What is going on here? The president-elect who told us that Afghanistan was a BIG costly mistake is now changing direction. “My original instinct was to pull out”, he says, but now he claims he has bowed to advice from officials, and will take a tougher line with Pakistan.
This is a paradigm shift, but not made in isolation from the larger US game plan. Basically what Trump is saying is that Pakistan is to Afghanistan what China is to North Korea, and both neighbours needs to assist in dealing with their neighbours. If this happened, this would indeed improve regional security as more countries would be directly responsible for maintaining it.
However, this is not as welcome a development as it appears. Still the US is pursuing a failed and fictitious war of terror in which nations most Americans can’t find on a map are merely collateral damage. It is still North Korea one week, Venezuela the next and now back to Afghanistan, with sabre rattling against Pakistan for good measure.
As we have seen in Syria and elsewhere, the US is incapable of winning the war on terror by being a terrorist state itself. It is simply trying to shift the blame: it can’t achieve its objectives by military means anymore, so it is trying to blame Pakistan for its own problems and expecting that country to sort everything out.
The countries the US wants to threaten, and its actual and potential partners, can see what is going on. Whatever is now being done to Pakistan – a US ally – might be done to them one day. Pakistan is also a nuclear state, with a real ability to exert its power, unlike North Korea, which doesn’t have technology to make its missiles work. But who Pakistan’s power might now be exerted against, if it is threatened by the infidel US and a president increasingly seen as an embarrassment by his allies, is anyone’s guess.
So many were hopeful that there would be an actual change of policy, not a shifting of blame, and that President Trump would find the courage to pull out and put an end to this pointless and illegal war. But he even claimed in a recent speech that Afghanistan was responsible for harbouring the masterminds of 9/11, which suggests that he has not bowed to advice from his generals but decided on his own initiative that war in Afghanistan must continue and someone else will have to pay for it, whether they like it or not. Trump has therefore declared two wars: an expanded conflict in Afghanistan and one of his allies if they don’t fight it for him.
The war in Afghanistan has been an unmitigated disaster from the start, but until recently media coverage has been scant at best. Now Trump has changed all that. As RT’s Cross Talk’s Peter Lavelle states so well, ‘’Now it’s Trump’s war – what do you bet all of sudden Afghanistan will return to the liberal media’s radar? It turns out to be ‘still another stick to beat him with. A self-inflicted stick at that…..’’
Whatever happened to the Saudi footprint?
Afghans just want to be left alone. They also have long memories. British soldiers who have served there in recent years tell stories about going to meet Afghans and being told that British troops had burnt down the local market, only to discover that this had happened in 1832, and this is the one thing the British are still associated with in the minds of the local population.
Even if the war was legitimate, the US and its NATO partners, as one pundit put it, should not be using, “heavy bombers and armies of mercenaries against the legitimate Afghan national resistance, Taliban and its allies. We have allied ourselves to the scum of Afghan society: drug dealers who back its puppet government, former communist torturers, crooks and rented gunmen.’’
An old movie comes to mind, a funny but true to life Wag the Dog satire in which American politicians start a fake war with foreign “terrorists” to draw attention from problems on the home front and slumping poll numbers. Escalating the Afghan conflict by proxy seems to be just what Trump needs now most things are backfiring in his face, like his attempt to quote what he thought were General Blackjack Pershing’s comments on how to deal with terrorists.
That Donald is a fish out of water is undeniable. It is surprising to see how naive he is, and how badly this is affecting politics in general. But he is also indifferent to his constituency, the people who put him where he is. The majority of his base of support, and especially dyed-in-the-wool-Republicans, continue to support his original positions, including those on foreign policy. Although the media is demonising him for flip-flopping on each issue, betraying his own supporters without credible explanation will leave him serving no one but himself, in defiance of his own population and with serious consequences for the US and the world as a whole.
But something more is also involved. Israel and Saudi Arabia also want to take out Pakistan, as it is the only Muslim nation with nukes and would support Iran if the US and NATO attacked it. Regardless of all Trump’s promises about getting out of needless and costly foreign misadventures, Afghanistan provides a base for operations against Iran. Making it safe from insurgents based in Pakistan serves that purpose, not the welfare of the Afghan people, who have had forty years of watching other countries importing arms and troops to try and resolve Afghanistan’s problems and then running away when they realise Afghanistan cannot be conquered.
In the last couple of months there have been numerous incidents along the Iran-Pakistan border, and these are a continuation of terrorist attacks dating back years. It seems that the people taking pot shots at Iranian border guards are based inside Pakistan. Most likely these are either US-Israel-Saudi agents or members of the Pakistani military who work for the Saudis. We have seen all this before, in places such as Yemen, and this is undoubtedly the “assistance against terror” the US actually wants Pakistan to continue supplying, given that the terrorist groups operating out of Pakistan were all US armed and funded at one time.
