Slash! American Twist for Imran Khan

Amanda Hodge, The Australian, 2 September 2018, where the title is “No Honeymoon for Khan”

Most friends come bearing gifts when they visit, but the US-Pakistan relationship has never been a conventional friendship. Just four days before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to meet Pakistan cricket ­legend and newly minted Prime Minister Imran Khan, the Trump administration has slashed ­an­other $US300 million ($416m) in aid to Islamabad over the government’s apparent failure to crack down on militants.

“We continue to press Pakistan to indiscriminately target all terrorist groups,” Pentagon spokesman Kone Faulkner said yester­day, adding that the $US300m — which had been suspended earlier — should be used elsewhere because of “a lack of Pakistani decisive actions” in tackling the issue.

It is the second time in a matter of weeks that the US government financially has punished its long-time frenemy for failing to deal with ­Afghan terrorist networks that operate on its soil, including Haqqani and the ­Taliban. Last month the US congress passed a bill capping security-­related aid to Pakistan at $US150m, down from a previous high of $US1 billion, as punishment for what US President Don­ald Trump claimed in a New Year’s Day tweet was Pakistan’s “lies and deceit” in accepting billions in US counter-terrorism funds while providing material support to Afghan militants.

The move also relieved Pakistan of fulfilling previous US conditions on aid, including a require­ment that it demonstrate action against proscribed groups such as the Afghan Taliban-linked Haqqani and Lashkar-e-Taiba — the militants believed responsible for the deadly 2008 attacks across India’s Mumbai.

The rhetoric on both sides leading up to Pompeo’s visit this week has not been promising. The governments sparred over the wording of a phone conversation between Khan and Pompeo following the Pakistani Prime Minister’s swearing-in ceremony last month. The US claimed Pompeo raised the ­importance of “Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan and its vital role in promoting the ­Afghan peace process’’. Islamabad insisted this was not the case before the White House released a transcript of the statement and Pakistan rolled back its denial.

That might sound like a poor start for Islamabad’s new administration if it weren’t that the relationship had long been marked by tensions that intermittently boiled over into diplomatic ­crises — perhaps most spectacularly with the lethal 2011 US Navy SEALS raid on the Pakistani hide-out of al-Qa’ida chief Osama bin Laden.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week. Picture: AFP
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week. Picture: AFP

Trump’s is hardly the first US administration to try to coerce Pakistan into abandoning its decades-long strategy of supporting militants to its west (Afghanistan) and east (Indian Kashmir) as a means of protecting itself from the threat of encirclement by New Delhi, though neither decades of US sweeteners nor more recent ­financial punishment has been able to change that.

“You can’t keep snakes in your back yard and expect them only to bite your neighbours,” former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said of Pakistan shortly after the US’s top military officer publicly ­declared the Haqqani network, which frequently launched cross-border attacks on US troops in Afghanistan, was “a veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence.

Successive US and Afghan civilian administrations have long complained of nuclear-armed Pakistan’s duplicity in the war on terror, accusing its security establishment of pursuing some militants while harbouring others it considers useful in its proxy war aimed at keeping New Delhi’s ­regional influence in check.

Pakistan denies the charge. It says it has eliminated militant sanctuaries on its side of the border (though members of the ­Afghan Taliban’s Quetta Shura leadership council still live there) and that it is Afghanistan that harbours Pakistani Taliban who launch attacks across the border.

Until last month, there were signs of a rapprochement ­between Kabul and Islamabad, with recip­rocal visits by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to discuss the Afghanistan-Pakistan action plan on preventing cross-border militancy.

Then, on August 10, the Taliban attacked the Afghan city of Ghazni, 150km southeast of Kabul, in a move that appeared designed to improve the Taliban’s bargaining position as the US and Afghan governments once again try to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table.

Afghan army chief General Mohammad Sharif Yaftali exploded with rage, accusing Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency of being behind the deadly five-day siege in which Taliban and foreign militants seized the city of 280,000.

“Pakistan is the springboard of international terrorism. All terrorists first land in Pakistan, where they get armed, equipped and then sent to Afghanistan to fight,” Yaf­tali said in Kabul, adding that many members of US-proscribed terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba were among those killed.

