Once again a US politician, this time the new US president, has offered the same hackneyed wisdom about the US war in Afghanistan, and besides other mundane things offered as new and innovative, yet another refrain was also included in the non-substantive Afghanistan policy speech delivered by President Donald Trump. Trump, like so many other US politicians before him, bellowed:
Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists. In the past, Pakistan has been a valued partner. Our militaries have worked together against common enemies. The Pakistani people have suffered greatly from terrorism and extremism. We recognize those contributions and those sacrifices.
But Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.
But that will have to change. And that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order and to peace.
Beyond the usual bluster, if looked at textually only the rhetorical energy spent on Pakistan in the speech also declares, beyond the words themselves, the extreme importance of Pakistan in the US mission in Afghanistan, whatever that mission ought to be, for Mr. Trump failed to define what exactly would be the US “Victory” in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government and military should not take this as more of the same or as an empty threat. Furthermore, declaring that we as a nation are better off with China (as the argument is being made in Pakistan by some leading politicians and journalist) is also not in Pakistan’s best interest. Staying engaged with the United States can in no way be against the Pakistani national interest. But keeping the US public informed about the sacrifices made by Pakistan is also exceptionally important.
Just the last month as I sat with one of my former army seniors, he informed me that my old battalion was slated to be deployed in an operation in the Pakistani tribal areas that very night. As we talked, we both hoped and prayed that everyone in our battalion came out of the operation unscathed and unharmed, but, deep down, we both knew that in operations such as these there are always casualties. Pakistan has suffered tremendously over the last decade or so both in terms of military and civilian casualties. We need to remember that this war against the Taliban and ISIS and other extremist groups is not necessarily a war conducted at the behest of the United States, but crucial to our own national future. We should fight this war on all fronts, military, civic, and economic, with or without US help, but we should also do a better job of challenging absurd claims by the US politicians about “reluctant” Pakistan “not doing enough.” Our men and women, civilians and soldiers are dying every day in this complex and expansive war: WE ARE DOING A LOT!!! We need to do a better job of foregrounding our sacrifices and our efforts nationally and globally. Our politicians, generals, journalists, and academics need to help develop a counter narrative to the Taliban and others but also a strategic counter narrative to any scapegoating of Pakistan proffered by the US politicians.
We should also pose some hard questions to the US policymakers: What, to them, is victory in Afghanistan? Obviously it cannot be the conquest of Afghanistan! If the victory to the US is a stable democratic Afghanistan with a democratically elected government, then it cannot be accomplished through military means and even if Mr. Trump does not like it, he will have to invest in building the civic and political institutions in Afghanistan. Building a stable and autonomous Afghanistan should also be a top Pakistani priority. We as a nation need to rid ourselves of the misconception that Afghani people owe us for anything. Yes, we hosted millions of their refugees during the Soviet-Afghan war, but that alone does not give us the right to dictate Afghan politics or their foreign policy. If we need to win Afghanistan over as a regional ally and friend, then we should accomplish that with deep cultural and economic investments in Afghanistan and not through proxy groups or through politics of intimidation and isolation.
If there is some truth to Trump’s claims about Pakistan serving as a safe haven for Taliban groups, then we as a nation should openly declare that no place in Pakistan shall be or could be used as a safe haven for any Taliban group. If we have used any of these groups as our proxies in the region, we should know by now that the same groups can turn on us any time and conduct horrible terroristic attacks on our people. At this point there seems to be no advantage to us in harboring any terroristic groups both officially or unofficially. Pakistan should, therefore, declare openly that Pakistani territory will not be a safe place for any terroristic proxy group, may they be targeting Afghanistan or any other adjacent regions.
Only when we have a clear and open policy against terror groups can we challenge the sad and shallow stereotyping used by US politicians against Pakistan. Furthermore, our relationship with the US should not be transactional but rather deeper and long-term. Th US on her part can continue to invest in Pakistani education, infrastructure, and other civic and cultural fields. If the US decides to isolate Pakistan and defunds US cultural and military support to Pakistan, the long-term implications of such steps might be hard for Pakistan but would certainly be damaging to the US interests in the region.
So, as two nations focused on solving an intractable problem in the region, the US and Pakistan should treat each other with the kind of respect and dignity as two sovereign nations ought to!