Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.
Perhaps the most notable part of President Donald Trump’s new Afghan “strategy” has been its treatment of Pakistan, with the president saying out loud what was once largely debated and threatened in private. This has met with predictable glee in India, which was singled out for praise in the speech on Aug. 21, and angry defiance of a “false narrative” in Pakistan.
A number of experts have already weighed in on the viability of this approach. Several observers praised Trump’s willingness to threaten Pakistan in more forthright terms than ever before, potentially forcing it to reconsider the costs of its sponsorship of the Taliban and other groups. Others, including those under no illusions about Pakistan’s longstanding sponsorship of Islamist militants, have been more cautious. Christopher Clary outlined the risks in an excellent essay, concluding that “Pakistani support of groups that have targeted U.S. forces … may well be a moral travesty, but geopolitically it may be less costly than losing Pakistan’s cooperation in other areas.” Stephen Tankel, who has published some of the very best work on how to restructure the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, warned that there was “little evidence that coercion on its own will work.” Both sets of views deserve careful consideration.
It may be helpful to consider how things are likely to play out in the short term, and then two scenarios that might follow.
In the coming months, Pakistan will seek to clarify Washington’s intentions, to judge how seriously to take the rhetoric. After all, U.S. criticism of Pakistan is not wholly unprecedented. If the Pakistan Army feels that it can placate Trump with an easy win, such as the arrest of a few well-chosen Taliban leaders, perhaps those drifting closer to rival powers, or the sharing of intelligence that allows U.S. drones to target less important Haqqani network figures, this might be seen as offering a way out. It is noteworthy that Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, inadvertently contradicting most of his colleagues, publicly suggested on Sep. 6 that “we should impose some restrictions on the activities of elements like [Lashkar-e-Taiba] and [Jaish-e-Mohammad], so that we can show the global community that we have put out house in order.” Although meaningful steps against these groups should be welcomed, there is ample precedent for cosmetic reforms to ease American pressure. Moreover, as we know from the leaked phone call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump is sometimes happy to concede in private as long as he maintains the appearance of victory.
At the same time as exploring this U.S. threshold, Pakistan is likely to seek to increase its real and perceived leverage over Washington. Asif quickly announced that he intended to visit Beijing ahead of a previously scheduled trip to Washington, and Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa met his Chinese counterpart, among others, at a regional security forum in Taijikistan at the end of August. Pakistan will be eager to play up China’s political, economic, and military commitment to Islamabad.
This period of phony war, in which both Washington and Islamabad probe the other’s resolve, may last for months. The United States may begin by withholding and slashing larger amounts of reimbursements and aid, beyond the 40% cut for the last fiscal year. The United States might also allow drone strikes to creep beyond the tribal regions, targeting Haqqani network personnel in the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, as it did in a rare strike in June. Pakistan might respond by quietly but modestly impeding the flow of U.S. supplies into Afghanistan through bureaucratic means, as it has done in the past, to send a signal. Neither side would want the relationship to collapse too quickly or deeply, but friction would steadily grow.
What follows this phase is the central question. From the American perspective, and probably that of Afghanistan, the ideal scenario is that Pakistan eventually realizes that it cannot afford the costs of a full-fledged confrontation with the United States.
Optimists would point to the following dynamics. China, despite the occasional modest bailout, has never plugged a finance gap on the scale that may be required, potentially leaving Pakistan to seek what would be its thirteenth IMF loan since 1988. Yes, Pakistan can shoot down drones – after all, Pakistan has done it to Iran, Iran to the United States, and the United States o Iran – but the United States could escalate to strikes by manned aircraft from Afghan airbases, hugely upping the stakes, and so the risks, of a shoot-down. Recall the Bush administration’s crass threat to “bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age” in 2001; the Trump administration is likely to have few qualms about escalating in this regard, having already shown a remarkable tolerance for civilian casualties in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Finally, Pakistan can shut down the U.S. supply lines, as it did in 2011, but Washington could pursue alternatives, such as a Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey corridor (as Barnett Rubin has explained, this would be hostage to Russian pressure and would come with serious capacity constraints during a troop surge).
Even if Pakistan were successfully coerced in this way, however, it would not simply stop sheltering and supplying militants at once. Trump, in his speech, sensibly held open the prospect of a political settlement involving the Taliban. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reinforced this message. Pakistan is not being asked to destroy the Taliban; it’s being asked to deliver it. Pakistan would therefore seek to translate its influence over the insurgency into a desirable political settlement, ensuring that its own favored factions – rather than independent-minded insurgents, factions backed by the Afghan government itself, or those supported by Iran – would be empowered. In such a scenario, Pakistan would need to put pressure on recalcitrant insurgents: limiting their movement across the border, denying them safe houses, arresting some, and perhaps conniving in the assassination of others.
