Pakistan's luck: its geostrategic utility

Just as many Indians mourned on the ninth anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, a piece of shocking news struck them from across the borders. Hafiz Saeed, leader of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the terrorist organisation responsible for the carnage on those fateful days was set free by a Pakistani court and also granted freedom to actively participate in Pakistani politics. A US State Department spokesperson is reported to have condemned Saeed's release.

Although such words of disapproval from the US may have brought some consolation to Indians, it would have been logical to examine America's remarks against the backdrop of their delinking the LeT from the list of conditions on aid to Pakistan. The signs were ominous, we just didn't notice.

On December 4, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis paid a brief visit to Pakistan and met Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi and Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to discuss matters of counterterrorism. Putting paid to the hope that Saeed's release would emerge as a bone of contention in future US-Pakistan relations, Mattis proclaimed that America's approach towards Pakistan would be defined by, "work hard on finding common ground". As ever, Pakistan's influence on US foreign policy has continued to beat India's.

So, the question is, what is the binding factor in this complex relationship? The answer lies in Afghanistan. American officials, especially the ones candid in their opinions, have on several occasions admitted that US foreign policy, like any other nation's, is driven by its own national interests.

Currently, as it did during the 1980s, US core national interests lie in Afghanistan, where Pakistan has huge stakes, not Kashmir where Pakistan-based terrorists are creating havoc. But in Afghanistan, where Pakistan's interests are at loggerheads with US interests, Pakistan's geostrategic location trumps all else in American foreign policy calculus.

An analysis of reports following Mattis's visit reveals two factors that dominated the Pakistani presentation. Gen. Bajwa firstly overwhelmed the guest with Pakistan's achievements in apprehending and eliminating armed terrorists despite its acute constraints in terms of fighting capabilities.

The other factor that figured in Gen. Bajwa's presentation is the trouble in Balochistan caused by the combined effect of mass migration of Afghan refugees, and alleged Indian covert action. This has potentially had a twin impact. For one, it has convinced the US of Pakistan's seriousness in fighting terrorists. Second, Gen. Bajwa pitched his case for renewed aid from the US to fight terrorists and minimise India's role in Afghanistan.

With such assertions made by Pakistan, the Americans clearly seem to have taken the bait. President Trump, who had initially taken a tough line with Pakistan, albeit devoid of any threat of action or punitive measures, urging Islamabad to change its policies, provided time for Pakistan to regain influence over US foreign policy. But where exactly did the change occur? It appears that the fish Pakistan sought to bait was the Department of Defense.

The key intermediary

The Pentagon spends billions of dollars in assisting US foreign policy. In addition, the DoD is also the recipient of 80% of America's intelligence budget. With such 'power of the purse', the Pentagon finds itself in a crucial position to influence US foreign policy, especially on areas like Afghanistan, where it has a direct involvement.

Early in November, when the expulsion of LeT from the list of conditions of aid to Pakistan was revealed, it was suspected, quite accurately, that the DoD was behind this move. The US Senate, following Trump's seemingly hardline approach towards Pakistan, formulated a bill that directed Pakistan to act against the Haqqani network and LeT.

The bill was the National Defense Authorisation Act of 2018. However, with the intervention of the DoD, the mention of LeT and Hafiz Saeed in the bill was dropped. In the DoD's own words, curbing the Haqqani network "must be the top priority, and adding the LeT was like shifting the goalpost for Pakistan."

CIA chief Mike Pompeo has concurred with Pentagon's analysis and asserted that the US should act against Pakistan if the latter does not act against the Haqqani group. With India having no direct military role in Afghanistan, and with American lives at stake, the DoD and the CIA find it practical to cooperate with Pakistan, and turning a blind eye to the LeT.

Is this policy sustainable in the long-term? The answer lies in the history of the region. American policymakers had previously succumbed to such bureaucratic influences on policy only to eventually realise the long-term costs.

The CIA's control over the conduct of Afghan operations during the Mujahideen days had Pakistan in a similar position, where goals were diverse, but interests met. The result was that Afghanistan plunged into violence. That could well repeat after America's inevitable exit from the region.

(The writer is a PhD Scholar in Intelligence Studies and International Security at the University of Leicester, UK)

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