The Taliban, and Pakistan, have caught Trump in a duplicitous bind

What constituency Pakistan has in Capitol Hill is not known, but in putting up this deal, Pakistan has played its double game to the hilt, capitalizing on Trump’s pre-election promise of ‘bringing the boys home’, writes Lt Gen P C Katoch (retd) for South Asia Monitor


It is clear that the Taliban has been and is continuing to play cat and mouse with US President Donald Trump. After signing the 'historic' US-Taliban peace deal on February 29, the Taliban has resumed multiple attacks against the Afghan National Defence Security Forces (ANDSF). On March 3, the Taliban conducted 43 attacks on ANDSF checkpoints in Helmand Province. At least 25 Afghan soldiers were killed and 13 others were injured in three separate Taliban attacks overnight, CNN reported. The actual casualty figures may be much higher. According to the spokesperson of Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry, the Taliban attacked 16 provinces, targeting civilians and security forces.

The Taliban had announced that they would resume attacking the ANDSF after signing the deal with the US (sparing foreign troops) but there is a reason why intensity of Taliban attacks went up. It was easy for the Taliban to perceive that the deal would indirectly bind US forces to lie dormant and not support the ANDSF. Despite reports of the Taliban resuming hostilities, Trump called Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, chief Taliban negotiator on March 3. Following his telephonic chat with Baradar, Trump told reporters that he "had a very good talk with the leader of the Taliban" and that they "have agreed there is no violence, don't want violence. They're dealing with Afghanistan but we will see what happens."

However, the guilt of sitting on the fence and letting the ANDSF be attacked probably caught up with the US forces stationed in Afghanistan. So they conducted a drone attack (obviously sanctioned by Trump) against the Taliban on March 4.  In a series of tweets, Colonel Sonny Legget, spokesman of US Forces in Afghanistan, said, “The US conducted an airstrike Wednesday against Taliban fighters in Nahr-e Saraj, Helmand, who were actively attacking an ANDSF checkpoint. This was a defensive strike to disrupt the attack. This was our 1st strike against the Taliban in 11 days."  

Calling the drone strike “defensive” and the apologetic tone must have amused the Taliban. Whether the Taliban will now resume ‘defensive’ strikes against US forces is a matter of conjecture, but it does indicate how Washington has been caught in the Taliban’s web. Where the Taliban would not talk to the Afghan government, calling them “American stooges”, their hatred towards America can hardly be fathomed. They went along negotiating and eventually signing the deal because it promised the release of hundreds of Taliban fighters from custody. But it was more important to resume attacks on foreign troops later causing major embarrassment for Trump and the US after all the publicity attached to signing the deal and troops pull out.

Trump miscalculated with North Korea, failing to realize that Pyongyang is the nuclear talon of the Chinese Dragon and Beijing itself was taking him for a ride by portraying that it really wants North Korea to denuclearize. Trump is making the same mistake in misreading the Taliban- Haqqani Network, Pakistan (also the nuclear talon of the Chinese Dragon) and how much China and Pakistan, supporting the Taliban, would love the US to be embarrassed. But when you start sacking advisors everywhere, as Trump has been doing, the only advice to come will be what the boss wants to hear. Given his eccentricities, Trump doesn’t often heed sane advice.    

What constituency Pakistan has in Capitol Hill is not known, but in putting up this deal, Pakistan has played its double game to the hilt, capitalizing on Trump’s pre-election promise of ‘bringing the boys home’. Hopefully, Trump will not indulge in a photo-op with Baradar, as he did with Kim Jong-un, who later showed him the red flag. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi wants the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters as per the deal. He stopped short of handing over the list of exactly which Taliban fighters Pakistan wants released. Qureshi’s joy at pulling off the US-Taliban deal is quite apparent, with him grinning broadly in every recent picture.

The recent book, 'A Very Stable Genius,' authored by Philip Rucker and Carol D Leonnig, claims that during one of his early meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Trump told him, "It's not like you've got China on your border!"  But to understand Pakistan, Trump would do well to read Robert Kaplan’s book, ‘The Revenge of Geography’, which says, “An Afghanistan that falls to Taliban sway threatens to create a succession of radicalized Islamic societies from the Indian-Pakistani border to Central Asia. This would, in effect, be a greater Pakistan, giving Pakistan’s ISI the ability to create a clandestine empire composed of the likes of Jallaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba: Able to confront India in the manner that Hezbollah and Hamas confront Israel”.

Here again, it would be naïve to take comfort in Kaplan mentioning India; the US will be as unsafe even as Trump expects the Taliban-Haqqanis not to attack the US under the bogey deal. Taliban wants the US to get out from Afghanistan and hand over the country to them. The ball is in Trump’s court.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran)