The US has been in Afghanistan since 2001, all through seeking a way out. Its entry was an act of retaliation to 9/11 and justified, but since then, it has been at the losing end. It was an open secret that Pak was blaming a double game, supporting the Taliban with the money it received from the US. Thus rightly, the US has over the years blamed Pakistan and in recent years even Iran, Moscow and Beijing for arming and supporting the Taliban.
While it is established that the leadership of the Taliban and Haqqani network are based in Pak, it is also known that with the rising presence of the ISIS in Afghanistan, Moscow and Beijing would prefer the Taliban as they are openly opposed to the ISIS, whom Russia and China consider a larger threat. This was announced by Russia when it offered to hold a conference involving the Taliban, which had to be cancelled as the US itself was unwilling to attend as also convinced Afghanistan to also back down.
The US Secretary of State and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff visited Islamabad seeking Pak’s support to curb the activities of the Taliban and Haqqani network. Simultaneously, they have been increasing pressure on Pak to act by cutting off all aid and even military training. The US is aware that it cannot win the war and hence is forced to seek a political stalemate. Thus, it is seeking to pressurize Pak but only pushing it deeper into the Chinese and Russian camp.
Despite all its threats, the US has no choice but to engage with Pak solely because of the environment which it has created for itself. Afghanistan is landlocked. As US and NATO troops surge in the country, they need resources and resupplies. Its increased enmity with Iran has blocked all routes through that country. Countries bordering Afghanistan from the North and North West are pro-Russia, which again cannot be an open transit route as US sanctions on Russia continue.
Historically there were two routes open for the US. The first was either using Pak or Iran, of which the Iranian one was shorter and the other was the Northern Distribution Network implying the central Asian nations, which are beholden to Russia. Geographically, the Northern route was a terrain nightmare and the Russians would never permit any warlike stores to be moved on that route. Hence, it was solely used for fuel.
Since the US chose to ignore Iran it had to ultimately bank on Pak for access. It needs access for movement of stores by ships landing at Karachi for the Afghan defence forces, airspace for movement of resources for the coalition forces and launching airstrikes using its carrier group deployed in the gulf. Simultaneously it also needs airspace for launching missile strikes against known militant targets.
Thus, despite all their bravado and shouting against Pak, the US is aware that it can push just so much and no more. It may have stopped funds, issued statements to satisfy India, but it cannot ignore Pak. It would need to tread carefully. It had earlier stated that Pak closing its airspace could be an act of war, yet it would never risk opening another front, that too a state which has Chinese backing and is a nuclear power.
There have been occasions when its movement of stores by road have been stranded by protests led by ISI supported organizations. Officially too, Pak blocked road movement in 2011, forcing the US to adopt the aerial route. The US is aware that in case it targets the Taliban and Haqqani network training and control centres in Pak, this open sanction may be withheld.
The Chinese factor is another concern for the US. With the Pak economy going into a crises mode it desperately needs funds. It has limited options. It could either turn to Saudi Arabia or back to China. The IMF would remain its last resort as it could open doors for disclosing Chinese investments in the CPEC and the loan would come with stiff terms, which would be dictated by the US.
The US could pressurize Saudi Arabia into imposing some terms and conditions, other than what it would desire itself including seeking Pak involvement in Yemen, but not what couldcompel Pak to change its policies. However, the US can never contend with the Chinese factor. The Chinese, to prevent Pak from being struck under US pressure could delay their repayments, for the time being.
The reason for the US being stuck in this dire state is its rushing in to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and impose sanctions on both Iran and Russia, without first imposing the correct quantum of pressure on Pak to withdraw support to the Taliban. While the nuclear deal was holding, the US could have used the shorter Iranian airspace and Chabahar, thus enhancing pressure on Pak.
Till 2015, both Iran and the West were on a similar page, not desiring the rise of the Taliban, as it was a Sunni terrorist group, which could subsequently support similar groups against Shi’a Iran.The Indian action in developing Chabahar was to enhance connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia, which could have also benefitted the US.Post 2015, growing US enmity made Iran change its stance. It is now supporting both, the Taliban and the Afghan Government.
With Chabahar, the dependence of Kabul on Karachi would end and would have impacted Pak’s economy and control on Afghanistan. It could also have been an alternative for the US for movement of its stores into the country. All this is now history and the US has shot itself on the foot by its actions of withdrawing from the nuclear deal and imposing sanctions on Iran, as also threatening it with multiple consequences.
The US is now stuck, and Pak is aware of its predicament. Thus, it may apply any amount of pressure, but it knows that unless Pak desires or the cost of supporting the Taliban is made too high, Pak would never push it to the bargaining table nor withdraw support.India may remain satisfied with US war-cries, but the reality would be vastly different.
(The author is former Major General)