By Junaid Ahmad.
As we enter the new year, and have experienced one year of Donald Trump as President of the United States, it seems like the world should have no reason to be shocked anymore at Trump’s outbursts, particularly his infantile tweets. A certain numbing process has taken place, though of course we keep thinking how far can the depths of insanity in the White House actually go. The most powerful office holder in the world does seem to constantly surprise us with each new reckless gesture.
It is important to note that while some of the comments of Trump do have real-world consequences, much of it is distraction. He is the quintessential ‘useful idiot’, narcissist president whom the rightwing in the US, in the form of the Republican Party, effectively utilize to carry out a reactionary domestic and global agenda. The administration is dominated by billionaires and generals, and whatever initial belief that Trump-ism would move towards a more isolationist, less interventionist foreign policy, has been belied by the return of the influence of the warmongering neocons and Likudnik Zionists.
So while it is important to not be overly obsessed with Trump tweets because of their insignificance, some occasionally do speak to larger unfolding truths about the American empire and its global standing.
Trump’s first commentary – if we can dignify it with that label – of 2018, was one such tweet. It concerned that ‘most dangerous country in the world’: Pakistan. Here’s what the New Year’s greeting to the Pakistani people said:
“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
For Pakistanis, there was a strange sense of both anger (at such a hostile message) as well as heightened self-importance (so Pakistan is the first thing Trump thought about in 2018!).
The tweet led to week-long denunciations of Pakistan coming from various US government functionaries, including threatening words from both the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, as well as the US National Security Advisor, H. R. McMaster. McMaster gave Islamabad an ultimatum: either obey and cooperate with the US fully, or face the fate of North Korea. Clearly, this was a not-so-veiled threat that Pakistan would overnight be converted into a ‘state-sponsor of terrorism’ if it did not comply. That’s quite a demotion from being a ‘major non-NATO ally’ in the ‘War on Terror’.
The first week of the New Year culminated in a suspension of all US security aid to Pakistan, which amounts to around $1 billion annually. A major portion of such ‘aid’ is for Afghan War Coalition expenses.
Trump’s New Year tweet, as provocatively worded as it was, actually ought to have been of little surprise. It is consistent with his policy for Afghanistan and South Asia as it was announced in August of 2017. In outlining his policy then, Trump asserted that the US will maintain an indefinite military occupation of Afghanistan, that any previous restraints placed on aggressive, lethal military operations will be completely lifted, and that Islamabad should get its act together immediately, i.e. better facilitate the US occupation and the political success of its puppet regime in Kabul, or else face the wrath of Washington.
The US war in Afghanistan, now the longest war in US history, has already taken a massive human toll: tens of thousands killed, hundreds of thousands severely injured and maimed, and millions displaced. The declared shift in US policy last August gave a green light for the tripling of American bombs unleashed on Afghanistan over the past six months. The US Air Force is no longer required to get any prior authorization for the deadly air strikes it engages in far and wide throughout the war-torn, impoverished nation.
If indeed it is the case that Pakistan continues to maintain ties with political forces that are seen as favorable to Islamabad, it is precisely because of the bellicose and threatening geopolitical posturing of Washington in the region. The US ‘pivot to Asia’ under Obama escalated the imperial drive to contain and encircle China, and the relationship with Pakistan (a long-time ally of China) was heavily downgraded, replaced by an incredible deepening of US geostrategic ties with India – Pakistan’s arch-nemesis.
In addition, the sheer hypocrisy in Washington’s boringly robotic pontification toward Islamabad on the latter’s ties to various outfits speaks to the laughable historical amnesia of Western political elites and the mainstream media. The creation of a formidable ‘mujahideen’ fighting force to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan was an American project in the 1980s. It seems as if the only genuine national security interests are those of Uncle Sam. States not in line with US foreign policy seem to only have ‘rogue interests’.
India has given the US free reign to use its bases and airspace and now cooperates closely with the US in containing China. In return, New Dehli has been offered a variety of goodies, including a special nuclear enrichment exception treaty and a free hand to be a dominant political and economic actor in Afghanistan, keeping the regime in Kabul under its thumb. The Trump Administrationhas made it clear that India will be a central pillar of its Quad allies in Asia, including Japan and Australia, that have the explicit purpose of undermining rising Chinese influence.