Notwithstanding Pakistan’s vehement denials, William Maley of the Australian National University’s Asia-Pacific College of ­Diplomacy says reports that the Ghazni attack was staged along conventional military lines points to the likely involvement of ISI, a Taliban sponsor from the days when US-funded and Pakistan-trained Islamic militants fought the Soviets in Afghanistan.

That may explain the Pentagon’s weekend announcement.

It should come as no surprise that the transactional Trump ­administration should seek to bring Pakistan into line through ­financial punishment.

How Pakistan will react to this under the civilian leadership of Khan, who has long straddled the salons and boardrooms of the West, and the mosques and ­Byzantine politics of his homeland, is key.

For years Khan has criticised America’s conditional aid, which he says requires the Pakistani state to prioritise US national security interests over its own, a view that accords largely with that of Pakistan’s powerful security forces.

He earned his “Taliban Khan” moniker, and the loyalty of some Islamic hardliners, for arguing that the Afghan Taliban insurgency is a response to foreign invaders and that the homegrown Pakistani militants waging war on the state could be pacified by discussion, not US drone attacks.

In his inaugural prime ministerial speech last month, Khan promised to break Pakistan’s ­dependence on foreign bailouts.

“We have formed a bad habit of living on loans and aid from other countries,” he said, speaking under a portrait of his hero and founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. “No country can ­prosper like this. A country must stand on its own feet.”

Unfortunately, Khan inherits an administration badly in need of money, most immediately $US3bn to avoid defaulting on loans from the International Monetary Fund, China and the World Bank. The previous administration is understood to have drawn up a proposal for a $US12bn bailout package from the IMF.

Pompeo has made clear the US strongly opposes an IMF bailout, the 15th since 1980, if the money is to be used to service debt from commercial Chinese loans ­extended for the $US62bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — a key plank in China’s Belt and Road ­infrastructure strategy.

The US is deeply nervous about Beijing’s growing influence in Pakistan, which Beijing sees as a strategic land and sea gateway from China to Central Asia, Europe and Africa, just as the US has long used Pakistan as a key supply line into Afghanistan.

In the past, Islamabad’s best leverage against US pressure has been that access through its territory to the Afghan battle theatre, where US troops have fought Taliban insurgents for more than 15 years. It blocked that route for several months in 2011 and 2012 after the killing of bin Laden and the bombing of a Pakistani border post by US jets that killed more than 20 soldiers.

But the US-Pakistan relationship has changed since then. Pakistan has found a new ­financial benefactor in Beijing, just as the US has found a way to skirt Pakistan in its attempts to finally bring its misadventure in Afghanistan to an end.

In the past, Afghan Taliban leaders seeking to explore peace talks independently of their Pakistani patrons ended up arrested or dead, almost certainly at the hands of ISI operatives or their proxies. But in July senior US State ­Department officials met Taliban leaders in Qatar to begin setting the conditions for a peace deal ­between the Afghan government and the Taliban that could allow Trump to pull his last 15,000 troops from the domestically ­unpopular war.

“Afghan reconciliation has been seen as one of the few areas of co-operation between Pakistan and the US,” says Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert with the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Centre.

“There still may be a shared ­desire for a peace process but the route to that peace process is perceived very differently now ­between Pakistanis and Americans. In the past Americans wanted Pakistan involved in that process and trusted them.”

That is no longer the case, ­Kugelman says.

While Khan has spoken in favour of Afghan reconciliation talks and a more peaceful relationship with India, he also has been careful not to overstep on areas of foreign and defence policy that the powerful Pakistan military traditionally has controlled — irrespective of whether parliament has been held by a military junta or a civilian government.

Opposition parties allege Khan owes his July 25 election victory to the military, which they accuse of rigging the polls, pointing to the expulsion of polling agents from voting stations in many parts of the country on election night as the final results were being tallied. Critics, and even some supporters, believe the military backed Khan, who has never held political office, because it sees him as malleable.

