There is Still Hope for the U.S. Relationship with Pakistan
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the Heritage Foundation’s forthcoming Solutions 2016, a policy handbook for federal candidates that is being released today.
Relations between the United States and Pakistan have ebbed and flowed over the last decade. Tensions peaked following the May 2, 2011 U.S. raid that eliminated Osama bin Laden, and the relationship hit its post-9/11 nadir in November of that year, when Pakistan cut off U.S. supply lines into Afghanistan after a NATO strike killed over two dozen Pakistani troops stationed along the Afghan border.
U.S.–Pakistan ties have improved somewhat since then. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif made separate visits to Washington last fall, during which leaders of the two countries expressed commitment to an enduring partnership. The United States also continues to provide substantial economic and military assistance to Pakistan. In Fiscal Year 2015, the U.S. appropriated around $371 million in security-related assistance and $468 million in economic-related aid for Pakistan. An additional $1 billion was authorized for Coalition Support Fund (CSF) reimbursements (payments for Pakistani military deployments and operations along the border with Afghanistan), although $300 million of CSF funding was withheld because of Pakistan’s failure to meet legislative conditions on the aid. Still, U.S. and Pakistani goals in South Asia remain far from aligned.
At stake in the region are some of America’s most vital national security interests including: ensuring that neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan serves as a safe haven for global terrorists; keeping Pakistan’s nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists; and preventing war between India and Pakistan that could potentially go nuclear.
The United States has made significant strides against the al-Qaeda core leadership, thanks to an aggressive drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal border areas. However, the global terrorist threat emanating from Pakistan remains a major U.S. national security concern as a multitude of different extremist groups with varying degrees of ties to al-Qaeda continue to operate in and from Pakistan.
Regionally focused terrorist groups — like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which conducted the 2008 Mumbai attacks; Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), which carried out the January 2, 2016 attack on the Indian air base at Pathankot; and the Haqqani Network, which regularly conducts attacks in Afghanistan — continue to operate relatively freely in the country. Although these groups generally focus their attacks on Afghanistan and India — not the U.S. homeland — they still represent a major U.S. national security concern in terms of the threat they pose to stability in a nuclear-proliferated region, and because they have killed U.S. civilians and military personnel.
Like the attempted bombing of Times Square in May 2010 by Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, last December’s San Bernardino attacks also have a link to Pakistan, albeit a nebulous one. Shahzad’s links to terrorists in Pakistan were well established. He reportedly trained for five months at a terrorist camp in Pakistan’s tribal border areas and was directed to conduct the attack by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or Pakistani Taliban).
While there are so far no indications that San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik received terrorist training in Pakistan, she attended a conservative religious school for women in the Punjab province of Pakistan, and also lived as a child in Saudi Arabia. The other San Bernardino shooter, her husband, Syed Rizwan Farooq, was an American of Pakistani origin, whose parents had recently divorced. The FBI indicated that preliminary investigations show Malik and Farooq had been radicalized for some time. Malik had sent private messages on social media to Pakistani friends as early as 2012 declaring her support for jihad.
Pakistani Hands Full with Overlapping Terrorist Threats
Despite Pakistan army operations against its bases in North Waziristan, the TTP remains able to strike Pakistani targets. On January 20, militants stormed a university in the Pakistani city of Charsadda, killing at least 20 students and teachers. TTP leader Umar Mansoor (mastermind of the 2014 attack on Peshawar Army Public School) initially claimed responsibility for the university attack on Facebook, but later denied it. Director-General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations Asim Salim Bajwa said in a press conference last week that Mansoor was the main handler in the attack and had made ten cell phone calls to the terrorists. Pakistani officials claim the attackers were directed from a base in Afghanistan, and have asked the Afghan government to help track down the suspects. In January 2015, Afghan authorities had arrested five suspects in the 2014 attack on the military school in Peshawar, setting a useful precedent for counterterrorism cooperation between the regional rivals.
The attack in Charsadda followed closely on the heels of the JeM attack on the Indian air base, which left seven Indian soldiers dead. Much like Pakistan has requested Afghan help in tracking the Charsadda suspects, Indian officials had also promptly provided their Pakistani counterparts information on the Pathankot attackers, making clear future Indo-Pakistani dialogue would hinge on whether Islamabad took decisive action on the leads.
The leader of JeM, Masood Azhar, spent time in an Indian jail but was released in 1999 to end a hijacking stand-off engineered by his fellow militants. He received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Pakistan. He then established JeM, which is also blamed for the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament that led to a six-month military stand-off between India and Pakistan.
Azhar lay low for several years after the 2003 Indo-Pakistani ceasefire took effect, but resurfaced in early 2014 to address a large public rally, where he called on suicide attackers to resume jihad against India.
There is no logical reason why the Pakistan military would encourage the Pathankot attack, especially when it has its hands full conducting counterinsurgency operations on its western flank along the border with Afghanistan. Still, the onus is on the Pakistan military and civilian leadership to track down the leads provided by New Delhi and to take action against the group and individuals involved in the attack.