Pakistan has predictably responded to these developments by further strengtheningits ties with China, and central to this has been the joint Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a massive initiative absolutely critical to Beijing’s future economic and geostrategic security. In the event of escalating war plans by the US against China, including placing an economic blockade on the latter’s trade routes through the South China Sea and the Indian ocean, the Pakistani port of Gwadar, in the Arabian Sea, would be the lifeline for Chinese economic activity
CPEC is part of the broader integration scheme that China is advancing through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that seeks greater interconnectivity of trade, commerce, and cooperation across ‘EurAsia’ – including South, Central, and West Asia, Europe, and Africa.
The US – correctly – sees this massive Chinese economic project, along with the resurgence of an independent Russia, as two of the most visible symptoms of its decline as a unipolar hegemon.
Nevertheless, even more terrifying for the US is when mid-tier countries like a Pakistan, a Turkey, or a ‘rogue’ North Korea, also completely disregard diktat from imperial functionaries in Washington.The US has tried to reverse its declining hegemonic position over the past few decades by resorting to military force, but this has backfired and only accelerated the decline. Its weaknesses have been exposed.
In response to these latest threats from the US, Pakistan has responded assertively. Islamabad has expressed its disdain at Trump’s tweet and such American posturing, demonstrating indifference at US pressure. The most popular public figure in the country, former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, has called for a permanent end to any reliance on US aid, and a shutdown of NATO supply lines that run through Pakistan. The last time such actions were undertaken was in 2011-12, after the US operation that killed Osama bin Laden and the American air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
It’s also important to note that this episode has demonstrated China’s coming of age as a great power. Whereas in the past, the Chinese would take a far softer, more muted diplomatic position in such situations, this time Beijing immediately entered the foray by loudly pronouncing its support to Islamabad.The Chinese foreign ministry stated that Pakistan continues to be engaged in robust counter-terrorism operations for which it must be commended. Effectively, it openly took the opposite view of Washington.
As far as India, not only does it join Washington in pushing back Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan, but its principal concern lies in Kashmir – the most heavily militarized occupation in the world. India has dealt viciously with the breakout of a new uprising in the majority-Muslim state in the summer of 2016, which also included undertaking ‘surgical strikes’ into Pakistani territory.
Ultimately, even though nuclear powers flood the region, it is America’s imperial meddling, threats, and machinations that recklessly disturb the balance of power and puts the people of the region over the edge.
The naked, raw American threats against Pakistan reflect not a fear of the growing threat of terrorism, but merely the paranoid anxieties of a declining empire increasingly confronting its own irrelevance and impotence throughout the world, but particularly in Asia. While other countries are sensibly trying to work out regional approaches to diplomatically resolving conflicts, the US is unwilling to see itself as merely one among equals. It cannot come to terms with a world order where it does not get to call the shots.
Remaining locked into the failed occupation of Afghanistan is not about that country per se. It is about maintaining a presence in a region that is proximate to China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and the Central Asian countries which have effectively kicked American bases out over the past decade.
Pakistan, despite a long period of domestic social and political instability, not unrelated to imperial adventures in the region stretching all the way back to the 1980s anti-communist ‘jihad’ to the ongoing post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’ imposed on the country, was finally beginning to have some semblance of stability and future prosperity to which it could look forward. But the coincidence of this with increasing de-linking from US policy cannot have been missed by planners in Washington.
Pakistan, it must be noted, is a country with a population roughly two-third that of the entire Arab world, nuclear armed, with arguably the most formidable military in the entire Muslim world (along with Turkey).
Hence, it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees. If we start to examine the picture beyond simply one nation-state or any particular geo-political episode, then we may grasp the much larger significance of developments in Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, and so on.
Long ago, the US spoke about “how we lost China” after the Chinese revolution of 1949. We are now entering a period where this mantra will apply to a cascading number of countries, including Turkey, Pakistan, and so on. Indeed, this will be one of the hallmarks of the declining American empire: not a decline in its violence, but the new reality that it can no longer depend on its client states to commit that violence on its behalf.
The sentiment we are increasingly witnessing is of nations and peoples yearning to deepen the process of decolonization, since it quickly became clear that merely formal political independence was not sufficient for genuine sovereignty and dignity in a world order still structured by a neo-colonial framework.
The assertion of independence of states such as Pakistan and Turkey, central pillars to Washington’s Cold War strategy in dominating West Asia, is ultimately part of a rapid de-centering of the West and the rise of other poles of power, including the possibility of an Islamicate one going from Istanbul to Islamabad.
Junaid Ahmad is a JUST member and its former Secretary-General.
8 January 2018.