President Trump must decide soon whether the US should remain in a holding pattern in Afghanistan. As Trump has little personal skin in the war to this point he may decide that enough is enough leaving everyone to ponder what it was all about. Is the recent dismissal of the Pakistani Prime Minister a further complication?
President Trump will not be the only one interested in the ramifications of the resignation on 1 August of Nawaz Sharif, the now thrice deposed Pakistani Prime Minister. While on the surface it may look that Sharif’s complex financial activities have caught up with him, nothing in Pakistan is ever how it might seem, as reflected in its actions in Afghanistan.
Ostensibly the Prime Minister and close family members were found by the Pakistan Supreme Court to have failed to declare certain assets which in the Court’s opinion made Sharif not a fit and proper person (to use a Western term) to hold that office, but the fact is that he has not been found guilty of corruption in any particular respect. By the Supreme Court’s criteria of proof, a large part of the Pakistani establishment would be in a similar position.
Although no democratically elected Pakistani Prime Minister has ever been allowed to serve out a full term without intervention of some kind (usually a military coup), to be deposed three times does suggest a common thread in the country’s politics. That would lie in the inherited tensions that have existed throughout its history, since its bloody creation in 1947, between a strong militaristic tradition and its espoused commitment to democracy.
Underlying these tensions on the part of the military is whether Pakistan’s tenuous democratic institutions, and their susceptibility to corrupt processes, can be trusted to safeguard the country against perceived or actual ‘Indian aggression’. And there is good reason for this as Pakistan has several times been outplayed by India with serious consequences, beginning in the main with the war over the disputed former princely states of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-48, in 1965, and again in 1999; and India’s intervention in support of the East Pakistan rebellion in 1971 which led to the severance of that province and its emergence as Bangladesh.
The loss of East Pakistan was illustrative in the military’s mind of the unreliability of its politicians, in this case the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. There was also a fair degree of fear in the military/political relationship in the sense of who would strike first in a crisis. A story goes that when General Zia-ul-Huq was summoned to report to Bhutto, the General was smoking in an ante-room and was surprised when Bhutto suddenly appeared before him. The General hurriedly stuffed his lighted cigarette into his pocket and sustained a burn as if nothing had happened. In due course General Zia staged a coup against Bhutto who was arrested, charged and subsequently executed on a spurious charge of conspiring to kill a political rival. Suspicions about the military were again raised when General Purvez Musharruf overthrew the government of Benazir Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali’s daughter, in 1999 at the time of the second Kashmir War.
The Pakistani judiciary should not be left out of this, being seen as more allied with the military than with democratic processes – as occurred in the political crisis of 2012 and very likely again over Sharif’s demise.
What might this mean for the US’s coalition forces in Afghanistan? Pakistan’s role is both critical and ambivalent. In earlier days the West tended to identify more with Pakistan than non-aligned India, because of its strong military traditions based on the British way of doing things and having sympathy too for its treatment over Kashmir. But whatever illusions Pakistan may have had in that regard were dispelled by its experience with SEATO, the South East Asian Treaty Organisation. With East Pakistan adjoining South East Asia, the treaty looked like an assured collective security guarantee but at the first test it was made clear that the treaty’s purpose was to address only ‘communist’ aggression, not Indian. Pakistan pulled out. Nonetheless the US in particular continued to treat Pakistan as an ally though it began to question this when the government of President Ayub Khan (with Z A Bhutto as Foreign Minister) invited the Chinese Foreign Minister, Chou En-lai, to make a state visit in 1964, not long after China had tested its first nuclear device and was about to embark on Mao Zedong’s great ‘cultural revolution’. The strategic outlook had begun to change colour, but not entirely as over the next decade or so Pakistan continued to receive substantial tranches of US aid, civil and military. In the 1980s Pakistan was a major conduit for US military supplies to the Mujahideen forces (essentially Pathan) resisting the Soviet invasion to the north of Afghanistan. However, following their success against the Russians, those same Mujahideen tribes went on to form the Taliban and, when the US intervened in 2001 in search of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, those military supplies were turned against the Americans. Since that time, to firm the bonds, the US has provided Pakistan with some $35 billion of further military assistance.
