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US promise for reality check on Pakistan--long history of failure

The Times of India logo The Times of India 15-09-2021 Indrani Bagchi
Tony Blinken wearing a suit and tie © Provided by The Times of India

NEW DELHI: In his Congressional grilling on the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken promised the Biden administration would rethink its ties with Pakistan.

“… this is one of the things we will be looking at in the day and weeks ahead, the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years and the role we would want to see it play in the coming years,” Blinken said. Nobody in the Indian system is holding their breath.

Blinken was reported telling Congress about Pakistan, “It is one that is involved hedging its bets constantly about the future of Afghanistan, it's one that's involved harbouring members of the Taliban ... It is one that's also involved in different points cooperation with us on counterterrorism.

The US top diplomat added to this with the suggestion that the US and India are discussing the possibility of India offering staging bases for drones etc for over-the-horizon attacks on Afghanistan. Blinken refused to elaborate, observing that, “let me just say generally we’re deeply engaged with India, across the board, with regard to any specifics about over the horizon capabilities and the plans that we put in place.’

This is a distinct sense of deja vu here. Post 9/11, the US promised to famously bomb Pakistan into the Stone Age if they didn’t cooperate. Gen Pervez Musharraf capitulated. At that time too, India had “offered all help” to the US.

In their conversations with their US interlocutors, both foreign minister Jaswant Singh and prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had offered assistance. Pakistan stepped in with bases and dedicated airspace for US military aircraft with a single proviso — that India would not be involved.

Within two years, Pakistan was designated “major non-Nato ally” by the Bush administration. India’s activities in Afghanistan came in for mild criticism by the US, only because Pakistan was hyperventilating about India’s “24 consulates”. Soon it became clear to anyone that Pakistan was the primary host for both the fleeing Taliban and Al Qaeda.

A rogues gallery came out of Pakistan — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the primary planner for 9/11, was in Pakistan, as was Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Sirajuddin Haqqani, even Mullah Baradar who was imprisoned for eight years, among many many others.

There was complete clarity in the US and other countries about the role Pakistan was playing and continues to play.

Mike Mullen, former US chairman, joint chiefs of staff, called the Haqqani network, currently in charge of Kabul, a “veritable arm of the ISI.” The Trump administration even stopped military assistance to Pakistan. Yet, on Afghanistan, the US and the west followed Pakistan’s lead.

On Wednesday, Pakistan PM Imran Khan, speaking to CNN, said, “What are these safe havens?" Khan asked. "The area of Pakistan along the border of Afghanistan had the heaviest surveillance by the United States drones ... surely they would have known if there were any safe havens?"

Sushant Sareen of ORF said, “If the Americans threaten sanctions, Pakistan will dare them, resort to bluff and bluster, even some nuclear sabre-rattling, and hope the Americans either back down or impose watered-down sanctions which Pakistan can defy. But if the wrath of America falls on Pakistan thru sanctions - political, diplomatic, economic (trade and financial) they will crumble, sue for peace because they can’t afford Iran or even Russia-type sanctions. American credibility is now on the line.”

This time there is a growing “Afghanistan fatigue” that seems to have taken over. There is daily reducing support for external involvement in Afghanistan. That could, potentially, have one of two consequences — first, a desire, as some countries in Europe are arguing, to let Pakistan handle the Afghan mess. They can pay Pakistan to keep the refugees and terrorists away. That would give Pakistan a free run.

The second possibility is equally hands-off, but without the external assistance flows. That would make Pakistan’s task infinitely harder because the west remains the biggest source of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.

The third possibility is bypassing Pakistan to engage the Taliban directly, empowering them in the vain hope that they can be weaned off the ISI, and trusting them to keep the humanitarian assistance flowing and the terrorist groups under a leash.

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