Friday, January 05, 2018

Trump Tweets at Pakistan - Is there a way to salvage the situation?

By now most of you are aware, things are bleeding away. I worry that if sane people do not step in to stop the bleeding - we are going to have a very serious mess on our hands.

The US is going to cut financial aid to Pakistan. The details of the cuts are awaited but it seems that the cuts are being gated with more performance on the counter-terrorism front. There is a rumor doing rounds that the US wants Sirja's and Haibutullah's head on a pike, but I don't know if that will prevent the cuts from actually kicking in. Pakistan for its part has the option of engineering a drivers' strike on the trucks that transport US cargo to AFG from Port Qasim. This should allow the Pakistanis to effectively raise the price of the transport contracts and be compensated for their losses on the Siraj/Haibatullah front.

I know that Trump tweeted without any real thought to this. It is stupid to do things like that, but it is not uncommon to have unexpected things happen in the realm of international relations. I want to ask the question - setting aside everything I feel about Trump, is there any way to use this situation to achieve longer term US goals in the region?

I lay out what the long terms aims of the US in the Af-Pak region are.

1) The US does not want to see the region turn back into a global hub of international terrorism. This situation presented in the region after the dregs of the anti-Soviet jihad loitered in the region and under the encouragement of likeminded ISI officials set up an international murder-for-hire business. The criminal incentive for this kind of thing is too strong and it is not a good idea to have a modern version of the Hashassin cult make itself a home in the Af-Pak region.

2) Sending US troops to pacify the region is problematic as this just puts own forces in the middle of Afghanistan's perpetual civil war and one simply ends up hurting/bearing the physical/psychological costs of being in the middle of that with little to no gain to regional stability. Neither we nor the Afghans get anything long term out of that. There are short term gains but those are eroded by equally sharp short term losses.  As Afghanistan remains a major producer of illicit opiates, corrosion of US-AFG ties does not bode well for US global narcotics control aims.

3) The sustained engagement with Pakistan provides the US with a lever against Pakistan's drop into China's political orbit. Chinese influence on the Pakistani economy is significantly greater than what the US can currently manage. US influence exists over Pakistan's debt servicing situation, but with the Chinese essentially willing to lend Pakistan whatever it needs in exchange for control of its ports and critical infrastructure, the US leverage is greatly diminished.

4) Pakistan remains insecure about its relationship vis-a-vis India. By stating a desire for a long term positive engagement with Pakistan, the US effectively reassures Pakistan and keeps its anxiety vis-a-vis India managed. This peculiar form of reassurance can make Pakistan less ornery with India. Keeping Pakistan's national security establishment on an even emotional keel (what the Indians call "coddling") helps keep the nuclear escalation potential down.

5) Pakistan's nuclear weapons are a proliferation concern. While Pakistan has done a great deal to improve the security of its weapons, there are significant vertical proliferation concerns. This has a huge impact on the global proliferation scenario. It is in the US interest to see Pakistan's arsenal remains at a manageable size and one does not see a repeat of the Soviet situation where the costs associated with the arsenal imposed unacceptable economic costs.

I want to put this out there as an open question - Is there any way to turn Trump's bizarre exercise in public diplomacy into something that is actually productive in terms of the goals described above?

I for one would settle for more limited resolutions - such as a reduction in the local stabilization load on US forces in AFG. This local stabilization operations are not cost effective in the long run and I think it would nice if one would see simple things like a reduction in the number of IEDs that have to be cleared by road opening parties etc... but that is just the way I think. I would even settle for a cap on the IED size or deployment. I am pragmatic enough to take a reduction in the DCBI count as progress.

But what do you guys think?


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