USA Foreign Policy

Why Trump's bid to pressure Pakistan is no easy proposition

a shift in thought

There is a logic behind President Trump's warning to Pakistan over its Afghanistan policy. There are also several reasons why the pressure could backfire, or at least be deflected.

Supporters of the Pakistan Defense Council, an alliance of hardline Islamist religious leaders and politicians, chant slogans during an anti-U.S rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017. Pakistan's political, religious and military leaders have rejected President Donald Trump's allegation that Islamabad is harboring militants who battle U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Anjum Naveed/AP
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A few billion dollars in US military and hearts-and-minds assistance over several decades never really succeeded in convincing Pakistan to change course and stop harboring terrorist groups that wreak havoc in neighboring Afghanistan.

So now President Trump is proposing something new to get Pakistan to sit up and take notice: a bigger role in Afghanistan for India.

As part of the new Afghanistan policy he announced last week – a plan that signals an open-ended commitment to America’s longest war and includes a modest rise in the number of US troops engaged in it – Mr. Trump is calling on India, Pakistan’s archrival and a growing power in South Asia, to do more to help stabilize Afghanistan and the region.

But rubbing a rising India in Pakistan’s nose is not risk-free and could have unintended consequences in an already volatile setting, some regional experts say. While it might move Pakistan off the dime and prompt some actions that the United States favors, they say, it could also push the Pakistanis deeper into their long obsession about a rising India and push off further any resolution of Afghanistan’s long conflict.

Also obscuring the diplomatic horizon is the increasingly influential role played by ever-more-powerful China as a strategic ally of Pakistan, making Islamabad less susceptible to US pressure.

“A larger role for India is definitely something Pakistan does not want to see, but that does not mean we can predict with certainty how it will respond to the US encouraging India in this way,” says Husain Haqqani, who formerly served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and is now director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

“Does the prospect of an expanding Indian role in Afghanistan make Pakistan change behavior? Possibly,” he says. “But it will also increase Pakistan’s paranoia about India, and that could actually prompt Pakistan to revert to behaviors” the US is not aiming to encourage.

A difficult relationship

The unpredictability of playing the India card gives some insight into the complexities of Washington’s never-easy relations with Pakistan, a country that has long mattered to the US because it is a nuclear power in a volatile region and because of its proximity to major powers China and Russia (and formerly the Soviet Union).

But Pakistan’s harboring and use of regional terrorist groups as an element of its national security posture toward both Afghanistan and India has been a thorn in US-Pakistan relations at least since President George W. Bush, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, told Pakistan that “either you are with us or against us.”

Pakistan has taken some steps against terrorist organizations at US urging and has largely turned a blind eye to US counterterrorist actions (such as drone strikes) against terrorist safe havens along the Afghan border. But it has never gone full bore against groups active in Afghanistan, like the Haqqani Network, believing those groups would give it leverage in Afghanistan (and against an encroaching India) when the US eventually pulled out.

Now Trump is signaling to Pakistan that in fact the US is not leaving any time soon – and that (for the umpteenth time) the US will get tough with Pakistan if it does not quickly alter its behavior and become a helpful instead of a disruptive regional player.

Some regional analysts say there are ways Trump’s “new strategy” could work. The combination of a US commitment to stay in Afghanistan with uncertainty about the tough measures it might take against an uncooperative Pakistan could cause some rethinking of policy in Islamabad, some experts say.

“This open-ended commitment to Afghanistan is intended to send a message to the Taliban, but it also speaks loud and clear to Pakistan,” says Daniel Markey, a senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and a former South Asia director of the State Department’s policy planning staff. “It says, ‘Your move – we’re committed to be here for a while.’”

The Pakistanis have always based their Afghanistan policy on the view that “the US is going to fail, and leave, and to face what will be left we have to have friends,” Dr. Markey says. “This [renewed US commitment] at least gives them reason to recalculate their plans.”

'Get tough' policy

And the Hudson Institute’s Mr. Haqqani, who was ambassador from 2008 to 2011, says that while the US has indeed spoken about upping its demands of Pakistan – like linking military and development assistance to actions against terrorist safe havens – it’s never really followed through.

“Yes, the US has spoken about getting tough, but when has that actually happened?” he says. “Instead, the pattern has been that the US demands and Pakistan does some little things,” he adds, “and that satisfies the bureaucrats in Washington.”

But some caution that there are reasons that a US “get tough” policy could face even more resistance from Pakistan than in the past.

For one thing, many officials in Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence structure still believe the US is basically asking Pakistan to go against its own national interests on America’s behalf. A president with an “America First” foreign policy, some analysts say, should understand that getting a country to alter what it sees as vital interests will at least take time.

Beyond that, others note that Trump is proposing his South Asia strategy with its “shape-up” ultimatum to Pakistan at a time when the US is no longer the unchallenged superpower it once was. China in particular is looking increasingly like a big-power buffer for Pakistan against US pressure.

In recent years China has supplanted the US as the major investor and financial backer in Pakistan, and Beijing’s strategic support of Islamabad has grown as China’s confrontations with a rising India (including border skirmishes) have multiplied.

Beijing was quick to at least rhetorically rush to Pakistan’s side after Trump announced his Afghanistan policy with its jabs at Pakistan. The Chinese government said Pakistan deserved only support for its efforts to battle terrorist elements within its borders.

Setting up 'a serious conversation'

On the other hand, Markey says China has no interest in seeing Afghanistan collapse and once again provide a haven for Islamist extremists, so he can imagine China at least tacitly teaming up with the US to pressure Pakistan to help make sure that doesn’t happen.

Perhaps the biggest virtue Markey sees in Trump’s new strategy is that it lays out elements, from India policy to US military status in Afghanistan, that will worry Pakistan and thus should prompt some tough diplomacy on a troubled relationship’s future.

“What this sets up is a serious conversation with the Pakistanis, and that’s good,” he says.

But both he and Haqqani say the dialogue is going to have to be tough and sustained, and Markey says he worries that a US with a shrinking diplomatic corps – and senior officials like the secretary of State distracted by other crises – may not have the capacity to build on a promising start.

“If this is to be successful, it will mean getting the Pakistanis to recalculate their core national interests, and that’s going to be hard, and it’s going to take a lot of effort,” Markey says. “It’s a moment of opportunity, but that doesn’t mean this administration is well-placed to pull it off.”

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