Pakistan remains vulnerable to a 'terrorist takeover'; Taliban deal 'poorly advised', says former US National Security Advisor John Bolton

With the outgoing President Donald Trump having ordered a nearly full US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan after almost two decades in the war-torn country, in Bolton’s assessment  there are clear dangers of a serious instability that could threaten not only the South Asian region but the rest of the world, writes Mayank Chhaya for South Asia Monitor

Mayank Chhaya Dec 03, 2020

Former US National Security Advisor John Bolton is worried about Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities falling into terrorist hands as well as the country being vulnerable to a "terrorist takeover". With the outgoing President Donald Trump having ordered a nearly full US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan after almost two decades in the war-torn country, in Bolton’s assessment  there are clear dangers of a serious instability that could threaten not only the South Asian region but the rest of the world.

In an interview ( with this author on behalf of the Cincinnati-based Indian-American radio station Bharat FM, Bolton, who served as trump’s top national security expert for 17 months before being acrimoniously fired in September 2019 and who Trump called a war-monger, said, “I am worried about Pakistan as well. I am worried at the terrorist level. I am worried at the level of nuclear capabilities falling into terrorist hands. I am really worried at the macro level that Pakistan remains vulnerable to a terrorist takeover of the government.”

Bolton said, “There are already significant terrorist elements in parts of the Pakistani military, and if you envision the absolute worst case, the Pakistani Taliban or others took control of the government to see those nuclear capabilities spread by design into terrorist hands, and obviously the overall risk of nuclear confrontation with India (sic). These are dangerous times, and an unstable Afghanistan contributes to that in measurable ways.”

With a reputation of hawkishness and roots in America’s conservative Republican ideology, Bolton has since his departure from the Trump administration become a much sought-after figure in the aftermath of his huge best-seller memoir ‘The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir” about his tenure as Trump’s National Security Advisor. The president routinely derides him on his Twitter handle and Bolton returns fire but not in the kind of language that Trump uses.

For instance, in a recent tweet Trump called him a "real dope" and "one of the dumbest people in government."  He called Bolton, “A sullen, dull and quiet guy, he added nothing to national security except, “Gee, let’s go to war.” Also, illegally released much classified Information. A real dope!”  Asked how he would respond to that characterization, Bolton said it was “juvenile” of the president to use such terms but added he drew some solace from the fact that he was not the only one being so attacked.

Bolton, once a US ambassador to the United Nations despite his disdain for the international organization, said it was a “mistake to negotiate directly with the Taliban, at least for as long as we did without bringing the Afghan government in.”  He called the Trump administration’s negotiations with the Taliban “poorly advised”.

“The deal that was done with the Trump administration is coming apart right in front of us. I am worried that if the troop drawdown continues and (President-elect Joe) Biden simply acquiesces in it, that immeasurably strengthens the Taliban in Afghanistan with implications right across the border,” Bolton said.

He called for maintaining the US presence to “watch what is going on inside Iran and Pakistan, two nuclear powers or aspiring nuclear powers pose great threat to the region, to the United States and to the whole world and we are severely undermining that capability if we come down as low as Trump has proposed.”

In President Trump’s proposal, the US will leave only 2500 troops in Afghanistan which Bolton said “makes no military sense.”

His is by no means a very widely prevalent view in America other than inside the conservative thinking since the US has been in Afghanistan since 2001 from the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Despite being there for almost two decades Afghanistan remains a cauldron boiling with terrorists and Taliban bloodletting with Pakistan constantly making its presence felt there. There is a considered view among many experts that Islamabad views the control of Afghanistan as part of its strategy of achieving geostrategic depth in light of its tensions with India. 

In a sense Trump’s decision to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan and Iraq resonates even outside his core base, especially at a time America has been ravaged by the COVID pandemic which has not only left 272,820 Americans dead and over 13.8 million sick at the time of writing this, it has created rampant joblessness and enormous business losses. There are growing voices that hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars spent on the endless Afghan war could be redirected to rebuilding America.

One of India’s most serious misgivings about the incoming administration of President Biden has been how it might approach China, particularly in the context of the Indo-Pacific. Bolton was asked about the current India-China tensions, the importance of the Quadrilateral security arrangement between India, Japan, Australia and America known as the Quad as well as Biden’s China policy.

Bolton said, “I am worried about the Biden administration’s approach on China generally. I am worried about how they deal with threats to Taiwan, how they deal with China’s efforts in effect to make South China Sea a province of China’s, how they deal with internal developments like the repression of Uyghurs and the violation of the joint Sino-UK declaration on the handover of Hong Kong really obliterating the one country-two systems idea. “

On the India-China tensions he said, “We have just seen now along the Line of Actual Control two belligerent incidents provoked by Chinese forces.” He also referred to the media reports about China building a village inside territory claimed by Bhutan “much in the same they have been trying create facts on the ground in South China Sea.” He said none of this was by accident.

“I don’t think the Trump administration had an effective strategy for dealing with China. I know in the past year obviously it had a very hardline approach but that because it suited Trump politically,” he said.

Bolton remained skeptical about the incoming Biden administration’s China policy saying its default policy remained the way President Barack Obama approached it. He called that approach “very very disturbing and entirely benign.”

On the question of how the withdrawal of US troops might alter balance among India and China vis-à-vis Pakistan and Afghanistan, he said, “I don’t know what Biden’s view is. I don’t know that he understands this enough. I don’t know that he has fit this picture together with how you deal with China. I can certainly see from India’s perspective it looks like one large conflict if you look at China’s efforts for decades to influence Pakistan. This is very troubling.

From the US perspective in the Indo-Pacific region you can’t separate, say you got the Afghanistan problem here and China problem over there when to the players of the region they are very much related.”

Bolton described the Quad as an “important strategic framework” which in a sense filled the longstanding gap of the US not having a “complex web of alliance structure” like the kind it has in Europe through NATO. He also said the Trump administration had “sadly” missed the Quad opportunity largely despite a strong push by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Bolton said he thinks “Biden will pay more attention to developing this framework (Quad) but obviously to be successful it has to be based on a realistic assessment of the risks and dangers China’s policies pose for us.”

(The author is Chief Editor of Bharat FM.)


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