Pakistan: Should New U.S. Afghanistan Strategy Concern Militant Leaders?

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 8

On August 21, the United States announced its new strategy for the next phase of the War in Afghanistan (Dawn, August 23; Dawn, August 22). Laid out in a speech delivered by U.S. President Donald Trump, the strategy ushers in a new era in operations in Afghanistan. On the ground, however, the response to this announcement has been far from receptive. The policy speech once again raised the Pakistan issue — part of the new Afghanistan strategy is to pressure Pakistan to commit to engaging in further counter terrorism measures domestically. Chief among U.S. complaints is that Pakistan needs to work harder to eradicate safe havens for terrorist groups. Further irritating Pakistani policy makers was the U.S. request to India, Pakistan’s bête noire, seeking help in Afghanistan. While the U.S. request for Islamabad to “do more” has been made before, the call for India to widen its role in Afghanistan is the underlying issue that Islamabad finds most irritating.

Pakistan reacted swiftly to the policy announcement. Immediately, the Pakistani foreign office postponed the upcoming U.S. State Department delegation to Pakistan (Dawn, August 27). Furthermore, a plethora of Islamist political parties and organizations in Pakistan have protested against President Trump’s statement and burnt effigies of him (Express Tribune [Pakistan], August 28). Perhaps of most potential concern to the United States, these public acts of outrage have translated to legislative action in the Pakistani parliament. The protesters called for the suspending of NATO supply lines through Pakistan, and the National Assembly of Pakistan passed a resolution characterizing official U.S. statements as “hostile and threatening” (al-Jazeera, August 30).

The United States has long demanded that Pakistan eradicate safe havens for groups like the Haqqani Network in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Quetta Shura havens in Baluchistan province. Islamabad consistently denies the presence of such safe havens or any other logistics support to the Afghan Taliban. The Haqqani Network is part of Afghan Taliban agglomerate. Led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of mujahedeen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Haqqanis are known for their close ties with al-Qaeda. In pressuring Pakistan, the United States hopes to make gains in its pursuit of militants like Sirajuddin Haqqani and other militant leadership waging war against the United States in Afghanistan.

Keeping the last 16 years of fluctuating Pakistan-U.S. counter terrorism cooperation in view, it seems clear that a new phase in the tumultuous relationship between the two countries has begun. In this phase, however, other actors will be increasingly influential. The Chinese are keen to play a role in the Afghan peace process, and China participated as an observer in Murree peace talks in July 2015. (Dawn, July 29, 2015). Any increased Chinese investment in the process, however, could lead to the reduction of Washington’s leverage in negotiations with Islamabad.

Whether or not Pakistan takes the action demanded of it remains to be seen. However, the initial response from the Pakistani government and public may indicate that any militant leaders in the country have little to be concerned about. Meanwhile, shifts in the U.S. strategy, like the indefinite timeframe for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, may serve to frustrate the Afghan Taliban leadership and may lower the morale of rank and file militants. The upcoming increased U.S. troop presence, however, will require the continuation of supply lines through Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan’s cooperation needs to be secured, as Islamabad’s support would be necessary to block the cross-border movement of militants.