How the U.S. Can Pressure Pakistan

Can anything stop the South Asian nation’s support for militants?

Four Pakistani security personnel patrol the border with Afghanistan
Members of Pakistan's Frontier Corps patrol the border with Afghanistan outside Torkham, Pakistan, on June 16, 2016.  (Fayaz Aziz / Reuters )

President Trump announced Monday a new strategic review for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. He offered tough words for Pakistan, which supports militants inside Afghanistan, but gave few details of how the U.S. could persuade it to change its ways. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that U.S. support for Pakistan would be conditioned upon its leaders’ ability to “change their approach” of backing militant groups that are “disrupting peace efforts inside of Afghanistan.”

Complaints about Pakistan’s apparent unwillingness to cooperate with the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan date back almost to the U.S.-led invasion of the country following the attacks of September 11, 2001: The country is known to provide support and a safe haven not only for the Taliban, but also groups that target neighboring India in Kashmir and elsewhere, not to mention the al-Qaeda leadership that’s believed to be inside the country.

“Every time Pakistan has been pressured, it has always done something to appease the United States,” Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington who is now director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute, told me. The problem, he said, is every step Pakistan takes is treated as “a great leap forward,” leading the U.S. to shower incentives on the country. “And then the one step forward,” he said, “has been followed by two steps backwards.”

The road to any political solution in Afghanistan is seen as running through Islamabad. Pakistan supports the Taliban and sees the group as pivotal to maintaining its influence in Afghanistan. Trump, like past presidents, has urged Pakistan to do more to rein in the militants, but the U.S. has been unable to match its demands with actual action to influence decision-makers in the country. There may, however, be a new approach, hinted at by Trump, but outlined in a policy paper published earlier this year by Haqqani and Lisa Curtis, then a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who is now a deputy assistant to President Trump and senior director for South and Central Asia at National Security Council.

“Our proposal is a sustained, graduated process of trying to change Pakistan around, and understand that it might take time, and it might take several measures,” Haqqani told me. Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador  to the United States, has been a harsh critic of the country’s military establishment, which is seen as its real power center. He was exiled from the country for his outspoken criticism of the former military leadership, and has called radical Islam “the single most dangerous idea that has emerged in the Muslim world.” Haqaani told me Pakistan must be made to realize there’s “a price to be paid for bad policy,” and suggested that if Washington applied incremental pressure to Islamabad, and offered it incentives only at the end of all those steps, then, and only then, would the U.S. engage with it “in a positive manner as we’d like to.”

Among other things, the paper—A New U.S. Approach to Pakistan: Enforcing Aid Conditions without Cutting Ties—argues that the U.S. should stop giving Pakistan additional aid or military equipment; that it should consider, in the long term, the option of designating Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism; and that it should threaten its status as a major non-NATO ally, a designation that gives Pakistan access to military spare parts and privileged access to some U.S. defense programs. All this, if Pakistan fails to halt its support for terrorists and militant groups active in Afghanistan and across the region.

C. Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at Georgetown University, told me the U.S. “should get rid of” coalition support funds for Pakistan—billions paid to the country for costs incurred in the war on terrorism. Fair, who advocates a tough U.S. position on Pakistan, said Pakistan, like other countries, is obliged by international law to prevent terrorists from operating on its soil. “By paying Pakistan to do what sovereign states are required to do, we really undermine the expectation of a sovereign state,” she said. “It’s like paying a kid to keep her bedroom clean. We would recognize the absurdity of it in any other circumstance.”

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.”