Can the United States change Pakistan’s behaviour?



U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to freeze some $2-billion (U.S.) in security assistance to Pakistan as punishment for the country’s refusal to crack down on transnational terrorist groups is a step in the right direction. But more steps are needed.

The United States has plenty of incentive to put pressure on Pakistan, a country that has long pretended to be an ally, even as it continues to aid the militant groups fighting and killing U.S. soldiers in neighbouring Afghanistan. In fact, it is partly because of that aid Afghanistan is a failing state, leaving the United States mired in the longest war in its history. More than 16 years after the United States invaded Afghanistan, its capital, Kabul, has come under siege, exemplified by the recent terrorist attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel and the suicide bombing, using an explosives-laden ambulance, in the city centre. In recent months, the United States has launched a major air offensive to halt the rapid advance of the Afghan Taliban. The United States has now carried out more air strikes since last August than in 2015 and 2016 combined.

Yet neither the air blitz nor the Trump administration’s deployment of 3,000 additional U.S. troops can reverse the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. To achieve that, Pakistan would have to dismantle the cross-border sanctuaries used by the Taliban and its affiliate, the Haqqani network, as well as their command-and-control operations, which are in Pakistani territory. The problem is that Pakistan’s powerful military, whose generals dictate terms to a largely impotent civilian government, seems committed to protecting, and even nurturing, terrorists on Pakistani soil. Only those militants who threaten Pakistan are targeted by the country’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Far from holding Pakistan’s generals accountable for the American blood on their hands, the United States has provided them large amounts of funding – so much, in fact, that Pakistan has been one of the United States’ largest aid recipients. Even when the United States found Osama bin Laden, after a 10-year hunt, holed up in a compound next to Pakistan’s main military academy, it did not meaningfully alter its carrot-only strategy. This has enabled the military to tighten its grip on Pakistan further, frustrating domestic efforts to bring about a genuine democratic transition. Making matters worse, the United States has dissuaded its ally India – a major target of Pakistan-supported terrorists – from imposing any sanctions on the country. Instead, successive U.S. administrations have pressured India to engage diplomatically with Pakistan.

This approach has emboldened Pakistan-based terrorists to carry out cross-border attacks on targets from Mumbai to Kashmir. As for the United States, the White House’s new National Security Strategy confirms that the United States “continues to face threats from transnational terrorists and militants operating from within Pakistan.” This conclusion echoes then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s warning in 2009 that Pakistan “poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world.”

Against this background, the Trump administration’s acknowledgment of U.S. policy failure in Pakistan is good news. But history suggests that simply suspending security aid – economic assistance and military training are set to continue – will not be enough to bring about meaningful change in Pakistan.

Another step the United States could take would be to label Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. If the United States prefers not to do so, it should at least strip Pakistan of its status as a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, ending its preferential access to U.S. weapons and technologies. Moreover, the United States should impose targeted sanctions, including asset freezes, on senior military officers who maintain particularly close ties to terrorists.

Finally, the United States should take advantage of its enduring position as Pakistan’s largest export market to tighten the economic screws on the cash-strapped country. Since 2013, Pakistan has attempted to offset the sharp decline in its foreign-exchange reserves by raising billions of dollars in dollar-denominated debt with 10-year bonds. Pakistan’s efforts to stave off default create leverage that the United States should use. Likewise, Pakistan agreed to privatize 68 state-run companies, in exchange for $6.7-billion in credit from the International Monetary Fund. If the United States extended financial and trade sanctions to multilateral lending, and suspended supplies of military spare parts, it would gain another effective means of bringing Pakistan to heel.

To be sure, Pakistan could respond to such sanctions by blocking America’s overland access to Afghanistan, thereby increasing the cost of resupplying U.S. forces by up to 50 per cent. But, as Pakistan learned in 2011-12, such a move would hurt its own economy, especially its military-dominated trucking industry. Meanwhile, the added cost to the United States would be lower than U.S. military reimbursements to Pakistan in the last year.

If Pakistan is going to abandon its double game of claiming to be a U.S. ally while harbouring terrorists, the United States will need to stop rewarding it for offering, as Mr. Trump put it, “nothing but lies & deceit.” More than that, the United States will need to punish Pakistan for its duplicity. And U.S. policy makers must act soon, or an increasingly fragile Pakistan could well be transformed from a state sponsor of terrorism into a state sponsored by terrorists.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.


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