Trump Triggers New 'Great Game' in South Asia
By Dr Adil Najam
Speaking at Fort Myer last week, the Presidentpromisedthat the “American strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia will change dramatically.” In Afghanistan, it is unlikely to. In South Asia, it already has — in deep but disturbing ways and mostly because of what President Donald Trump had to say about Pakistan.
Here’s how the stakes, consequences and options for each of the major players in South Asia have been transformed.
The speech left Pakistan hurt and angry.
The country’s foreign minister, Khawaja Asif, was livid at President Trump’s threatening tone and words, claiming that his country’s “sacrifices” as an American coalition partner were “disregarded and disrespected.” Pakistan’s National Security Council (NSC), which includes both the prime minister and the military chief, echoed the consensus in Pakistan that both Washington, DC and Kabul are bent on “scapegoating” Pakistan for their own failures.
Remarkably for Pakistan, President Trump seems to have united a deeply divided country. Government, opposition, military and civil society are all equally offended. All point out how Pakistan itself has had to spend many times more of its own resources in fighting America’s war than whatever America may have provided: 70,000 casualties, 17,000 Pakistanis killed; a nation living in constant fear of Taliban terrorism; an economy devastated to the tune of over $100 billion.
Of course, American allegations that Taliban encampments exist in Pakistan are not new. But President Trump has refused to recognize that Pakistan’s struggles to eliminate them are no less challenging than Afghanistan’s or America’s efforts within Afghanistan. This has been seen as particularly disingenuous.
Given the timing, tone and especially the fawning overtures toward India, Pakistanis read President Trump’s speech as the newest episode of abandonment from the nation's longest but most fickle ally.
Privately, Pakistan and the United States have each long considered the other to be equally unreliable. With President Trump signaling that America will now look elsewhere, Pakistan feels compelled to do the same. Both China and Russia have been quick to exploit the chasm, advancing their own deep interests not only in Afghanistan but in greater South Asia.
Even before Pakistan had made any response to President Trump’s speech, the Chinese, already wildly popular in Pakistan for investing heavily in its infrastructure, responded with an official statement calling Pakistan an “all-weather friend” and thanking it for its “great sacrifices” in the fight against terrorism.
Not to miss the opportunity, Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, proclaimed that Pakistan is “a key regional player,” the pressuring of whom could “result in negative consequences for Afghanistan.”
In Pakistan, such statements and the speed with which they came have been viewed as evidence that Pakistan does have choices, i.e., it may be time for Pakistan to move out of the US orbit and seek deeper alliances elsewhere. Pakistan’sforeign minister, for example, immediately postponed his planned visit to Washington. This is not simply to register displeasure, but to gain time to visit other capitals and explore alternative options.
India’s initial reaction, not surprisingly, was to gloat. Its narrative about Pakistan was thoroughly embraced in President Trump’s speech. However, this is a gift horse they are likely to examine more carefully. Being anointed America’s sheriff in South Asia brings with it a new stress to their already-strained relations with China.
It is inevitable for tension to grow between these two Asian behemoths, but India would clearly have preferred to plan out the timing and terms of the escalation itself.
President Trump’s message to India that it “makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan,” is likely to be met with nothing more than a polite smile from New Delhi. There is certainly no likely relief for the American taxpayer in how much they have to pay to keep dysfunctional governments in Kabul in place even while 40 percent of Afghanistan remains under Taliban control.
But the biggest consequence of President Trump’s South Asia strategy is that it gives India a license to elevate a new proxy conflict with Pakistan in Afghanistan. Pakistan is clearly terrified of being trapped in a pincer squeeze on its eastern and western borders by its arch nemesis, India.
But Afghanistan, as recent statements from its former president, Hamid Karzai, suggest, can also not be thrilled by the prospect of yet another major power becoming entrenched in yet another “Great Game.”
Therein lies what is truly new and frightening in Donald Trump’s South Asia strategy.
For the entirety of the last seven decades — including throughout the Cold War, when India was firmly ensconced as a Soviet ally — the American goal in South Asia was, above all, to maintain regional stability. The aim was to avoid and to actively resist tensions in a region that was a powder keg well before India decided to go rogue with nuclear weapons, and Pakistan followed suit. As of last week, the new American policy is to pit neighbor against neighbor in South Asia.
One day, one hopes, someone will explain to President Trump, like Chinese President Xi Jinping did about why North Korea is “complicated,” why the India-Pakistan relationship really is as fraught with danger as it is.
Meanwhile, an abdication of America’s traditional stabilizing role in South Asia has been announced. Afghanistan that will get kicked around the most, as five of the six largest militaries in the world (China, India, the United States, Russia and Pakistan), all nuclear, jockey for advantage in whatever the new South Asian balance of alliances might become.
Let us all hope that the unimaginable remains unimagined.
(Adil Najam is the founding dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University)
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