At a time when a historic meeting of foreign ministers from China, Afghanistan and Pakistan concluded successfully on December 26, 2017 and more importantly, decided to consider expanding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative) to Afghanistan, the timing of President Trump’s tweet is telling. The tweet – a culmination of earlier threats and policy statements, the latest being the National Security Strategy – is indicative of forging a more aggressive posture towards Pakistan to take forward geo-political interests and goals of the United States in South Asia.
On the outset, the new foreign policy of President Trump seeks to externalise US’s own failure in Afghanistan, and by blaming Pakistan, effectively absolves all responsibility that would otherwise have fallen on itself. However, Pakistan is only a means to an end in America’s quest for countering China’s expanding influence, goodwill and presence via the Belt and Road Initiative’s much-touted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Furthermore, this first-of-its-kind statement by any American President towards Pakistan, attempts to portray Pakistan’s behaviour as a threat to the US national security, and the tweet coupled with the recently unveiled National Security Strategy (which dubs China as a “revisionist power” and Pakistan for all practical purposes as an enemy combatant), prepares the ground and subsequent “justification” for proactive American interference and perhaps even intervention in the region.
The United States needs a pretext to expand its footprint in South Asia, and its limited presence in Afghanistan does not suffice. The only option left to the US to counter the rising influence of China and to bolster India as a counter-weight to China is to use Pakistan as bait. Since the far-reaching and all-encompassing Belt and Road Initiative’s pivot is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, anyone attempting to impede this would need to start with CPEC. What better way than by building and re-enforcing the “Pakistan-extremism/Taliban nexus” narrative and show it to be an existential threat to the United States?
While Pakistan has been on the frontline in the war against terror, and suffered huge civilian, military and economic casualties, rather than receiving appreciation Pakistan is once again being made out to be as “part of the problem” or rather “the problem”. While Pakistan and the US have engaged in high-level exchanges since the new US administration came into power – PM Abbasi meeting VP Pence and thereafter the US Defense Secretary meeting Pakistan’s civil-military leadership in Islamabad – a positive outcome of this dialogue is seemingly not in the interest of the US, as a good partner in Pakistan would mean no legitimacy for interference and aggression, and subsequently no substantial US presence to counter China.
Pakistan and its neighbouring countries – China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran – need to have a coordinated response to the hostile statement of President Trump, since the consequences of this foreign policy impact all of the above. Pakistan must also double its efforts to nip the issues of trust-deficit and border management in the bud with Afghanistan, as schisms between these two countries will only leave both of them more vulnerable to foreign exploitation and interference. China’s proactive engagement and diplomacy in the Afghan peace process should be welcomed and supported, as China is seen as an above-board player with “no dogs in the fight”. Additionally, China’s engagement in Afghanistan is a “force multiplier” for Pakistan, that needs allies in an increasingly volatile neighbourhood, and the expansion of CPEC to Afghanistan will only increase Pakistan’s goodwill and influence in the former, and economically integrate the countries and the region minimising the risk of conflict and giving the three countries a shared future with shared economic development.