One unpleasant lesson is that the United States cannot meaningfully inhibit the sort of Pakistani risk taking that might spark military escalation with its larger neighbor. Americans have tried for years to stop Pakistan from using proxy militants to frustrate India. They have attempted a dizzying array of strategies: Increase security assistance and decrease security assistance; broaden diplomatic dialogue and constrain diplomatic dialogue; pursue cooperative counterterrorism strikes and engage in unilateral counterterrorism strikes; encourage international engagement and press for international isolation; threaten, cajole, praise, plead, and ignore.
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If anything, the past several weeks have served as a reminder that neither the United States nor India has the tools to fundamentally alter, in the near term, what has been a long-standing attribute of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Perhaps Pakistani leaders have made quiet efforts to rein in India-focused terrorists, but the outcomes speak for themselves, and damningly: Attacks on Indian territory have continued unabated. It is foolish to assume that some uniquely clever or marginally novel combination of entrées from Washington’s policy menu will change this fact.
The United States can, however, still reduce nuclear risk in South Asia, first by helping India become more resilient in the face of terrorist provocation. Largely under the radar, U.S.-India partnerships in law enforcement, counterterrorism, intelligence sharing, and border security have advanced considerably, but even more can be done. With India’s political resilience in mind, U.S. officials should also encourage their Indian counterparts to rethink their often heavy-handed management of Jammu and Kashmir, which gives unintended succor to terrorist groups and other enemies of the state.
Meanwhile, Washington can deliver a clearer public message to Islamabad. It should assert that Pakistan bears responsibility for these attacks—not because of any incontrovertible public evidence that shows directive control by the state over terrorist organizations, but because the flagrant openness with which supposedly “banned” groups operate within Pakistan suggests, at minimum, a policy of intentional state negligence. The United States and its partners should avoid the temptation to engage the sudden bouts of hyper-legalism that afflict Pakistani leaders following a terrorist attack in India, and focus instead on the uncomfortable truths that are already plainly in public view.
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Moreover, together with its allies, the United States should continue to take steps to limit Pakistan’s access to global financial markets, and perhaps even the largesse of international financial institutions, until Pakistan demonstrates that it is meaningfully addressing the fundraising and operations of India-focused terrorist groups. This is best done matter-of-factly and without bluster, building on U.S. officials’ recent efforts in the Financial Action Task Force. Granted, Pakistan’s security elite are unlikely to fundamentally change course, and even Prime Minister Imran Khan—who has secured large loans from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to temporarily bolster Pakistan’s weak macroeconomic position—might feel like he does not need the wider financial backing that the United States can provide. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s economic self-isolation might, over a longer horizon, serve to clarify for the country’s elites the real choices they face.