Does it make sense for the Trump Administration and the Congress to try to bludgeon Pakistan into doing Washington’s bidding, including the threat of labeling Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism? I don’t think so, but my side of the argument is losing ground. And if there is another major terrorist act in India and the United States that can be traced back to Pakistan, this debate could well be over.
The “squeeze Pakistan” camp is on the rise in Washington. There are three major complaints, all of which have plentiful justification. The first is Pakistan’s continued collusion with the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban. (My colleague at Stimson, Sameer Lalwani, tells me that the Haqqani network is responsible for less than fifteen per cent of the violence in Afghanistan, but remains a bête noire on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon for killing U.S. troops.) The second complaint is harboring anti-India groups that carry out violent acts within India and in Afghanistan. The third is the pace and scope of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon-related programs, characterized by a senior official in the Obama Administration as the fastest-growing arsenal in the world.
Pakistan has paid heavily for these choices, which are made in Rawalpindi and not Islamabad. Its international standing has plummeted while India’s has risen. Its ties with Washington have frayed badly as the United States improves defense and strategic cooperation with India. Pakistan’s economic growth has underperformed its potential, and foreign direct investment (China excepted) has dwindled. Ditto for hard currency as exports decline. Pakistan’s relations with neighboring states have deteriorated, and its diplomacy has been shackled by talking points that lost traction many years ago.
Over the past two years, the Congress has begun to impose additional penalties by cutting Coalition Support Funding to Pakistan and refusing to provide financing help for the sale of additional F-16 aircraft. Far more needs to be done, according to a report by the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation co-authored by Husain Haqqani and Lisa Curtis, who argue:
“[T]he objective of the Trump administration’s policy toward Pakistan must be to make it more and more costly for Pakistani leaders to employ a strategy of supporting terrorist proxies to achieve regional strategic goals. There should be no ambiguity that the U.S. considers Pakistan’s strategy of supporting terrorist proxies to achieve regional strategic advantage as a threat to U.S. interests.”
As for the ultimate U.S. sanction, Husain, Lisa, and their co-signatories conclude that, “Designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, as some U.S. congressional members have advised, is unwise in the first year of a new administration, but should be kept as an option for the longer term.” The “longer term” of the Trump Administration isn’t all that long.
House Foreign Affairs Committee hearings have become notable for Pakistan-bashing. One of the Committee’s senior Republicans, Ted Poe, provided opening remarks at an event sponsored by hard-right-leaning American Foreign Policy Council on “The Appalling ‘Ally’: Has Congress Lost Patience with Pakistan?”
My beef isn’t with critiques of Pakistan’s behavior. Clarifying the negative consequences of Rawalpindi’s choices is essential; otherwise, prospects for positive change will remain remote. But the impulse to isolate, stigmatize and punish Pakistan won’t produce the outcomes that are best for Pakistan, India, and the United States. It’s unlikely that tightening the screws on Rawalpindi will change civil-military relations. Instead, if Pakistan is isolated, the losers will include those who seek change for the better.
Labeling Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism would be a profoundly unwise move. The leverage this threat provides would be lost with its execution, along with the likelihood of remedial steps. The terrorism issue, as important as it is, is less consequential than the nuclear issue. Rawalpindi has figured this out, which helps explain why it doesn’t deliver on promises to take more than cosmetic action against the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad leadership.
Washington’s impulse to punish isn’t confined to Pakistan. Tough talkers dominate U.S politics, which has benefitted the Republican Party during the Obama years. Obama’s diplomatic initiatives to reduce nuclear dangers faced a gantlet of harsh criticism. The Trump Administration lacks the expertise and inclination to pursue nuclear diplomacy – and seems in no hurry to find it. Trump never learned how to talk softly; he just brandishes a big stick.
Full disclosure: I, too, have advocated clarifying penalties for Rawalpindi’s choices, recognizing that private demarches haven’t worked and need back-up. But neither will public witch trials. Herein lies the dilemma of U.S. diplomacy – and for all those who wish to preserve and improve ties to Pakistan. Washington will lose more influence over Rawalpindi’s choices than it will gain by wielding big sticks and raising the state sponsor of terrorism threat like the sword of Damocles. And yet, carrots don’t work, either.
