In South Asia, US strategies boil down to: ‘Pakistan, we want you to do more’; ‘India, we want to grow with you’; and ‘Afghanistan, we want to stay with you’.
Earlier this week, US President Donald Trump announced his new national security strategy. China, Russia, and Pakistan came in for some of the harshest criticism.
Trump’s comments about Pakistan weren’t only harsh, they were also wholly predictable. Indeed, the new strategy’s Pakistan component marks the latest contribution to the hopelessly broken record otherwise known as US-Pakistan relations.
In a nutshell, Trump demanded that Pakistan crack down on terrorist sanctuaries on its soil. “We have made clear to Pakistan that while we desire continued partnership, we must see decisive action against terrorist groups operating on their territory,” Trump said.
The written strategy itself elaborates on this point. “We will press Pakistan to intensify its counterterrorism efforts,” it declares, “since no partnership can survive a country’s support for militants and terrorists who target a partner’s own service members and officials.”
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve heard these comments many times before — including back in August, when Trump unveiled his administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan and broader South Asia. When it comes to South Asia, both strategies boil down to the same message: “Pakistan, we want you to do more”; “India, we want to grow with you”; and “Afghanistan, we want to stay with you”.
Significantly, in both strategies, the White House is vague as to what it might do if Pakistan fails to comply with American demands. And if history is any guide, Pakistan will fail to comply. Pakistan, like any country, has paramount interests, and these interests entail maintaining ties to the likes of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network.
At this moment in time, the US-Pakistan relationship is participating in a tense waiting game. At some point in the coming months, Washington will decide if Pakistan has addressed its demands. If not, the United States may resort to harsh measures. The most frequently cited possibilities are sanctioning Pakistani security officials with ties to terror; revoking Pakistan’s non-NATO status; or starting the process of designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror.
I’d argue, however, that the most frequently mentioned US punitive options are the least likely to be implemented — at least initially. If Washington does act, it’s likely to first expand its drone war in Pakistan and try to take out Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network targets. In effect, Washington could conclude that if Pakistan won’t go after the terrorists that threaten its soldiers and interests in Afghanistan, America itself will take on that job.
While risky, the additional possibility of America conducting a special forces operation or two in Pakistan to nab big-fish terrorist targets can’t be ruled out. This, however, would likely require intelligence assistance from Pakistan that Islamabad would not provide.
Also, any punitive American response would risk Pakistani retaliations — shutting down NATO supply lines, suspending intelligence cooperation — that could undercut Washington’s own interests. The more high-risk the measure implemented by Washington, the more potentially damaging for US interests the Pakistani retaliations could be.
Regardless of how everything shakes out, the US-Pakistan relationship faces some difficult days ahead. Islamabad’s reaction to Trump’s national security strategy — according to Pakistani press reports, the civil and military leadership have pledged, without elaboration, a “tit-for-tat” response — highlights the hostility and tensions in a relationship that in recent months has been on tenterhooks.
Ultimately, we shouldn’t read too much into Trump’s comments about Pakistan in his new national security strategy. They amount to a sideshow. The main event will take place over the first few months of 2018, when Washington takes stock of Pakistani responses to its demands and assess its next moves. How America chooses to proceed will go a long way toward determining the relationship’s trajectory.
This is not necessarily uncharted territory for US-Pakistan relations. So many times in the past, the US-Pakistan relationship has faced crises, before bouncing back. Even now, amid all the Trump administration’s sabre-rattling and tough talk, it has extended an olive branch and offered inducements. “In Pakistan,” the national security strategy reads, “we will build trade and investment ties as security improves and as Pakistan demonstrates that it will assist the United States in our counterterrorism goals.”
Indeed, while rocky relations are all but inevitable, a real rupture in the relationship is hard to imagine, given the benefits that both sides believe they derive from continued, albeit limited, partnership. For Pakistan, these advantages include guns, money, and the prestige of a partnership with the world’s superpower. For America, the benefits include those ever-important NATO supply lines as well as intelligence cooperation critical for US counterterrorism purposes.
Of course, even if the US-Pakistan partnership perseveres, we’ll hear more renditions of that broken record. After all, the US-Pakistan relationship is a quintessential case of, in the words of Yogi Berra, “déjà vu all over again”.
Michael Kugelman is the Asia Program Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Centre. He regularly writes columns and op-ed for leading newspapers and journals. Kugelman received his M.A. in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He had edited and co-edited 11 books; his most recent book is ‘Pakistan’s Interminable Energy Crisis: Is There Any Way Out?’