ISLAMABAD: The Trump administration may expand drone strikes inside the settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan in coming months, as Pakistan is unlikely to change its course as per the desires of the United States, a top US expert has warned.
“The US-Pakistan relationship has reached a critical point and in the coming month if the US feels Pakistan has not responded to its demands, there could be new unprecedented types of pressures used by the administration,” says Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center Washington.
The most likely new US action would be geographic expansion of drone strikes mainly in Balochistan and KP on regular basis, Kugelman, who is in Islamabad for fourth round of US-Pakistan Track-II dialogue, said in an exclusive interview with The News.
Historically, he said, America had made threats to Pakistan but the country has always stepped back but this time with the Trump administration it could be different and this could create new tensions.
He said in past there was only one drone strike in Balochistan when Taliban leader Mulla Mansoor was killed in US attack near Pakistan’s border with Iran. “I imagine US could also do the same (expand drone strikes) in KP. It would not do it in Lahore or Islamabad where theoretically more civilians are present,” Kugelman said.
Also there is a possibility that US may try to sanction individual military or intelligence officials in Pakistan that US believes have clear ties with militants. That is something that Trump administration has hinted clearly in recent weeks.
According to Kugelman, US could also revoke Pakistan’s non-Nato ally status. “Although it would be symbolic but it could be a blow to Pakistan’s reputation. But I think if US really wants to ramp up the pressure it could start up the process to declare Pakistan “a state sponsor of terrorism in a year or two.”
In his views Pakistan is unlikely to respond in the way Trump administration wants it to respond. “The new strategy that Trump unveiled is a game changer just because the rhetoric Trump gave in his speech was so abrasive and very undiplomatic and understandably it is not going to be perceived well in Pakistan and also the fact that Trump explicitly called on Pakistan’s bitter enemy India to increase its role in Afghanistan and it’s almost like Pakistan’s worst nightmare.”
He believes there are significant risks for the US with any of the extreme steps as Pakistan could retaliate in ways that could be very threatening to US interests. Islamabad may shut down Nato supply routes which US badly needs as alternative routes are very expensive and inconvenient.
On the issue of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Kugelman believed the confusion in Trump administration could be a result of lack of discipline or part of a strategy to keep things good with both India and Pakistan.
Until this year, US had never publically criticised CPEC. But the US Defence Secretary James Mattis said last month that connectivity projects that are going through disputed areas are not a good idea. That sounded exactly like the position of India on the corridor. But privately US government officials have said that US has no objection to CPEC.
“This could be lack of discipline in Trump administration but at the same time it could be a move to deepen ties with India as it would be very rewarding for US ties with India if Washington remains critical to CPEC. I think this was the objective of Defence Secretary’s statement,” he said.
He believes the administration may not issue any sort of formal statement on CPEC in future to clarify the situation to maintain a level of ambiguity and to keep things safe with both sides.
“But in my own view US government actually has good reasons to support the CPEC because the goals of CPEC are very much aligned with US interests in Pakistan. We are talking about improving energy, security, building infrastructure, creating more employment and promoting peace. That is exactly what the US wants in Pakistan,” Kugelman said.
He thinks the reason the US is opposing CPEC lies in the fact that the project represents clear threats to US strategic influence in South Asia. “I think it represents a successful effort by China to expand its influence in the part of the world where the US is increasingly absent like Pakistan the broader south and central Asia.”
To another question, he said, the Trump administration will be uncomfortable with the idea of fencing Pakistan-Afghanistan border. “US administration sees it (the fence) as a threat to Afghanistan given the fact there are so many Afghans that come into Pakistan for strictly humanitarian reasons like medical care or to see families.” He is however hopeful that the relations between the two countries will not fall apart as there is enough good will and desire for cooperation on both sides despite presence of tensions.__The News