By Yashwant Raj
While delivering a strong message to North Korea and Iran, that will echo around the world for the colourful language he used – “Rocket Man” for Pyongyang’s Kim Jong Un – US President Donald Trump issued a no-frills, stark ultimatum to nations that harbour terrorists, fund them and grant them transit. He named no nation or region, but his list of outfits that benefit from this support – the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah – he put their backers front and centre. Pakistan for the first two – if you are wondering why Al Qaeda, do recall where its leader Osama bin Laden had been found hiding in 2011– and Iran for the third.
The president is telling Islamabad, he means it.
“We must deny the terrorists safe haven, transit, funding, and any form of support for their vile and sinister ideology,” Trump told world leaders in his maiden speech to the UN general assembly. “We must drive them out of our nations. It is time to expose and hold responsible those countries who support and finance terror groups.”
Trump might have been reading a para from his speech announcing his administration’s new South Asia policy last month, in which he had put Pakistan on notice. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond … Pakistan has also sheltered the same organisations that try every single day to kill our people.”
The president’s UN speech tied into, in parts relevant to South Asia, that policy. It not only echoed deep-seated frustration with a non-NATO ally over years of broken promises and betrayals, but also the growing resentment that it has given way to in recent years. The president is known to have grumbled privately to visiting officials from the region about the billions of dollars Islamabad has received from the United States but has failed to curb or root out terrorists that this and past administrations, joined by bipartisan support from congress, have sought in return, in a cynically transactional approach they say they have been forced to adopt after running out of all other options.
President Trump wants to get tough with Pakistan. He ran his White House campaign on the promise of defeating terrorism, specifically the Islamic State. And his administration was quick to announce its low-tolerance of terrorists of any kind or group. The president’s national security adviser HR McMaster delivered a stern message to Islamabad during a visit to Kabul in April, when he told a local TV news channel: “As all of us have hoped for many, many years — we have hoped that Pakistani leaders will understand that it is in their interest to go after these groups less selectively than they have in the past.” He had added: “The best way to pursue their interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere is through the use of diplomacy, and not through the use of proxies that engage in violence.”
Islamabad must have heard the call. But did it heed it? And now, aggrieved by Trump’s new South Asia policy specially the part that sought a larger role for India in Afghanistan, only to do with economic and infrastructure development, it responded with temper tantrums and petulance. Pakistani foreign minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif cancelled a trip to the US for talks with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – and left for China – and Islamabad called off a visit by Alice Wells, a senior US state department official for the Pakistan-Afghanistan region.
Pakistan might want to take a hard look at its options. It doesn’t have many. It must shut down Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Haqqani Network and all other groups – some Afghans suspect the newly surging Islamic State in Khorasan is also getting support from Islamabad – that operate freely from its soil, raise funds, march in raucous rallies and openly support and call for terrorist strikes against their enemies, and by extension that of their backers in the Pakistani establishment.
Hindustan Times, September 21, 2017