We’ve Been Here Before: Sticks Don’t Work Well with Pakistan

A Pakistani Army soldier stands near an artillery gun used against pro-Taliban militants while on base at Kabal in the Swat valley of northwestern Pakistan. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The Trump Administration’s efforts to change Pakistan’s behavior are likely to fail.

The U.S. is interested in three key issues in Pakistan.  By playing hardball with one of them, we are likely to lose influence on all three.

Pakistan is the fifth largest country in the world and always on the brink of failure.  Its primary animus is defending itself against India, the world’s second largest country and Pakistan’s mortal enemy.  Additionally, it is a nuclear power with a weak economy, a corrupt and fractured leadership, and a serious terrorist problem.  A recent report noted that ISIS is growing in Pakistan, alongside the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban, Al Qa’ida and a host of other armed militant and terrorist groups.

The primary U.S. interest in Pakistan is ensuring that the nuclear-armed country does not become a failed state.  A secondary but critical interest is engaging with Pakistan to fight global terrorists who can threaten the U.S., namely Al Qa’ida and ISIS.  Despite a spotty record, Pakistan’s assistance has been critical in the global counterterrorism fight.  Pakistan has aided the U.S. in finding, capturing and eliminating Al Qa’ida leaders and fighters who were a direct threat to the U.S. and its allies. It’s not an exaggeration to say that there are Americans alive today due to Pakistan’s assistance in defeating Al Qa’ida.  Unfortunately, it has often played a double game and provided less support than we would often wish.

This double game brings us to the U.S.’s third interest, the one Trump is playing hardball with: engaging Pakistan’s support in cracking down on the Afghan Taliban who threaten the success of the fragile Afghan state.  For example, Washington has long sought Islamabad’s help in dealing with the powerful Haqqani network which threatens U.S. and Afghan forces from its safe-haven across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

It is this third area in which the U.S. has been most frustrated, and which represents the basis for the administration’s recent policy change.  As the president tweeted on New-Year’s day, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”

This frustration is nothing new.  While Pakistan is willing to help the U.S. track globally focused terrorists from outside the region, it protects other groups we consider to be terrorists.  Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. (ret.) Mike Mullin commented in 2011 that, “The Haqqani Network, for one, acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.” The impolitic comment created a minor diplomatic row, but was true.  Despite years of pressure, Pakistan has never shown any willingness to curb the activities of the Haqqanis.  And as heinous as the Haqqanis are, they do not pose a global threat or seek to attack American interests outside Afghanistan.  They want to control Afghanistan.  Therefore, in its dealings with Pakistan the U.S. was willing to overlook the Haqqani presence in Pakistan, in return for assistance fighting terrorists seeking to bring death and destruction to the homeland.

Nonetheless, the President’s comments probably came as a bit of a surprise to Pakistan since his previous commentary about Pakistan came in a call with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in which the President said, “You have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way. Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities. Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people. I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems. It will be an honor and I will personally do it. I would love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people. Please convey to the Pakistani people that they are amazing and all Pakistanis I have known are exceptional people.”

Pakistan’s policies and actions haven’t changed over the past year, but apparently the President was briefed this time.

Appearing to scramble to catch-up to the President’s New Year’s Day tweet, the State Department quickly announced the suspension of aid until Pakistan takes action against the Afghan Taliban, specifically the Haqqani network.

It won’t happen.  Pakistan created the Taliban.  Pakistani officials view the Haqqanis (and others) as strategic resources necessary to battle India and Indian influence in Afghanistan.  We have been threatening and cajoling Pakistan for years to distance themselves from these groups without success.  We need to acknowledge that Pakistan views these militant groups as a fundamental part of their defense strategy, and will not change this behavior.

Based on my experience in South Asia, I share the frustration of those who want to punish Pakistan for supporting groups who threaten our troops in Afghanistan.  I too have often commented angrily that we should walk away and let the Chinese serve as Pakistan’s protectors.  It is maddening.

But as satisfying as it feels to characterize these issues in simple terms with simple solutions, reality has always brought us back to our senses.  Pakistan’s unwillingness to help curb the Taliban is surely hard to swallow for anyone who has served in Afghanistan.  How can an “ally” support groups that kill Americans?

The answer has been – and will likely always be – because our other interests in Pakistan are even more critical to our safety.  Stopping Al Qa’ida and ensuring Pakistan does not become a nuclear-armed terrorist state are in our strategic interest, and disengagement doesn’t make sense.

While we have characterized Pakistan as an ally, it really isn’t.  Its interests often do not align with ours, except for in a few key areas.  Pakistan’s overriding fear of war with India has led it to create and support the Afghan Taliban and proxy militant groups who can attack Indian interests.  Pakistan will not abandon this strategy.  Indeed, by re-energizing our relationship with India, it will likely aggravate Pakistan’s fear and paranoia even more, pushing it further toward these militant groups.  Similarly, we tried for years to convince Pakistan to abandon nuclear weapons.  No matter the pressure we applied, it refused to accede to our demands.  Instead, Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto declared that, “we will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get a bomb of our own.”

Afghanistan is a small and militarily weak country.  Pakistan is a potentially unstable nuclear power with almost six times the population of Afghanistan and is home to numerous terrorist groups—including those with global ambitions.  As such, we have interests in Pakistan above and beyond what happens in Afghanistan.  We need Pakistan to secure its nuclear weapons, we want its help tracking global terrorists, we require its assent to use transit routes across Pakistan to support our forces in Afghanistan, and we have needed its acquiescence in our anti-terror efforts in the tribal areas.

We need to acknowledge that putting real pressure on Pakistan will not be cost-free.  As we push in one area, Pakistan can threaten to withhold assistance in another.  Previous efforts to pressure Pakistan have faltered largely because of to our efforts to utilize both carrots and sticks at the same time.  However, we have always resisted dropping the carrot altogether for fear of even worse consequences.

I’m skeptical that a stick alone will do much good—and it could do damage.  Pakistan is a proud country likely to react negatively to what it perceives as efforts to bully it, especially since it believes China will step in if the U.S. pulls its funding.  The population is overwhelmingly anti-American, and Pakistani politicians face little political blowback by failing to help the U.S.  Furthermore, the Pakistani government holds a variety of its own cards as it engages with the U.S. administration.  It controls the key supply lines to Afghanistan, access to intelligence on terrorist groups of interest to the U.S., visas for our diplomats, and issues related to nuclear safety and proliferation (recall A.Q. Khan).

While the Administration’s frustration is understandable, I suspect little will change, and we will eventually re-engage with Pakistan after wasting time and possible opportunities.  We’ve been here before.  Over the past thirty years, successive U.S. administrations have pressured Pakistan, threatened to cut assistance, and even hinted at cutting off the relationship altogether.  Shaming has not worked in the past, and is unlikely to do so this time.  However, we’ve always come down on the side of engagement, determining that, despite the frustrations, we are more secure working with Pakistani officials than abandoning them.  The stakes are just too high.  As important as success in Afghanistan is to the U.S., failure in Pakistan is far more critical.  Pakistan has at times been an exasperating ally, but could be a far more troubling enemy, or worse, a failed state with terrorists and nuclear arms.  If we “win” Afghanistan and lose Pakistan, we will have lost the war.

After the loud, brash Twitter blast announcing our break, I suspect that the U.S. will more quietly re-engage over the next year or so.  While the public may miss it, other countries in the Twitter cross-hairs will certainly take note and make appropriate judgements about U.S. foreign policy in the Trump era. 

About the Author(s)

John Sipher

Director of Customer Success at CrossLead, Retired Member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service Follow him on Twitter (@john_sipher).