There is evidence of learning and change in some areas of Pakistan’s national security, but not in others. Rawalpindi’s thinking has clearly changed about taking on former proxies, albeit selectively. A new counter-terrorism campaign, Operation Radd ul-Fasaad, has begun to widen the net, most notably in the Punjab. As with previous campaigns, this one was forced by painful embarrassment and loss of life due to weak implementation of prior commitments to fight extremism.
Pakistan’s political and military leaders are now riding on a wobbly bicycle. They can either continue to move forward or fall behind. Falling behind means failing to succeed in tackling Pakistan’s internal security and image problems – and quite possibly inviting another near-war scenario with India, if not worse. Pakistan will remain stigmatized for as long as its military and political leaders refrain from tackling men like Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar. Even so, continued U.S. engagement in this domain is required, not righteous indignation, excoriation, and banishment. The rate of Pakistan’s positive change will depend on internal decisions that are, in turn, shaped by external pressures. External pressures work best when they don’t demand kowtowing to Washington.
Relations between Pakistan and India, as well as between Pakistan and Afghanistan, are volatile, as is evidenced by raids and firing across unsettled borders. A major crisis between India and Pakistan could well occur during the Trump Administration. The United States is obliged to function as an effective crisis manager, which won’t happen by shunning Pakistan. What role do those leading the charge to squeeze Pakistan propose for U.S. crisis management and war prevention?
Pakistan’s military leaders are making truly bad decisions about nuclear weapons. They are investing heavily in warheads and missiles of last resort while trusting that deterrence will succeed so that they will not have to use nuclear weapons first in a war triggered by their own incompetence or collusion with anti-India extremists based in Pakistan.
Under these circumstances, Pakistan’s first use of nuclear weapons on a battlefield – after seven decades of non-use worldwide – will establish its pariah status beyond recall. Pakistan loses either way: by believing that deterrence requires a nuclear competition with India, and by believing that a breakdown in deterrence can be solved by the first use of nuclear weapons.
A recalibration of defense expenditures – between nuclear weapons that Pakistan’s leaders dare not use and conventional weapons that are Pakistan’s first line of internal and national defense – can only be made in Rawalpindi. There’s no telling how long it will take for Pakistan’s military leaders to figure this out, but by trying to isolate Pakistan, Washington will only reinforce the mistaken value Rawalpindi places on nuclear weapons.
As for Afghanistan, the convergence of U.S. and Pakistan interests does not appear to extend beyond generalities, like the need for a political settlement. Such nostrums break down where the rubber meets the road – over the composition of a coalition government in Kabul, the contest for influence between Pakistan and India, and the actions of the Afghan Taliban, which Rawalpindi may again discover are beyond its ability to control.
The missteps of both Pakistan and the United States in Afghanistan are already legion, the result of pipe dreams dashed by harsh realities. One of Washington’s pipe dreams is the belief that Pakistan can be muscled into subordinating its own perceived interests in Afghanistan to those of the United States. More convergence is possible if Rawalpindi can re-think its Afghan strategy, but this heavy lift – as with trying to change Pakistan’s open-ended embrace of nuclear weapons and its anti-India policy – won’t occur by wielding a big stick.
Even if Rawalpindi changes some aspects of its Afghan policy, bridging differences with the United States seems unlikely. Pakistan is more strongly committed to its policies in Afghanistan, however mistaken, than is the United States. At the same time, the future of Pakistan is more important to the United States than the future of Afghanistan. Any U.S. policy that seeks to sacrifice the former for the latter, as some Pakistan squeezers and bashers seem to demand, is folly.
So, where does this leave U.S.-Pakistan relations? In a bad place. Washington’s ability to change Pakistan’s policies toward Afghanistan, India, and nuclear weapons is limited. Carrots and sticks work only at the margins. Pakistan can expect continued penalties unless its national-security policies change in some important respects, and expect big penalties after big explosions. Lasting change for the better will come only if Rawalpindi changes course.
In the meantime, Washington’s priorities are to stay engaged, clarify the consequences of Pakistan’s present course, work on reducing nuclear dangers during this period of intensified competition, and prepare for crisis management.