Even if this were eventually successful, this could have a number of unintended consequences. It could amplify splits in the insurgency in the short and medium term. As Pakistani support receded, some factions could turn to other groups, such as the Islamic State, or to other powers, such as Iran or even Russia (this is exactly the dynamic observed in a recent study). There could be a violent backlash within Pakistan, as there has been after past crackdowns, testing Pakistani resolve and widening political divisions.
If a settlement were reached – which is certainly possible, although it’s hard to see how it could be shepherded by a hollowed-out State Department – then this should, in theory, have a stabilizing effect, eventually allowing U.S. forces to end their longest-ever campaign. China, Russia, and Iran would welcome these outcomes. But it would also change the shape of the Afghan government in ways that might, ironically, diminish India’s overall influence in the country. Finally, any deal would not necessarily be permanent. A succession of regional deals around Afghanistan in the late 1980s and 1990s quickly fell apart under the pressure of battlefield dynamics. It remains to be seen how the United States would hold Pakistan to any deal once it lost its troop presence and airbases.
Now, consider the pessimists’ case. In a second, less benign scenario, Pakistan would seek to ride out U.S. pressure, hoping to see through Trump’s term until a more war-weary successor arrived. Pakistan may bank on Russia forcing Turkmenistan and other would-be alternative conduits to shut down U.S. supply lines, leaving the United States with a choice of capitulation or withdrawal. Islamabad may also benefit from tension between Washington and allies. European countries, with over 6,000 troops, today make up almost half the declared total of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan. Would they have the patience and stomach to see out any loss of Pakistani routes?
Pakistan will also place its hopes in Chinese support, given Beijing’s huge investments as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and an opportunity to deepen the relationship with Islamabad. “Without explicitly confronting Washington,” writes Andrew Small, “there will be areas where Beijing actively seeks to blunt the effectiveness of this aspect of U.S. policy.” The jury is out on how far China is willing to go in this regard. On Sep. 4, Beijing unexpectedly allowed Pakistan-based terrorist groups to be mentioned by name in a declaration at the BRICS summit in Xiamen, prompting concern in Pakistan and even amongst China’s Pakistan watchers. Even so, China is unlikely to allow such verbal rebukes to translate into more meaningful international pressure.
This scenario also implies a steadily growing level of conflict. As the United States expands pressure and Pakistan hits back, the Afghan-Pakistan frontier is likely to grow more violent. There could be a reinvigoration of CIA-backed Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams raids into Pakistan, matched by intensified Pakistani support for insurgents, who would find shelter deeper inside Pakistani urban areas, beyond the reach of drones. Cross-border shelling could rise, and the already routine closure of border crossings between Afghanistan and Pakistan would grow more frequent.
Cooperation between U.S., Afghan, and Indian intelligence agencies might grow, with all three countries hoping to impose a greater cost on Pakistan. In the past, Afghan intelligence has even sought to engage with the Pakistani Taliban to hit back at Pakistan, albeit on a scale that is incomparable to Pakistan’s support for Afghan insurgents. The US relationship to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, would look ever more like that with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps: bitter, competitive, and hostile. (Iraq-watchers will note that this is not a propitious analogy). Some Pakistani intelligence officers could be sanctioned, perhaps as part of the Specially Designated Nationals And Blocked Persons List, while the CIA would certainly lose whatever is left of its once-substantial access in Pakistan. In this context, the role of Britain, which brokered key Afghanistan-Pakistan agreements in 2015 and 2017, as well as other European powers, would be worth watching. Russia, which has already cautioned against U.S. pressure, would surely look to take advantage, building on the expansion of its military ties with Islamabad over the past year.
Both of these scenarios, including the first “success,” are sobering. They involve high levels of region-wide uncertainty and instability. They draw in virtually all the current and aspiring great powers – the United States, China, Russia, and India – in different ways, thereby connecting the Afghan question to other regional issues. The coming months will establish whether the Trump administration means to follow through on its threats, how Pakistan chooses to respond after an initial period of mutual probing, and whether we slide towards Trump’s ambition for “an honorable and enduring outcome” in Afghanistan, or Pakistan’s complete transition from “major non-NATO ally” to outright adversary.