WASHINGTON: The Trump Administration’s decision to suspend military aid to Pakistan is one of the most significant US punitive actions against Pakistan since 2001.
The US has long been frustrated with Pakistan’s persistent acquiescence to safe havens for the Afghan Taliban and its branch in Pakistan - both benefit more from misgovernance in Afghanistan, but Pakistan’s aid helps a lot.
Worse yet, Pakistan has provided direct military and intelligence aid to both groups, resulting in the deaths of US soldiers, Afghan security personnel and civilians, and significant destabilisation in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has long been a difficult and disruptive neighbour to Afghanistan, hoping to limit India’s influence there, and cultivating radical groups within Afghanistan as proxies. It has augmented Afghanistan’s instability by providing intelligence, weapons and protection to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.
Why does Pakistan act this way? It fears an unstable Afghanistan that becomes a safe haven for anti-Pakistan militant groups and a dangerous playground for outside powers, even though this has already happened.
Pakistan bets that the Taliban will maintain significant power and perhaps even obtain formal political power in Afghanistan one day and does not want to alienate it. The Taliban is Pakistan’s only ally among Afghanistan’s political actors, however reluctant and unfriendly an ally it may be.
Pakistan further fears that targeting Afghanistan-oriented militant groups will provoke retaliation in Pakistan’s Punjab heartland.
Its long refusal to fully sever support for these groups is a product of Pakistan’s lack of full control over the militant groups it has sponsored, even though it is loathe to admit it.
Such a disclosure of weakness would be costly: Reducing the omnipotent image of Pakistan’s military-intelligence apparatus with domestic audiences, including opposition politicians, and further encouraging misbehavior of militant groups.
Pakistan is also afraid of a strong Afghan government aligned with India, potentially helping to encircle Pakistan.
In his August 2017 speech on Afghanistan, US President Donald Trump invoked the India card to pressure Pakistan, calling for a greater Indian engagement in Afghanistan, but cushioning it by endorsing India’s economic engagement there.
That is not likely to moderate Pakistan’s behaviour. Instead, it can increase Pakistan’s paranoia of India’s engagement in Afghanistan, including its perceived support for Baloch separatist groups in Pakistan.
After President Trump’s speech, senior US officials sought to mitigate such fears, recognising Pakistan’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan and saying that the US was keen to see and possibly facilitate an improvement in India-Pakistan relations.
Suspending military aid to Pakistan and perhaps even permanently discontinuing it in the future if Pakistan does not change its behavior has been the most directly available coercive tool for the US.
But apart from the political outrage it has generated in Pakistan, the pain it delivers is limited. Parts of the US's Coalition Support Fund, designed to enable Pakistan to go after counterterrorism targets and militant groups have been suspended for a long time because of Pakistan’s continued support for the Haqqanis.
US military aid to Pakistan also decreased by 60 per cent between 2010 and August 2017, without a significant impact on Pakistan’s behavior.
Moreover, Pakistan can seek aid from others. Russia is always looking for opportunities to undercut the US, and although direct military cooperation with Pakistan risks alienating India with significant cost for Russia, Russia no longer considers the Afghan Taliban a prime enemy in Afghanistan.
Pakistan can also seek military assistance from China, long its steadfast ally. Although China does not want to see a further destabilisation of Afghanistan and an outward leakage of terrorism, it has not been willing to take punitive action against Pakistan’s support for the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban.
Finally, Pakistan can court Saudi aid, which Saudi Arabia may grant, including as an anti-Iran hedge. Thus, Pakistan can easily believe that it can ride out tensions with the US.
LIMITS ON US PRESSURE AND COUNTERMOVES
There are limits to US coercive power vis-à-vis Pakistan.
The US has interests in Pakistan beyond the Afghan conflict: Ensuring the stable control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, getting Pakistan to dispense with the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons (which could fall into terrorists’ hands), dissuading Pakistan from resurrecting its past nuclear proliferation activities, and preventing a major Pakistan-India war and Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attacks in India.
Moreover, the US wants to encourage democratisation, pluralisation and stronger civilian and technocratic governance in Pakistan. Just as there is a young, educated, well-meaning technocratic segment of the population battling it out against the warlords and parochial powerbrokers in Afghanistan, there are such reformist elements in Pakistan.
Pakistan can threaten any of these interests. It can discontinue cooperation on nuclear safety issues or suspend Pakistan-India nuclear confidence-building measures. It can also provoking border instability in the Punjab.
Most immediately, Pakistan can again shut down the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for US military logistics, including ground lines of transportation and air routes as it has done before. That would significantly hamper US military operations in Afghanistan.
It is highly unlikely that major US pressure would motivate Pakistan to fully sever its support for and desire to control the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban, even though it could produce a temporary decrease in support for these groups.
Most likely, Pakistan will claim it is not supporting Afghanistan-oriented militant and terrorist groups and temporarily reduce its level of support for them. But it won’t sever the relationship fully, and will wait to increase it again.
ANY HAPPY SCENARIO?
There are three possible scenarios under which Pakistan could become motivated to dramatically reduce or altogether cut support for the Taliban and the Haqqani networks, and perhaps even start targeting their networks in Pakistan:
- Pakistan-India relations significantly improve.
- The military-intelligence apparatus loses its predominant power in the Pakistani government and becomes subordinated to an enlightened, capable and accountable civilian leadership. That means that both the Pakistani military and the country’s civilian politicians undergo a radical transformation.
- Pakistan develops the political and physical resources and wherewithal, to tackle its own internally-oriented and metastasising terrorist groups, such as various Punjab Taliban groups. If those threats become mitigated, Pakistan may have more stomach to go after the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis.
To some extent, the US can help induce at least the last scenario by helping Pakistan develop politically-informed, sequential targeting counterterrorism strategies, focused on anti-Pakistani groups of regional and global concern.
But the US's ability to encourage the first two scenarios is highly limited.
US efforts at facilitating a Pakistan-India rapprochement, while critically defusing acute crises, have produced little lasting effect, with India systematically rejecting such a US role and Pakistan systematically failing to meet expectations.
Whenever some progress has been achieved, a terrorist spoiler or an institutional spoiler has effectively undermined the efforts.
The US's capacity to promote a systematic change of political and power arrangements in Pakistan is highly limited as well, though Washington can and should provide sustained and patient support to the development of civil society, a technocratic class and rule-of-law institutions.
In addition, Washington can provide support by encouraging the growth and engagement of new economic interests in Pakistan that benefit from more peaceful relations with India and Afghanistan.
However, any such positive developments will likely take decades to fundamentally alter Pakistan’s internal power distribution and strategic calculus.
Vanda Felbab-Brown is senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution’s Centre for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. This commentary first appeared in the Brookings Institution’s blog. Read it here.