Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a new series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.
President Donald Trump has announced the results of his “comprehensive review” of U.S. strategic options in Afghanistan and South Asia and – as many have already noted – they are uninspiring. Sixteen years of war leads to bouts of soul-searching, but it seems we aren’t obliged to turn up any new thinking in the search.
Any Afghanistan policy review is necessarily a Pakistan policy review. This is simply because, as many experts and even the president has realized, Afghanistan is not “solvable” absent some dramatic change in Pakistani behavior. Jeff Smith, for example, concludes that unless this current review “starts and ends with a decisive change in our Pakistan policy, it will produce the same outcome as every Afghan strategy before it.”
The logic that a change of Pakistani strategy is a necessary condition for any prospect of Afghan success is fairly simple. A 2010 study by the RAND Corporation examined 30 counter-insurgency campaigns and found none were successful so long as there was significant cross-border insurgent support. And, for years now, the U.S. government has concluded that Pakistan provides a safe haven for, among others, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network as they engage in violent operations in Afghanistan. Some believe that in addition to providing operational space for insurgent groups to train, fundraise, and escape pressure, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies may directly provide weapons and money to these groups.
This basic linkage between Pakistani behavior and Afghan outcomes did not suddenly dawn on the Washington policy community this year. This is at least the third U.S. attempt to induce Pakistani policy change. The George W. Bush administration tried strategic love and affection to overcome deep-felt Pakistani insecurities exacerbated by its episodic “abandonment” by the United States. They attempted to convince Pakistan that this time the partnership would endure, and from this foundation permit Pakistan to reorient its grand strategy away from confrontation with India and toward normalcy. That failed.
Initially, the Obama administration approach could be characterized as more of the same. It supported a massive, multiyear aid program in 2009. But following the troubles of 2011, most notably the raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, the relationship never fully recovered. Whitney Kassel and Philip Reiner, who both worked on Pakistan policy for the Obama administration, conclude in a recent article that U.S. strategy ultimately devolved into “a quiet tolerance of the country’s double dealing.”
Now we have Trump’s try for a different outcome. Prior to the strategic review, Trump appears to have thought very little about Pakistan, as indicated by his pre-inauguration telephone call with Pakistan’s now former prime minister. Trump’s ideological malleability makes him unpredictable, but he does appear to have a “base impulse” that the United States is being taken advantage of by international actors and consequently the world is laughing at us — something that he wants to rectify (or at least be seen as doing so). How this instinct responds to Pakistani behavior has been the great question of America’s South Asia policy, simply because Pakistan has been taking advantage of the United States. To remove the moral connotations of that statement, Pakistan has been collecting geopolitical rents. The question is whether there is a better deal to be had.
On Monday, Trump suggested he would find one:
We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.
The president is not wrong on the history, but that is precisely where the limits of U.S. influence become evident. The United States has provided in excess of $33 billion to Pakistan since 9/11. In exchange, Washington receives a schizophrenic partner on counter-terrorism, one that is intermittently aggressive in confronting groups targeting the Pakistani state (most notably the Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan), helpful against groups focused on Western targets (such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State), half-hearted against groups that primarily target Pakistani Shia and that have occasionally been involved in attacks against outsiders (such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi), unwilling to act against Afghanistan-focused groups (such as the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network), and supportive of groups that target India (such as the Lashkar e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad).
That partnership likely includes considerable Pakistani cooperation with Western intelligence agencies examining threats from citizens or visitors of Pakistani origin, though the full extent is unclear in the open domain. The counter-terrorism partnership’s most publicized aspect is, ironically, the one that ought to be the most secret — the U.S. “covert” program to target terrorists in Pakistan using armed drones. Pakistan has publicly opposed the strikes as violations of Pakistani sovereignty that generate excessive civilian casualties, but it appears the vast majority of the drone campaign occurred with the explicit or tacit consent of the Pakistan military, including permitting U.S. operations from Shamsi air base near Quetta for a decade from 2001 to 2011.
Pakistan is also critical for the U.S. mission in land-locked Afghanistan, even as its behavior undermines U.S. objectives there. The troubled state of U.S.-Russia relations following the latter’s invasion of Ukraine resulted in Russia shutting down the so-called Northern Distribution Network that re-supplied Afghanistan through the Central Asian republics. U.S.-Iran relations have become only more troubled since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, and appear likely to worsen further still. The United States has begun using Turkmenistan for “humanitarian cargo,” a euphemism that in this case likely means “nonlethal” supplies to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Thus, the United States presence in Afghanistan depends — and will depend for the foreseeable future — on Pakistan, which permits U.S. ground and air lines of communication. Absent unexpected, major improvements in U.S.-Russia or U.S.-Iran relations, or a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, this dependence on Pakistan cannot be alleviated. “No matter how great President Donald Trump makes America, he cannot win the war on geography,” observes Afghan expert and former U.S. official Barnett Rubin.
The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is primarily about preventing terrorist groups operating there, but there is some reporting that suggests elements of the U.S. government are wary of losing basing in Afghanistan that is useful to monitor Pakistani terrorist groups and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development efforts. After the United States was evicted from Shamsi, it reportedly maintained the ability to operate drones from airbases in Jalalabad, Bagram, and Kandahar. U.S. fears over Pakistani nuclear stewardship have oscillated over time, but such concerns have repeatedly appeared “at the top” of U.S. national security worries, and Trump reemphasized them on Monday night. Academic, former U.S. official, and War on the Rocks senior editor Stephen Tankel identifies “keeping militants from getting their hands on nuclear material” as a vital security interest in Pakistan. This interest is comingled with another, “critical interest” in “preventing Indo-Pakistani nuclear escalation,” since Tankel assesses “weapons are most likely to fall into terrorists’ hands if forward-deployed during a conflict with India.” Pakistan likely possesses more than 100 nuclear weapons today and might possess fissile material for up to 200 or 300 nuclear weapons.