Khan, of course, has vowed to rule independently of the military, though Maley says the Prime Minister’s cabinet picks — half of whom are former ministers or technocrats who served in the military junta under general ­Pervez Musharraf from 2001 to 2008 — is an indication of how closely aligned Khan and the military will be.

“That is probably as good a guide as one is likely to find as to the policies likely to be articulated by his government,” Maley says.

Kugelman, too, points to a convergence of views between the military and Khan.

“When push comes to shove, he’s not going to be the guy to go out on a limb to convince the army it’s time to change the long-term policies that Pakistan feels has served their interests very well in terms of maintaining significant ties to the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network,” he says. “I don’t see that changing under Khan, and for Afghanistan that’s a non-negotiable issue.”

Pakistan’s military has ruled the country directly for 30 years and indirectly for the other 41, and doesn’t take kindly to challenges from civilian leaders.

Whether Khan can be the first prime minister in the country’s 71 years of existence — since its bloody partition from India by ­departing British colonial masters — to complete a full five-year term in office depends on his relationship with the generals.

The only prime minister who could have served a term uninterrupted by a military coup, popular uprising or judicial activism was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He chose ­instead to go to an early election in 1977 and won a poll marred by accusations of rigged ballots and the murder of his political ­opponent. He was ousted soon after in a military coup and later executed.

But conditions for an alignment of civil and military interests in Pakistan may be better now than at any time in the recent past.

For one thing, says Raza Rumi, a visiting scholar and lecturer at New York’s Cornell University and editor of Pakistan’s Daily Times: “Khan’s focus will be firmly on the domestic agenda — on human development and reform — and he will very much let the military define the national ­security.”

Perhaps more important is the rare overlap of US and Chinese interests in seeing Pakistan ­suppress militancy on its own soil, and any militant activity that may affect the stability of its neighbours.

For the US finally to end its ­expensive and unpopular intervention in Afghanistan, it must ­assure itself that the region cannot again be used as a springboard for 9/11-style terror attacks on the West. For China to realise its soaring Belt and Road ambitions — land and sea infrastructure corridors that connect China to the rest of the world — there must be peace in South Asia, and part­icularly ­between Islamabad and New Delhi.

“There is a consensus within the Pakistani elite that this relationship with China is of huge ­importance and everybody is basically on board, given the size of the investment,” Rumi says.

“It’s a transformational thing for Pakistan, given the export ­potential it promises. Everybody gets a share of the $US60bn pie, including the military, which has many corporate entities that will benefit.”

Pakistan analyst Mosharraf Zaidi wrote last month that “the stars favour” an Afghan peace settlement that includes the Taliban, given Trump and the ­Afghan President have come around to the same position and now support direct talks with the Taliban.

But he also warned that Khan’s great challenge would be managing the expectations of the three countries.

“Pakistan may not have the clout to get the Taliban to the negotiating table, despite the US seeing them as Pakistani proxies,” Zaidi says.

If Islamabad were to play a major role in an eventually successful reconciliation process, that would significantly improve the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship, Kugelman says.

That can never happen without the support of the Pakistan military, however, which Maley says shows little inclination to loosen its tenuous grip on the insurgents it has so heavily invested in to maintain “strategic depth” in ­Afghanistan.

The military has long justified its outsized role in the civilian state through the threat posed to the country’s existence by India.

It also, quite reasonably, sees its relationship with the Afghan ­insurgents as a hedge against the chaos that inevitably will follow a US troop withdrawal from ­Afghan­istan. It does not want to be on the wrong side of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network if, or more likely when, that happens.

The only conceivable thing that can change that equation, says Maley, would be “serious Chinese pressure because Pakistan can ­resist pressure from the US but it’s much harder to resist pressure from China, which has a lot more leverage”.

“The nightmare scenario for Pakistan would be if China sends signals that they’re really concerned about support for the ­Afghan Taliban,” he says. “If I were America, I would concentrate my foreign policy efforts on that.”

Amanda Hodge is The Australian’s South East Asia correspondent. Based in Jakarta, she has covered war, refugees, terror attacks, natural disasters and social and political upheaval from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka… 


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