistan. The greater the Indian role in Afghanistan, the stronger will be its influence on the coalition government in Kabul to the detriment of Pakistan.
In essence, the Trump administration’s view of Pakistan, as brought out by the NSS, is the same as that held by the one that preceded it: an errant boy in the comity of nations in need of foreign assistance to sustain itself. So if the screw is turned on the chap, it may see reason.
The flip side is that Pakistan is the sixth-largest nation in the world in terms of its population and the second-largest state, economy and military power in South Asia. It possesses nuclear weapons and – at least on paper – is a major non-Nato ally as well as a strategic partner. Such credentials make Pakistan exceedingly important for durable peace in the region.
Understandably, the Obama administration as well as Congress had remained on tenterhooks on Pakistan. Should Islamabad be left to its own devices or continue to be engaged? Was going harder or softer a better course of action in dealing with Pakistan? Should Pakistan be declared a state sponsor of terrorism?
Pakistan maintains that it does not follow the policy-notion of good and bad militants and that by accusing it of backing Afghan militants, Washington is tilting at windmills. Not only that, it is the militants based in Afghanistan who are responsible for several acts of terrorism on Pakistani soil. So it is Pakistan which is paying the price of continuing instability in Afghanistan. If any country has a cause for complaint against its neighbour, it’s Pakistan over Afghan security forces failure to rein in terrorists on their side of the international border.
In international relations, as in interpersonal relations, perception is more important than reality. Despite Pakistan’s rebuttal, the Americans as well as their lackeys – the Afghans and Indians – remain unimpressed. In their book, mere tilting at Pakistan would be of little consequence. So the Trump administration must tighten up on Islamabad. This may take the form of designating Islamabad as a state sponsor of terrorism, revoking its non-Nato Ally status, or carrying out strikes on alleged militant hideouts in the settled areas of Pakistan, which may result in a good number of civilian casualties.
Any punitive measures, while they may put Pakistan in a spot, would make it difficult for Washington to hit the bull’s eye in Afghanistan. Whether Americans like it or lump it, alienating Pakistan will further frustrate the cause of peace in the war-torn country.
Constructive engagement with Islamabad rather than penalization – or even “putting it on notice” – is the only viable policy option for Washington.
Giving India a greater role in the region will raise Pakistan’s as well as China’s hackles. The envisaged role will be seen by both Beijing and Islamabad as running counter to their strategic interests in the region and bring the two even closer to each other.
It is time for the U.S. to resort to prudence, take practical measures to allay Pakistan’s legitimate concerns, stop being used by myopic leadership of India and Afghanistan and, also give peace a pragmatic chance. Pakistan has faced the brunt of this long drawn U.S. war and will meet halfway for peace and peace alone!
The author, a graduate from a Western European University, writes on political and economic issues.