Kevin Hulbert, a longtime senior CIA officer who spent many years in Pakistan, told me that the U.S. has been trying to get the country to change for years. He wasn’t convinced it could influence militants in the way the U.S. thinks it can. “If the Pakistanis could throw a switch and fully tame the Haqqani network [the Pakistan-backed Afghan militant group], they’d probably do it,” said Hulbert, who is now president of the XK Group, a consulting firm. “But I don’t think there’s a switch to be thrown like that.” He added that politically, when Pakistani figures have spoken out about extremism, they’ve been killed by extremists, making “politicians very reluctant to step forward.” He also pointed to the question of capability. “When you get into the tribal areas [where many of the militants live and operate] ... Pakistan doesn’t have a lot of reach in those areas,” he said.
Some of the experts I spoke to weren’t confident of Pakistan’s ability to act against militants, either because of its inability or because of its unwillingness. Still, Fair, one of the regional experts who signed onto Haqqani and Curtis’s paper, told me the U.S. needs to lay out a roadmap for what Pakistan can do.
“There need to be timelines associated with each of these activities, and failure to meet the first one, which is the simplest—which is to deny [the militants] space—should begin this process of declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terror,” she said. Pakistan, she added, should be asked to withdraw all state support for militant groups, and begin denying indirect assistance to the groups, including safe havens and training camps. Finally, the U.S. should help with a program to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate militants because “Pakistan can’t kill its way out of this problem.”
But the reality of the situation is that the U.S. needs Pakistan, however unreliable it is as an ally, for any policy in Afghanistan to work. An engaged Pakistan does have influence over at least some of the groups operating in Afghanistan; an uncooperative Pakistan will also continue to have influence over those groups. Hulbert told me the U.S. needs to remain engaged with Pakistan. “I think it’s going to be very difficult to simultaneously be punishing the Pakistanis, and withdrawing aid, and financing, [while] at the same time … saying, ‘We really would like your help with Taliban reconciliation and supplying our troops in Afghanistan.”
But Haqqani, the former Pakistani envoy, sees it differently. Pakistanis, he said, have paid a heavy price in the form of terrorism, because of their leaders’ engagement with militants. The elites, he said, have little incentive to change their bad policies because those policies, despite U.S. criticism, work for them; the U.S. offers harsh words, but little else. Pakistan’s support for militancy will only stop, he said, when the “cost of that policy is greater for them than the perceived benefit.” And, he said of the plan he put forward with Curtis: “Things that haven’t been tried cannot be rejected as never having worked.”
With the paper’s coauthor now at the NSC, at least some of its policy prescriptions might have a chance at getting a hearing within the Trump administration. As Trump put it in his remarks Monday: “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”