For all the assurance which Pakistan’s prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi gave to the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, about fighting terrorism, it is unlikely that the Americans will be convinced.
The reason is that they are facing the heat of the Taliban and the Haqqani terror networks in Afghanistan almost on a daily basis and unless they see clear signs of Pakistan cracking down on the snakes it harbours in its backyard, as a former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton once said, the US will remain sceptical.
A one-time intervention by the Pakistan army to release an American-Canadian family held hostage by the jehadis will not be of much use. Commenting sarcastically about the episode, Amrullah Saleh, a former national security adviser in Afghanistan, said that “it seems the Western hostages were in the hands of good terrorists, the ones that listen to GHQ Rawalpindi, don’t hurt Pakistan, and in times of need dance like circus monkeys for visiting spectators, according to the diktat of an ISI colonel”.
What the cutting jibe shows is that, first, the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have become even worse and, secondly, that Islamabad is simply not trusted either in the neighbourhood or by others at a distance.
The misgivings have deepened because even the horrific attack on a school for the children of army personnel in Peshawar in 2014 by the “bad” terrorists, viz. the Tehreek-e-Taliban, hasn’t made Pakistan realize that no real distinction can be made between vipers because they are all poisonous.
Considering that there are an estimated 20 terror outfits active in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is hardly surprising that Tillerson has expressed the fear about Pakistan’s stability.
It has been America’s, and India’s, longstanding apprehension about jehadi access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The boastful acquisition of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons by Pakistan for use against India has deepened the fears because, as former US senator Larry Pressler has said, these weapons can be easily stolen and transported.
Although his concerns were centred on America lest a group of psychos surreptitiously bring them to the US, India also has every reason to be wary. As Pressler said, it doesn’t take too many people to undertake such an operation since the 9/11 attacks were the handiwork of 20/30 people.
The cause for worry for both India and America is all the greater because of, first, the nihilistic mindset of the Islamic extremists who would not mind dying if they can kill as many kafirs or infidels as they can.
And, secondly, because elements in the Pakistan army and the ISI may not be averse to helping the jehadis carry out their horrendous plans because even the uniformed personnel may share the murderous worldview of the terrorists.
Pressler’s opinion that Pakistan is more dangerous than North Korea and Tillerson’s doubts about its stability are, therefore, well-founded. Even China may gradually come around to their views as the concern it has expressed about the safety of its ambassador in Islamabad has shown.
As the recent attack on a labourers’ hostel in the Pakistani port of Gwadar demonstrated, China will be anxious about the progress of its favourite Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Baloochistan. Little wonder that it allowed a reference to the terrorism of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed – Pakistan’s “good” terrorists – in the statement issued by the BRICS summit held in China.
China is also uneasy about the strengthening of the India-US strategic ties since it is patently directed against Beijing. The latter knows that India’s main interest in the close Indo-American ties is to ensure that Washington cracks down all the harder on Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorists – and neutralizes as far as possible Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal – while America’s primary interest lies in constituting an alliance of democracies – the US, India, Japan, Australia – against an ever assertive China, now even more threatening than in the past because of Xi Jinping’s emergence as the most powerful man on earth, as The Economist has called him.
America’s interest in forming a parallel BRI with India, Japan and others as a counter to China’s modern-day Silk Route is another example of how the alliance is taking shape.
For Pakistan, on the other hand, its worst fears are coming true. As Tillerson’s visits to India and Afghanistan showed, the US is keen on further cementing the already strong New Delhi-Kabul relations although India is shying away from making a military commitment to Afghanistan.
The loss, therefore, of what Pakistan used to regard as an area of strategic depth in the event of a war with India will entail a reworking of its earlier plans. Apart from facing its adversaries in both the south and the north, Pakistan may wonder how far China will go to bolster it up at a time when America’s relentless focus on the safe havens is besmirching Pakistan’s standing as a responsible power.
Pakistan’s mistake has been to put all its eggs in one basket – as during the Cold War when it wholly trusted the US – and now as it has done with China because of its paranoia about India’s dominance.
The scene would have been different if it had given up its grandiose dream of wresting Kashmir from India and learnt to live with peace by accepting that it cannot compete with a larger and stronger neighbour.