So far, both New Delhi and Islamabad are taking steps to calm tensions. Indian leaders have restrained their rhetoric, and Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif vowed “firm and immediate” action against the perpetrators. Pakistan has reportedly arrested Azhar, but there is skepticism about whether he will remain in custody. Nevertheless, the Pakistani response to the Pathankot attack is mildly better than it was following the 2008 Mumbai attacks. At that time, Pakistan denied any connection with the terrorists and was slow to arrest LeT leaders.
While Pakistan helped the United States capture or kill numerous al-Qaeda members, including several senior leaders, in the years after 9/11, its support to groups like the Taliban, Haqqani Network, LeT, and JeM, continues to undermine critical U.S. national security interests. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government’s ambivalence toward these and other Islamist terrorist groups has led to confusion in the minds of the Pakistani public, and made it difficult to rally public support behind military operations against groups like the TTP that attack the Pakistani state. Pakistan will be able to fully get a handle on the terrorism problem within its own borders only when its leadership repudiates and confronts the Islamist extremist ideology that drives all of these groups.
Nuclear Weapons Complicate Landscape
Pakistan has one of the world’s fastest-growing nuclear weapons arsenals. Its stockpile is estimated at 120 warheads. It also has adopted a military doctrine that emphasizes the use of short-range, tactical nuclear weapons to counter India’s conventional military superiority. Documents released illegally by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden highlighted the U.S. intelligence community’s concern about the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear program to global terrorists. Those concerns were heightened by the realization that Osama bin Laden resided for six years within a half-mile of the Pakistan military’s premier defense academy.
The United States has given Pakistan crucial assistance to improve the safety and security of its nuclear arsenal. If the United States develops hostile relations with Pakistan, it will lose any ability to influence Pakistan’s handling of its nuclear assets. Perhaps the strongest argument for continuing to pursue engagement with Pakistan is to help ensure that its nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorists.
Media reports last year indicated that the United States was considering pursuing a deal with Pakistan that would put limits on its nuclear weapons program in exchange for Pakistan’s becoming a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and thus gaining increased access to civilian nuclear technology and material. Such a deal would lend international legitimacy to Pakistan’s nuclear program, putting it on par with India, which received a civil nuclear waiver from the NSG in 2008. Neither Pakistan nor India has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Pursuing a nuclear deal with Pakistan before it has fully cracked down on terrorist groups on its soil would be a mistake. Before Washington considers conferring a degree of legitimacy on Pakistan’s nuclear program, it must insist that Pakistan make a strategic shift regarding its reliance on terrorist proxies to achieve its regional ambitions. Senior administration officials have since denied that the United States is considering a nuclear deal with Pakistan along the same lines as the U.S.–India nuclear deal, so the point may be moot.
Persevering for Better Pakistan Future
While the frequency of terrorist attacks in Pakistan is trending down, Islamabad has a long way to go before the terrorism phenomenon is under control — as evidenced by the January 20 Charsadda attack. A Pakistan-based think tank reported earlier this month that terrorist attacks were down 48 percent in 2015 from the previous year. Still, according to the report, at least 1,069 people had died in over 625 terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, sectarian attacks increased by 7 percent in 2015, resulting in 272 additional deaths.
The United States should continue to support Pakistan in its fight against terrorists who attack the Pakistani state, while at the same time leveraging U.S. military aid to encourage tougher policies toward terrorists who operate from within Pakistan to attack Afghanistan and India.
The U.S. Congress is wisely beginning to enforce U.S. conditions on aid to Pakistan on its cracking down on terrorist groups attacking U.S. interests in Afghanistan. As mentioned earlier, the administration last year withheld $300 million in Coalition Support Funds because of Pakistan’s failure to meet legislative conditions on U.S. military aid, which include cracking down on Haqqani Network bases within Pakistani territory. While the aid conditions have long been in place, U.S. legislation passed in 2014 removed national security waiver authority on $300 million of the CSF funds authorized for FY 2015, preventing the administration from exercising its waiver authority on that portion of U.S. assistance.
President Obama’s announcement last October that he will extend the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016 also is a welcome step, but does not go far enough. The United States should drop all arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal and maintain current troop levels (9,800) as long as conditions merit it.
At the same time, Washington should cautiously support Islamabad’s apparent effort to restart talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The “Quad” countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China) are scheduled to meet on February 6 to lay the groundwork for peace talks with the insurgents.
Any talks would have to generate reductions in violence quickly. And this requires Pakistan to use its leverage with the Taliban. Simply getting the Taliban to the table — which Islamabad demonstrated it could do last summer — will not be enough to prove Islamabad’s commitment to a negotiated settlement.
Lastly, pending Pakistani action against JeM, the United States should fully support the resumption of dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi, but it should also avoid seeking any kind of mediation role. Pakistan and India made strong progress in peace talks from 2004 to 2007, and Washington should encourage them to return to the terms of those talks.
The road to improved U.S. relations with Pakistan is long and complicated. It will require nuanced diplomacy that involves risk-taking and possible setbacks. But with the toxic mix of terrorism, nuclear weapons, and bitter rivalry that characterizes the region, the United States cannot afford to disengage.
Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow specializing in south Asia issues for the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.