Is Trump’s tough talking on Pakistan set to backfire?

Is Trump’s tough talking on  Pakistan set to backfire?

The Afghan quagmire looks set to place Iran at the centre of the multilateral stage at the General Assembly later this month. Which is not at all how Donald Trump had planned it.

First of all the IAEA rained on his parade by confirming that Tehran was playing by the nuclear rulebook. Then came Pakistan's Foreign Minister, whirling his way through parts of the region like a veritable dervish - with two notable exceptions, naturally - to garner support for a political solution to extricate just about everyone from the Afghan quagmire. And there was Iran, scoffing at the idea of a few thousand troops to seal the deal across the border.

The latter is something that Trump could probably brush aside. Seeing as he views both Islamabad and Tehran as state sponsors of terrorism. We know this because he has said so. What he may have not quite expected is the Afghan Foreign Minister - busy with his own visit to India for the first bilateral meeting of the Strategic Partnership Council post Trump's much touted South Asian policy review - calling for regional engagement with all stakeholders, including Iran.

In an interview with The Hindu this week, Salahuddin Rabbani said: "[W]e hope also that India, as a good friend of other countries in the region like Russia and Iran, can convince those countries to work with the Afghan government to support the peace process." Interestingly he forgot to mention China. The Pakistani state apparatus might like to take this as outward recognition of the rock hard friendship with Beijing that may or may not now be overwhelmingly transactional in nature. But, in reality, it likely had more to do with not wanting to inadvertently remind either side of recent tensions over Doklam. Of course, Pakistan enjoys far more clout than India over Iran when it comes to any conversation on terrorism. After all, both were royally humiliated at the hands of the unquiet American at the US-Arab Islamic summit on terrorism. While New Delhi was royally gushed over.

Rabbani naturally made all the usual sounds about it being in Pakistan's best interests to reassert sovereignty over its territory. Yet he also talked of noticing a change in Islamabad's behaviour following Trump's tough talk. Though of course Pakistan has been at pains to point out that the latter hasn't actually set down any specific rules, no matter how much Kabul welcomes what it sees as the condition-based approach of this 'new' policy for regional peace. Nevertheless, in a bid to show that everything counts in large amount, Prime Minister Abbasi has put on the Af-Pak table the offer of joint patrols with Kabul as part of a bilateral verification process to sign off on the country's anti-terror record. "Whatever it takes to fight terrorism . . . Pakistan is totally open to that," he has said, while of course calling on Afghanistan to do more curb cross-border terrorism from their side.

It seems, therefore, that the US apprentice-president succeeded where he had not quite meant to. In other words, having all the players in the Afghan backyard on the same page regarding the need to get the Americans out of that country so they can all sit comfortably around the negotiating table. If this happens, immense efforts to have relentlessly scape-goated Islamabad and Tehran will have backfired.

Unless, of course, Trump has his anti-fake news blinkers on and falls for 'rogue' policy recommendations coming out of certain quarters of the US media. Such as the call by a Bloomberg editorial (What Trump Can Do About Pakistan, September 13, 2017), which recommends the following: "Levying US and European Union sanctions on key Pakistani military and intelligence officials, for example, would not only make life harder for specific commanders - many of whom have children studying in the West - but embarrass the military as an institution." Questionable legal technicalities aside - this is a call for the orchestrated witch hunt against Pakistan to get personal. This is nothing if not incitement to harass and intimidate. As such, it is hoped that the country's delegation brings this up at the UN moot.



Published in Daily Times, September 14th 2017.