These U.S. interests — collecting intelligence on potential radicals in the Pakistani diaspora in the West, operating drones over Pakistani territory to engage in targeted assassinations of dangerous terrorists, resupplying the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and preventing the loss of control of Pakistan nuclear weapons — are substantially more important than the list of U.S. grievances against Pakistan. Pakistani support of groups that have targeted U.S. forces and its support of anti-India groups that have periodically targeted U.S. citizens may well be a moral travesty, but geopolitically it may be less costly than losing Pakistan’s cooperation in other areas.
To be sure, the pro and con columns are not neatly separated. Quietly accepting Pakistani support of terrorist groups may ultimately endanger the foremost U.S. security interest in Pakistan: preventing the loss of a nuclear weapon or other sensitive nuclear technology to radical non-state groups – a fear Trump raised in his speech. Violent extremist groups are ultimately a cancer on Pakistani society that pose a mortal danger to it. Already, the military is hesitant to confront anti-Afghan and anti-India groups in part because it seeks to triage the threats to Pakistani society, prioritizing those militants that actively target the Pakistani state while nudging remaining radicals to focus their zealous energies elsewhere.
However, a delineation of the entirety of U.S. interests suggests escalating coercive pressures against Pakistan is just as likely to endanger U.S. goals as further them. The most prominent reason given for a punitive U.S. Pakistan strategy is Pakistan’s behavior in Afghanistan, but there, as Rubin correctly stresses, “the United States risks provoking a blockade of its own forces.” Thus, in any game of brinksmanship, Pakistan is not bluffing — it has a good hand! Moreover, the Trump administration’s hand in 2017 is not the same as the Bush administration’s hand in 2001, when the Bush administration successfully demanded Pakistani abandonment of the Taliban government after 9/11 and support for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Pakistan has alternative partners, namely China and Saudi Arabia, that can pick up some of the slack created by any U.S. funding cuts, and has been cultivating improved ties with Russia. China is expected to invest more than $50 billion as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), though importantly the vast majority of this amount is in the form of loans rather than grant aid. Even so, China is aware of Pakistan’s credit risks, and would not make such enormous loans were it not prepared to defer or eliminate some of the debt in the event of a future Pakistan economic crisis. The size of CPEC loans also gives China a substantial stake in preventing the emergence of any multilateral containment regime that would cause meaningful harm to Pakistan’s economy.
To date, U.S. coercion has largely entailed modestly decreasing reimbursements it has paid for Pakistani military operations and limiting the types of defense equipment it transfers to Pakistan. Periodic calls to end Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally would have modest symbolic meaning and nearly no substantive implications. In fairness, such levers can be pulled with little risk of serious blowback and just as little risk of serious results. It may well be appropriate to “at least stop sponsoring” Pakistan’s “noxious behaviors,” but such a case is built on fiscal prudence and normative concerns, rather than any great likelihood of altering Pakistani behavior. In fact, even the most vocal advocate of a more coercive strategy against Pakistan, C. Christine Fair, concludes, “it is unlikely that the United States can offer Pakistan any incentive that would be so valuable to Pakistan and its security interests that the [Pakistan] army would abandon” its current grand strategy.
The United States has a repertoire of coercive tools beyond just the cessation of foreign aid or restrictions on defense sales, including targeted sanctions of individuals in Pakistan’s government associated with terror groups or working to cease World Bank and International Monetary Fund financing. Each step along this escalatory path, though, encourages Pakistan to counter with coercion of its own: (1) restricting U.S. use of ground and air lines of communication through Pakistan, (2) preventing the operation of (non-stealthy) U.S. drones over Pakistani territory, (3) ignoring U.S. requests for intelligence regarding suspected terrorists in the West, and (4) permitting even greater freedom of maneuver to anti-India or anti-Afghan terrorist groups. In the deeper recesses of Pakistan’s coercive toolkit, Pakistan can give China access to U.S.-origin defense hardware, offer extended deterrence guarantees to Saudi Arabia or resume the transfer of ballistic missile or nuclear weapons technology, an illicit commerce it last engaged in during the previous era of U.S. sanctions in the 1990s.
Any brinksmanship initiated now by the United States would occur during a period of profound political weakness in Islamabad following the judicial dismissal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This state of affairs is not exogenous: It likely conforms to the Pakistan Army’s preferences. But until the next national elections in 2018, and quite likely even after them, civilian and military leaders will be jockeying for domestic authority, creating strong disincentives for international concessions. All of these factors conspire against U.S. pressure resulting in real change in Pakistan’s national security policy.
Lisa Curtis, the White House senior director for South Asia, recently told a New Delhi audience that there was no interest in the Trump administration to accept the status quo with Pakistan. But the reality is there are profound dangers in clumsy attempts to force Pakistan to alter its current policy, however unpalatable. Those advocating such a course of action are obligated to delineate what risks they are willing to take. Otherwise, they are in danger of replicating the inept rhetoric of the Trump administration’s Qatar, North Korea, and Iran policies or, even worse, transforming Pakistan into a true rogue state. For those who assert Pakistan’s current actions already merit such a rogue moniker, they ignore how much worse it can get. Pakistan is a frenemy — and as unpleasant as Pakistani behavior is, it could be much worse.
Christopher Clary is an assistant professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York. From 2006 to 2009, he worked on South Asia policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @clary_co.