Next Target in Crosshairs of US Policy
Pakistan may come under US attack in the near future, with the collusion of India, which has fought wars against it in the past. India has never accepted Pakistan being given all the help India also has, and particularly the training of nuclear scientists who can then mysteriously source all the components of nuclear bombs from Western sources. Linking Pakistan with terror on the one hand, and saying it won’t pay for its conflicts on the other, is exactly the sort of double dealing which India will want to take advantage of.
Pakistan is treating the US belligerence as the joke it is, by simply saying that the US has false information. What it means is: why should we give up supporting groups the US calls terrorist when the US won’t do the same? Asking India to help bring Pakistan to heel is a threat to India too, as it might become the next US target if it doesn’t comply. Pakistan has resisted India for 70 years, despite military defeats; it is not going to be bothered by the threat of an India-Pakistan conflict started by Donald Trump, which neither side would take seriously.
India has no reason to get involved in Pakistan when it is doing very nicely on its own. If Pakistan were a genuine threat it would have exercised that threat by now. Some form of co-existence has been achieved, and both countries are benefitting from it. They are not waiting for the US to embroil them in further conflict with each other or in the perpetual tinder box of Afghanistan – one of the reasons Afghan insurgents operate from Pakistani territory is that Pakistan does not want to get DIRECTLY involved in that conflict, even if it likes this group of combatants or that.
The same US which now wants to fight the Taliban was also calling for its inclusion in multiparty talks not long ago. This was an insult to everyone who has died fighting the Taliban and all the Afghans whose lives have been destroyed in the name of getting rid of it. Now the Taliban are undesirable terrorists again because they have taken advantage of this situation to press for outright victory rather than power sharing. Of all the parties involved in Afghanistan, the US is showing itself the least equipped and least capable, the true cost of this adventure.
Maybe the US just wants to get out of Afghanistan by the back door by demanding that Pakistan does its dirty work for it. The US is still haunted by its defeat in Vietnam, which it disguised by claiming it had brought about “peace with honor”. The latest threats to Pakistan over Afghanistan will bring neither peace nor honour, and a serial liar and international embarrassment such as Trump will not be able to spin this away and be listened to.
Flawed and Failed Afghan Policy
One person people do listen to is Imran Khan, the former cricketer and heartthrob who entered politics on the back of his sporting fame. Khan is so highly respected, despite his reputation as a Westernised playboy, that as soon as he first began making political statements the Pakistani government said that it would “not be intimidated” by his entry to politics, even though he had no power or authority to wield and was simply expressing his personal opinions like any other private citizen.
Khan has made it clear to the US that “Never again will we fight your wars for you.” He has also slammed the US for its “flawed and failed Afghan policy” and said that Pakistan “must reject being made (a) scapegoat” for US failures. He offers clear advice as what the US should do next, and how doing more of the same will not solve but complicate the problems.
Khan is currently in opposition, but may not be for much longer, given his support base. If he becomes Prime Minister at the next scheduled elections next year Trump will get absolutely nowhere with Pakistan, as Khan has demonstrated throughout his career that he is nobody’s puppet and is impervious to intimidation, this being one of the reasons he is so revered by his people.
Khan’s platform is also very similar to Trump’s in one respect: he wants to remove a corrupt political and military establishment in order to “make his country great again”. Trump knows that works, and knows why. His threats to the current Pakistani government are also veiled promises: do as I say, and I’ll help you with Imran Khan, though it means doing the opposite at international level of what I promised to do at home.
Terrorists by any other name
In the US, Trump has trashed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The “rule of law” no longer applies, and neither does the system of checks and balances the US system of governance is supposed to be based on. He has turned his country into the sort of Third World dictatorship the US has always looked down on, and there is no sign that this process will end any time soon.
No one is going to be lectured by such a country. Nor will they want them as a partner. These threats will push Pakistan towards China, which has the means to support its own global ambitions and isn’t asking its allies to fight wars or attacking them for harbouring the same terrorists it funds itself. Does Trump want China to gain even more influence at the expense of the US? Probably not, but if he gets some new hotels out of it he won’t ultimately care.
The term “Great Game” is attributed to British intelligence officer Arthur Connolly, and was popularised by Rudyard Kipling in his 1904 book “Kim”, wherein he portrays power struggles between great nations as a game of sorts.
The front line between the British and Russian Empires ran through Afghanistan and modern-day Iran. This area has seen all this before. But the threats to Pakistan have fundamentally changed the rules of the Great Game, and the regional countries know it.
Now only the US is playing a game, and neither its allies nor enemies have any reason to join in. They are showing, and will continue to show, that if they don’t like the game they don’t have to play any more. Once again, the more the US threatens other countries the more it ultimately threatens itself, while its former slaves sit back and share out the proceeds.
If Trump’s new policy is taken at face value it is indeed a positive development, as it means the US will stop “nation building” in its own image and start killing terrorists, as it should have been doing all along. But Trump is incapable of putting such a policy into effect on his own, and has botched this attempt to get others to do it for him. All he has done is make Russian and Chinese control of the region more certain, with the willing participation of US allies who have grown tired of the blood being on their hands, and in their homes.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.