Central & South Asia

Trump Draws Geopolitical Battle Lines in South Asia

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Donald Trump © Jim Mattis

August 22, 2017 19:00 EDT

Pakistan’s refusal to confront its demons could leave it out in the cold.

US President Donald Trump has drawn battle lines in South Asia that are likely to have a ripple effect across Eurasia: a stepped-up war against the Taliban in Afghanistan; a tougher approach toward Pakistan’s selective support of militancy; and closer cooperation with India — moves that are likely to push Islamabad closer to China and Russia.

There is little doubt that Trump had few good choices some 16 years into an Afghanistan War in which the Taliban and other militant groups are holding their ground, if not making advances, buffeted by Pakistani policies that are rooted in the fabric of the country’s military and society. Similarly, there is little doubt that Pakistan’s convoluted relationship to militancy poses serious challenges to US foreign policy in South Asia, as well as a global effort to contain political violence.

Nonetheless, President Trump could find that his newly announced South Asia policy will fail to achieve his goal of an “honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices” made by the United States. The silver lining is that Pakistan may temporarily engineer a stay of execution but ultimately will find itself in a cul-de-sac from which there is no escape.

Despite refusing to disclose details of his strategy in Afghanistan, the US president made clear in a speech on August 21 outlining his South Asia policy that he hopes an increased US military presence will force the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. Yet achieving that would require the kind of military and political engagement in Afghanistan that Trump seems unwilling to embrace.

US media reported that Trump envisioned only a modest increase of several thousand troops in a country wracked by corruption and whose military is largely incapable of standing its ground on its own. Political and security analysts suggest that it would take a far greater commitment to militarily turn the tables on the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Moreover, President Trump’s exclusive focus on defeating insurgents militarily or bombing them into submission ignores the broader economic, social and political problems that fuel militancy in Afghanistan and drive Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and a selection of other groups. “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists,” Trump said.

Announcing a tougher approach toward Pakistan, the president insisted that the South Asian nation’s partnership with the US would not survive if it continued to harbor and support groups that target the United States. Adding fuel to the fire, the president emphasized Washington’s strategic partnership with India, calling on it to support the administration’s policy with increased Indian economic assistance to Afghanistan. In doing so, Trump challenged a pillar of Pakistani policy toward Afghanistan: limiting Indian influence in the country at whatever cost.


Trump’s approach to South Asia puts to the test two assumptions: that Pakistan will want to preserve its partnership with the US at whatever cost and that it has few alternatives. The president could well find that at least in the short term those assumptions are incorrect.

Pakistan’s relationship to militancy is engrained in a deeply-rooted, zero-sum-game approach toward India within the military, as well as empathy for Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that is woven into the fabric of the security forces, parts of the government bureaucracy and significant segments of society.

Islamabad’s use of militant groups to counter India in Afghanistan and Kashmir, as well as an antidote to nationalist insurgents in the restive province of Baluchistan, is tacitly endorsed by China’s repeated vetoing of the designation of Masood Azhar, an anti-Indian militant, former mujahedeen fighter in the 1980s, and Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassa — Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi — that is the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants.

With an investment of more than $60 billion in Pakistani infrastructure and energy that would turn the country into a key node — if not the crown jewel of its One Belt, One Road initiative — China is a logical escape for a government and military that lacks the political will to confront its own demons. Similarly, Russia, long eager to gain access to warm water ports and expand its influence in Central and South Asia, is certain to see opportunity in further estrangement between Pakistan and the US.

Closer ties to China and Russia may offer Pakistan a temporary escape from dealing with structural problems. Ultimately, however, Islamabad’s relationship to militancy is likely to also complicate its relations with Beijing and Moscow amid escalating violence in Baluchistan and no end in sight to the insurgency in Afghanistan. A series of devastating attacks in Baluchistan over the past year that have targeted Pakistani cadets, decimated the legal profession in the capital Quetta, and targeted Chinese nationals as well kidnappings and drive-by shootings pose a serious obstacle to China’s strategic ambition to extend its maritime power across the Indian Ocean and turn the sleepy Baloch fishing port of Gwadar into a gateway to its troubled northwestern province of Xinjiang.

Pakistan has, moreover, in the past year turned a blind eye to Saudi funding of anti-Shia, anti-Iranian militants in Baluchistan, including Pakistani cleric Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab, who remains a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology — a government advisory body tasked with ensuring that legislation does not contradict Islamic law — despite having been designated a global terrorist by the US Treasury.

China has too much at stake for Pakistan’s selective support of militancy to ultimately get in the way of achieving its geopolitical goals vested in its One Belt, One Road initiative. As a result, Pakistan’s refusal to confront its demons could in the final analysis leave it out in the cold: its relationship with the US severely damaged; India strengthened by closer cooperation with Trump administration; and China and Russia demanding that it do what Washington wanted in the first place.

Pakistan is likely to have fewer options and no escape routes once Beijing and Moscow come to the conclusion President Trump has already articulated.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Jim Mattis

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