Is the ground changing yet again now that the US campaign in Afghanistan has reached a stalling point, if not one of no return (a question for Australian forces too)? With the Taliban now in control of some 40% of Afghanistan, the US military appears to have accepted that total ‘victory’ over the Taliban is not possible but that adding a few thousand more ‘advisers’ may serve to hold the position long enough for other ‘influences’ to intervene and make a dignified withdrawal possible. This is what President Trump is waiting to hear.
In any case the US is expecting Pakistan to be less devious and equivocal about its own end-game vis-a-vis Afghanistan. It might seem to be the time for a ‘deal’ in return for more financial aid and the promise of continued military support. Of course the touch-stone for Pakistan is what any outcome may mean strategically for its on-going concerns about India, not least the latter’s growing influence in Afghanistan which it deems unacceptable. These concerns have given rise to some 45 summit meetings with India without resolution of their differences. It has been suggested that one of the factors in Sharif’s replacement was that he was seeking a modus vivendi with India, unacceptable to the military as the Indian ‘threat’ is a gift that keeps on giving, sustaining its high status and influence in Pakistan’s inner life.
Now that the military has, thanks to the Supreme Court, been relieved of Sharif, what might a transfer of the prime ministership to his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, mean for Pakistan’s policy direction? Will this be a smooth transition with little substantive political change? Possibly so, as the National Assembly has approved the brother’s transition, by a vote of 221 out of its 342 members, once he acquires a seat in the Assembly. Politically this will be easily done as the Muslim League, the majority party, is, as with both major political parties, essentially a family fiefdom.
What we don’t know is whether the military, under General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has already seized the moment to its advantage and what it is saying or doing about these developments. What we do know is that the military remains in several minds about the handling of Afghanistan, the most determined component of which is its security service, the Inter-Services Intelligence group, some quarters of which are in close league with a leading cross-border terrorist group, the Haqqani Network.
What one can say is that the military’s links with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network provide it with a number of tactical options for dealing with adverse movements in Afghanistan, and in this regard Pakistan and the US do not appear to be on the same page (except to ensure than no adverse group should gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal).
The major difference between the two is that the US would hope to nullify the Taliban’s influence while leaving in place a unified Afghan government in Kabul with sustainable democratic attributes, while the Pakistanis do not wish to see a too cohesive government that could facilitate a re-emerging autonomous movement in its north west provinces based on Pathan ethnic tribes reviving calls for new ‘Pashtoonistan’; or which could be susceptible to Indian subversive influences. Secondly, it sees a workable solution in Afghanistan being one that must include the Taliban, not exclude them. It would seek to contain the Taliban on its own terms, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In the background is the fact that national elections are due in Pakistan in the second half of 2018. The two major parties (Sharif’s Muslim League and the once Bhutto dominated Pakistan Peoples Party), being as noted essentially family fiefdoms, are losing mass support. The only other significant contender in the field would be former star cricketer Imran Khan’s party, Tehreek-e-Insef. But it may not have the resources required, unlike the other parties, to get its voters to the polling booths in sufficient numbers to be elected. If Imran Khan were to be elected the military would, for a time, be more comfortable with that together with the fact that Imran Khan has a better handle on North West Frontier issues.
In short, President Trump must decide whether the US should remain in a holding pattern in Afghanistan or get out altogether. As Trump has little personal skin in the war to this point he may decide that enough is enough leaving everyone to ponder – after 16 years of combat with huge outlays of capital, human resources, death and destruction – what it was all about. So very 19th Century!
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade adviser and senior academic in public and international law. He served in the Australian High Commission in Pakistan in the mid-1960s, including several visits to both East Pakistan and Afghanistan.