Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhury’s comments show he wants to ensure Afghanistan doesn’t become a beneficiary of the US’s disenchantment with Pakistan.
Washington: Pakistan must be nervous about the Trump administration and the likely policy changes otherwise why would its newly arrived ambassador go on a rampage against Afghanistan in his first public appearance, a country ravaged by wars designed in Islamabad?
Not only did Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry blame the recent spate of terrorist attacks in Pakistan on Kabul, he also accused Afghanistan of manufacturing hate and “propaganda” against Islamabad. He called it a “magnet for militants” – a description that better suits Pakistan in light of the many terrorist leaders found and eliminated on its soil by US forces.
When two young questioners called him out during the question and answer session after his speech at the US Institute of Peace, he snapped. He berated a young Afghan woman, a former refugee who he thought was not sufficiently grateful to Pakistan for shelter and also unschooled in matters of state, when she questioned Pakistan’s shelling at the border.
“At the end of the day, it was Pakistan’s land you were living on. It doesn’t matter if you don’t recognise it. I can live with it. But I would like to correct your perspective… (You are) barking (up) the wrong tree. You need to come to grips with what’s happening on the ground,” the ambassador said. He went on to lecture the young questioner about how “civilised” countries manage their borders.
On display was not only the South Asian man’s innate incapacity to be respectful to women but also the Pakistani establishment’s profound inability to treat Afghanistan and its people with dignity.
Among other questionable pronouncements by the ambassador: the Ahmadis are not persecuted in Pakistan and that surveys showing that Pakistanis dislike the Americans are dubious.
Fact check: the second amendment to the constitution of Pakistan declared Ahmadis were not Muslims and reports of violence against Ahmadis and destruction of their mosques are a constant in the Pakistani media.
As for America’s unfavourability ratings, surveys by Pew and Gallup – both respected organisations – show that an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis consider America an enemy.
In the end, it was not a master class in diplomacy. If anything it had a whiff of desperation, the kind that comes when you see Washington’s doors closing, and bad reviews piling up.
It was clear that Chaudhry was trying to open channels of communication with the Trump administration amid calls for a complete review of US policy towards Pakistan and US commanders accusing the “non-NATO ally” of continuing to provide sanctuaries to various terrorist groups.
Chaudhry wanted to ensure Afghanistan doesn’t become a beneficiary of the US’s disenchantment with Pakistan in the ongoing policy review. Relations between the two neighbours deteriorated sharply following a spate of terrorist attacks across Pakistan in mid-February, which left nearly 100 people dead and around 500 injured.
Pakistan blamed Afghanistan for the attacks even though a faction of the its very own Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed the bombing near the Punjab Assembly and ISIS claimed the attack on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a Sufi shrine in Sindh. The Pakistan army closed two crucial border crossings in retaliation and shelled alleged “militant camps” inside Afghanistan.
Pakistan surely knows terrorists don’t use regular border crossings but as in the past, the shut down was a way to force the Afghans to do its bidding. The closure has huge economic impact as prices rise since much of the Afghan trade is conducted via Pakistan.
“The present government in Afghanistan is hostile to Pakistan. We haven’t made one hostile statement,” Chaudhry told his audience, forgetting that President Ashraf Ghani made deliberate efforts to woo Pakistan early in his tenure, even suffering the humiliation of having to call on the army chief on his first visit.
Ghani put the India relationship on hold and delayed long-standing requests for military equipment in deference to Pakistani demands only to find there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
When Pakistan showed no signs of changing or cooperating in curbing terrorism inside Afghanistan, Ghani turned away. Relations currently are at a nadir.
Chaudhry’s attempt to paint Pakistan as a victim of Afghan designs comes from a deep belief among the ruling classes that in the ultimate analysis Pakistan is more important to US strategic goals than Afghanistan, a belief promoted by Pakistani proxies at various think tanks in Washington.
Part of this narrative building is to exaggerate the threat of ISIS in Afghanistan and exploit both US and Russia’s fears. Chaudhury said Afghanistan had “huge ungoverned spaces” which provide ready shelter to TTP and Haqqani network terrorists who fled Pakistan after the army’s belated operation, Zarb-e-Azb, which he claimed was a roaring success.
Pakistani intelligence claims the operation broke the back of the terror network, forcing leaders to use Afghan suicide bombers to wreak havoc in Pakistan. The success of Zarb-e-Azb is questioned by independent scholars not in the pay of or visa threats from the Pakistan army for their research.
More to the point, the Pentagon no longer believes or pretends to believe Pakistan’s story line. It already has slowed the gravy train for Pakistan, blocking $300 million in “coalition support funds” last August because of Rawalpindi’s failure to act against the Haqqani network.
Earlier this year, General John Nicholson, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, blamed Pakistan for the “stalemate” in the US’s longest war. While calling for a “holistic review” of US policy, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February that it is “very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe havens.”
“The Taliban and Haqqani network are the greatest threats to security in Afghanistan. Their senior leaders remain insulated from pressure and enjoy freedom of action within Pakistan safe havens,” he said. The message couldn’t have been clearer.
“As long as they enjoy external enablement, they have no incentive to reconcile. The primary factor that will enable our success is the elimination of external sanctuary and support to the insurgents,” Nicholson told lawmakers.
US senators listening to the general were in complete agreement even as Senator John McCain acknowledged the sacrifice of Pakistani soldiers at the hands of terrorists.
Add to this a recent report on Pakistan by two conservative think tanks in Washington close to the Trump administration – Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation – which argued for a stronger, stricter policy and more sticks than carrots. The report recommends tying US aid to specific, clearly defined goals and if all else fails, declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism.
This is the Washington Chaudhry has to tackle and so far his strategy seems to be to muddy the waters and then change the minds of key generals in the Trump administration.
US defence secretary, General James Mattis, who headed US Central Command and oversaw the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is known for talking bluntly. Even if he were to give Pakistanis some time, he is likely to be tough on the conditions and focused on results.
Then there is Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, who has strong ties to Mattis. Said to be the army’s “smartest” officer, he too served in Afghanistan and is known for speaking truth to power.
Chaudhry will find a tough audience as he tries to revive the relationship, especially when Islamabad is playing with Moscow and Beijing in the region to edge Washington out.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.