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Mainstream, VOL LV No 1 New Delhi December 24, 2016 - ANNUAL 2016

The Trump Call: Pakistan gets a jumpstart in dealing with the coming US presidency

Monday 26 December 2016, by M K Bhadrakumar

If India was hoping to corner Pakistan on the issue of cross-border terrorism at the Heart of Asia conference on December 3-4 in Amritsar, that has been overtaken by the telephone conversation between US President-elect Donald Trump and Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif on Friday, (December 2), which dramatically shifts the kaleidoscope reflecting the sequence of elements in the Hindu Kush.

During the US presidential election campaign, Trump hardly spoke on Afghanistan. But he amply made up for it in the conversation with Sharif, giving some clues on how his mind is working on the US strategy. Interestingly, Trump is yet to speak with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In fact, Sharif is the only South Asian leader other than PM Modi with whom Trump has interacted on phone.

The conversation with Sharif was scheduled just before the announcement came regarding Trump’s choice of General James Mattis (retd) as the next US Defence Secretary. Without doubt, the Pakistan military leadership and ISI would have substantial institutional memory over Mattis’s personality and professional outlook. (The tough-talking, erudite General is popularly known as ‘Mad Dog’.) Indeed, Mattis will be remembered in no small part in the GHQ of the Pakistan military in Rawalpindi and the ISI establishment in Islamabad as the then one-star General who was handpicked by the Pentagon in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to amass forces for the US invasion of Afghanistan.

With Mattis in charge, Task Force 58, a large marine air-ground task force, got into Kandahar province on November 25, 2001. He effectively oversaw the deepest insertion of the Marines into a combat zone in US military history. Over 1000 Marines were in Kandahar within a week of the mission, which heavily depended on back-up provided by the ISI and Pakistan military. General Pervez Musharraf was ruling Pakistan at the time.

A decade later, during 2010 to 2013, Mattis returned to the region as the head of the US Central Command in overall charge of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iran—and against the Al-Qaeda. The call of duty took Mattis to Rawalpindi to cogitate with General Ashfaq Kayani, a quiet General who was also an expert on asymmetric warfare against superpowers.

Trump appears to have had a substantive conversation with Sharif. His office in New York said the two leaders had a “productive conversation” and that the President-elect hoped for a “strong working relationship” between the two countries. Trump looked forward to a “lasting and strong personal relationship” with Sharif.

On the other hand, Sharif’s office in Islamabad emphasised that Trump paid fulsome praise to him. Trump was quoted as saying, “I am ready and willing to play any role that you (Sharif) want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems.” Now, that is a very big statement, given the tortuous history of the subcontinent. Pakistan is getting a jumpstart in its dealings with the incoming Trump presidency. This is one thing.

Of course, we get some useful markers here on the likely directions of Trump’s approach to Afghanistan. At its core, the strategy will not be of a retrenchment. Trump is not about to order the withdrawal of US troops. Mattis’ record in Afghanistan and his co-authorship of the famous COIN strategy for the US military would suggest that he will be an advocate of negotiations with the Taliban from a position of strength, which means that insurgents (and their mentors) are left in no two minds about the futility of attempting a takeover in Kabul.

Trump’s grit to fight terrorism is not in doubt. At a victory rally in Ohio on Friday (December 2), he asserted: “We will destroy ISIS. We will partner with every nation that is willing to join us in the effort to defeat ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism.” Clearly, therefore, Pakistan enjoys a key role in Trump’s strategy to fight terrorist groups in Afghanistan. It is entirely conceivable that during Friday’s phone conversation, Trump typically came down full-throttle stressing the high importance he attaches to relations with Pakistan. The period of drift in the US-Pakistan ties, characteristic of recent Obama years, is ending. The relationship may revert to the traditional mode of intense engagement between the two countries. The Ohio statement suggests that Trump may also avail of China’s influence.

However, it also was during Mattis’ term as the chief of the Central Command that the US-Pakistan relationship began going into a death spiral. The year 2011 turned out to be a fateful period. In mid-January, a CIA contractor by name Raymond Davis, whom Pakistanis suspected to be on covert mission, was arrested in Lahore and was kept in custody till mid-March, ignoring even an intervention by President Obama seeking his release. Hardly six weeks after Davis’ release the biggest-ever crack in the US-Pakistan ties appeared with the SEAL commando raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Finally, the year ended on a rather bloody note when on November 26, US jets and helicopters entered Pakistani airspace in the border region of Salala in the tribal areas and slaughtered 28 Pakistani soldiers and wounded 10 others.

The relations never quite recovered after that. Pakistan retaliated by closing NATO’s transit routes, and despite Mattis’ attempts, the blockade continued for several months until July next year when the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was persuaded to tender an apology. Suffice it to say, Mattis can be trusted to have a profound insight into the root causes of terrorism in the Af-Pak region. It was during Mattis’ tenure in the Central Command that the then outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, famously alleged at a Congressional hearing that the Haqqani network is a “veritable arm” of the ISI.

‘Loser’ is a favourite expression of Trump’s. He once said: “There are people—I categorise them as life’s losers—who get their sense of accomplishment and achievement from trying to stop others. As far as I’m concerned, if they had any real ability, they wouldn’t be fighting me.” He is also heard saying: “Believe me. You’ll never get bored with winning.” All in all, therefore, a valiant attempt has been made by Sharif’s office to present Trump as a jolly good fellow. But then, Trump timed his conversation with Sharif just before making the all-important announcement regarding Mattis’ nomination. Trump intends to shake off Obama’s ennui in dealing with this exasperating “frenemy”. But he is also making an offer of re-engagement that Pakistan cannot refuse.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).