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Has Trump destabilized South Asia even more?

August 28, 2017

Trump's Afghanistan policy has the potential to alter the geopolitical balance in the volatile region. Pakistan, criticized by Trump for "Islamist support," wants greater involvement from China in the Afghan conflict.

Trump meets US military generals
Image: picture-alliance/Pool via CNP/MediaPunch/M. Wilson

While many security and foreign policy analysts criticized US President Donald Trump's Afghanistan policy for lacking a clear-cut strategy, it is nonetheless unequivocal about Islamabad's "lack of cooperation" with Washington over the alleged Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan.

Trump's predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, were also skeptical of Pakistan's "double game" regarding its "Islamist support" and alliance with the West, but analysts say that none of them had turned it into a policy cornerstone the way Trump has done. Trump could order unilateral airstrikes on militant targets inside Pakistan and cut Islamabad's military aid or even impose sanctions on government and military officials for "backing" US-designated terrorist groups.

Read more: The war for Afghanistan: Washington's successes and setbacks

Pakistan, naturally, is angered by Trump's claims that it harbors terrorists that make it difficult for the US to succeed in Afghanistan. The government and opposition parties slammed the US president and even threatened that their country could chose to break ties with Washington. The South Asian country's foreign minister, Khwaja Asif, will embark on a three-day official tour of China, Russia and Turkey for consultations over Trump's Afghanistan policy.

The latest developments show the new US strategy, which seeks a bigger role for Pakistan's archrival India in the conflict, would radically change the geopolitical alignments in the region. It could destabilize South Asia even more by putting China and Pakistan on a bigger collision course with Afghanistan and India.

Analysis: Trump lays out new Afghanistan strategy

Afghanistan – the main stakeholder

The Afghan government, however, has welcomed the United States' continued engagement in their country, and also the fact that finally a US administration has officially recognized Pakistan as a major problem – something that Afghan officials have been repeatedly pointing at.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government is hopeful the new regional approach will help resolve the protracted conflict.

"The new strategy has identified threats and challenges the region faces and, therefore, we believe Afghanistan and the US would benefit from it in the long run," said Shah Hussain Martazawi, a spokesman for Ghani.

"The strategy also identifies countries that have not played their role in the fight against terrorism responsibly," Martazawi added, in an apparent reference to Pakistan.

Read more: Donald Trump's 'new strategy' for Afghanistan receives mixed reactions in Europe, Kabul

But will Trump really put pressure on Islamabad? And more importantly, what leverage does the US have on Pakistan to make it comply with its demands?

"I think President Trump made it very clear to Pakistani authorities that they must openly take sides in the conflict. If Islamabad continues to provide safe havens to insurgents and does not cooperate in ending the Afghan conflict, it will face very harsh consequences," Wadir Safi, a lecturer at Kabul University, told DW's Pashtu-Dari service.

Afghanistan Grenzsoldaten Grenze zu Pakistan
Afghan authorities have welcomed continued US engagement in their countryImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Habibi

Is Pakistan's 'help' necessary?

Pakistanis are confident the US would continue to rely on its "assistance" in the Afghan war. Washington has so far cooperated with Pakistan knowing the sanctions or unilateral aerial attacks on the militants' hideouts in the country could further destabilize the nuclear-armed nation with high anti-West sentiments.

During his tenure, former US President Obama had increased drone attacks in Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, but he continued to engage with Pakistani authorities to keep leverage on the country. The flipside to it, analysts say, is that Islamabad continued with its own strategy for Afghanistan: minimizing New Delhi's influence in Kabul and waiting for complete US withdrawal from the country.

Read more: What is Pakistan's militancy issue all about?

At the same time, some Pakistani analysts say it is in the interest of Islamabad to also keep the Trump administration on its side.

"I think there is no point in getting excited over Trump's Afghanistan policy speech. Pakistan should engage with him. He is sending more soldiers to Afghanistan and for that America will need Islamabad's help," Pakistani researcher and defense analyst Aisha Siddiqa, told DW's Urdu service.

Pakistan Armee chef Qamar Javed Bajwa
Will the Pakistani military, which calls the shots in the country, try a middle way with Trump?Image: picture-alliance/AA/ISPR

US-Pakistani ties have been tense since former al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden's killing in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in 2011. After Trump's policy speech, the differences have become official. Knowing that Washington's reliance on Pakistan was diminishing, Islamabad already forged closer ties with Beijing.

Now that China is investing heavily in Pakistan – the multibillion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project is one example of this partnership – Pakistan also feels less dependent on the US.

"The tension between Pakistan and the US is likely to increase, but Washington will soon realize it cannot isolate Pakistan. If Trump attempts to do that, Pakistan, China and Russia could form an alliance, which could also include Iran, Turkey and some Central Asian states," Inam ur Raheem, a retired Pakistani army official, told DW.

Chinese interest in Afghanistan

Ye Hailin, an expert at the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes hostility between the regional powers could be counterproductive in defeating terrorists.

"As a mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan, China has always tried to do its best. China's strategic interest in the region is to defeat terrorism," Ye told DW's Chinese service.

Ye said Pakistan was contributing to the international anti-terror campaign. "The US accusations are highly unfair. Washington's financial aid to Pakistan is not for charity; NATO forces are using Pakistan's assistance for transportation and fuel," he added.

China is already part of a Quadrilateral Coordination Group - comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States - that was established to end the protracted Afghan crisis. The grouping has not achieved any significant breakthrough so far, with Islamabad and Kabul at loggerheads over the militancy issue, and Beijing and Washington lacking trust.

Read more: 'China and Russia want US out of Afghanistan'

Experts say that China has invested heavily in Pakistan, and that is why it wants peace in at least those areas where its "One Belt One Road" project is being implemented. China has built a port in the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan as part of its nearly 60-billion-dollar CPEC project to establish overland and sea trade routes to reach Middle Eastern, European and African markets.

USA Trump und Modi im Weißen Haus
It is unclear what role Trump has envisioned for India in AfghanistanImage: Reuters/K. Lamarque

Another reason for Beijing's diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan is its concerns about Islamists operating in China's Xinjiang region and their alliance with the Taliban and other Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While Chinese authorities enjoy tremendous influence on Pakistan's civilian and military establishments, Afghanistan is still closer to the United States. Thus, bringing Kabul and Islamabad onto the same page over an Afghan solution won't be easy for Beijing.

Opting for neutrality

Qamar Agha, a New Delhi-based Afghanistan expert, told DW's Hindi service that Pakistan considered India the main enemy, and knowing that the US wanted India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan, it was logical that Islamabad would get closer to Beijing.

"Pakistani authorities think that cooperating with China would be more useful for them in this scenario than working with the US. China, too, is supporting Pakistan on all regional and international forums," the expert underlined.

Agha, however, says it is unclear what Trump wants from India regarding Afghanistan.

At the same time, Indian and Pakistani peace activists urge their countries to tread cautiously and not become a party to the US-Chinese rivalry and the global powers' strategic interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia. For instance, renowned Pakistani activist and author Harris Khalique has time and again urged a regional solution to regional conflicts without interference from Beijing, Moscow or Washington.