In the midst of Trump administration developing its policies on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the experts in Washington, are divided. The key question seems to be how to make Pakistan cease its support to the Haqqani Network and other militant groups that are destabilizing the region, especially Afghanistan. Moeed Yusuf and Stephen Hadley wrote an op-ed published by The New York Times offering some insights on the subject. In War on the Rocks, Christine Fair responded critically. Having myself been involved in Pakistan’s foreign and security policy both, as a state employee in a senior advisory role and a scholar, it seems to me the two articles misconceive not only Pakistan’s threat perceptions but also the ability of the United States to influence Pakistan’s behavior. Hence, the two articles offer the same old tried, tested, and failed approaches to handling Pakistan.
First, both opinion pieces re-package an archaic understanding on Pakistan’s strategic anxieties. Yusuf and Hadley drum up the old narrative peddled by the Pakistani establishment of its fear of being squashed between Afghanistan and India as a reason to resort to militant support. They write, “To get Pakistan to alter its approach in Afghanistan, the United States must understand and address Pakistan’s strategic anxieties.” Christine Fair, on her part, provides an equally dated response that the United States needs to “signal to Pakistan that it does not consider its Indian fantasies to be credible.”
These two approaches are part of longstanding debate between two camps in Washington that seek to, respectively, appease or punish Pakistan. This debate hinges on a core question: Is India really an existential threat to Pakistan? In making their cases, however, the two camps resort to extreme positions allowing no room for a middle ground — essentially applying a reductionist Indian-centric approach to Pakistan’s national security policy. For instance, in one of my meetings with a senior Pakistani intelligence official in 2013 for a research project, he was candid, telling me that “Pakistan is a lot more under a threat from internal actors, as it is from India.” I interpreted this as, in part, a sort of acknowledgment that Pakistan’s support for Islamist militants was backfiring due to some of them going rogue and peddling their own sectarian and political agendas. But these militants were not the only “internal actors” the intelligence official was referring to. In this person’s view, there were and still are many others, including some who cloaked themselves in the garb of democracy and freedom of speech to destabilize the military. Essentially, the Pakistan Army’s strategic anxiety is also a lot about the continued supremacy of its institution as it is about defending the country from India — a nuance sometimes missed in the polarized debate on Pakistan in Washington.
However, by mid-2014 that threat indicator took a sharp turn when Narendra Modi ascended to power in India and took a hardline against Pakistan, taking a strong position on Baluchistan that was interpreted in Pakistan as Modi calling for an insurgency in the Baluchistan. Such a strong tirade coming from the very top of the Indian government brought the Pakistan Army’s focus back to India — the external threat took over the internal one. With the recent arrest of Kulbushan Jhadev, an India spy caught in Pakistan, and increased skirmishes on the border, for the United States then to “signal to Pakistan that it does not consider its Indian fantasies to be credible,” as suggested by Christine Fair, is somewhat impractical and would generate a strong reaction from Pakistan.
Second, on the question of specific U.S. policy action on Pakistan, neither of the parties to this debate provides any credible suggestions. Yusuf and Hadley suggest that the U.S. government works to “facilitate an India-Pakistan dialogue on the full range of economic and political issues,” find a political solution to Afghanistan via Pakistan, etc. Christine Fair rightly points out that these measures have been tried, tested, and have failed. For her part, she calls for a more hawkish approach to threaten Pakistan that “the United States will declare Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror,” “impose special sanctions,” and “cease all Coalition Support Funds” to get Pakistan to change its behavior on support for militants. Central to her suggestions is a false assumption that the United States possesses sufficient leverage to coerce Pakistan to stop it from supporting the Haqqani Network and other militant groups in the region. In one of Fair’s other articles on Pakistan she suggests,
The only way to motivate change is by developing a coercive campaign that diminishes the advantages of Pakistan’s use of militant proxies under its nuclear umbrella while also increasing the costs of doing so.
For coercion to work, it has to be credible and the United States needs to have the capacity to deliver sufficient punishment. The U.S. government cannot meet either of these standards at the moment. The Pakistani security establishment is well aware that cutting aid and imposing sanctions would not have a major impact on Pakistan’s development or economy, given that Pakistan barely receives the promised aid due to the overhead costs and bureaucratic processes that also require national security waivers to release the aid. The inability of aid agencies and the local government to put the allocated aid into action on ground also reduces the subsequent year aid budget, as can be seen under the Kerry Lugar Berman Act of 2009. As for the Coalition Support Fund, it is meant to reimburse the military costs incurred to the Pakistan Army in its war against terrorism, not the overall economic, political, and psychological cost that the country pays to be in the war. Hence, this is a tiny fraction of what Pakistan has to pay and the moment the United States cuts it, the Pakistan Army will have all the more reason not to support the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Such cuts could perhaps even lead Pakistan to enhance low cost unconventional warfare in the region, making the situation worse.
Given, especially the increasingly large presence of China in Pakistan due to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, threats of economic or military sanctions on Pakistan don’t appear credible, nor does it appear the United States has the capacity to pursue that course of action. If anything, Washington’s failure to stop Pakistan from pursuing efforts it deemed vital to its national security interests – such as developing a nuclear weapon, despite sanctions via the Pressler Amendment, — should, perhaps, be instructive on this front.
In my recent briefings with members of the Pakistani security establishment, the underlying sentiment was clear. Top Pakistani officials truly believe the United States does not have the capacity or credibility to provide a long-term solution in Afghanistan. If anything, the Pakistani security establishment sees China as playing a major role in the Afghan peace process – something that Pakistan is a lot more comfortable with. Hence, the decision has already been made. There is no mood to cut any deal on the Haqqani Network. There was a time when Pakistan supported the Haqqani Network out of uncertainty, but that is no longer the case. The Pakistani establishment sees the Haqqani Network as not just its trump card but also the only card to stay in the game in Afghanistan — especially when the United States inevitably, in its view, fails to deliver. The continued American push on the Haqqani Network, therefore, is unlikely to force Pakistan to change its behavior, as it goes directly against its national interest. Truth be told, the situation, context, and mindset of the Pakistani security establishment has changed in the region, but Yusuf, Hadley, and Fair continue to see Pakistan through an older Cold War era prism.
The chatter in the Pakistani security establishment is that almost all players in Afghanistan have their preferred militant outfits that they support (American policymakers should keep in mind how Pakistan views the various forces under the umbrella of the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces). Why, then, should Pakistan give up on its long-held assets? Also, with the growing Chinese presence in the region, Pakistan does not need the United States as much as it used to. This is not to say Pakistan doesn’t want good working relations with the United States or continued transfer of military technology, but any desperation to act in order to stay on the good side of the United States is dissolving.
The reality is that the United States and Pakistan may have the same goal of bringing peace in Afghanistan, but what shape that peace structure would take, the actors involved, and how to achieve it has strong divisions. As such, Washington and Islamabad do not and perhaps cannot have a shared pathway to peace in the region. Whether one follows the advice of Hadley and Yusuf or Fair, the United States is in no position to influence Pakistan’s security policies in a meaningful way. It’s about time it is recognized and understood by the experts in Washington who still find themselves under this illusion. The United States under President Donald Trump should either find a third way, beyond the debate between the two camps in Washington that has so far failed to produce a result, or it must come to terms with Pakistan’s way — because, we have all been here before, and there is really no other way with Pakistan.