Perspective

Isolating Pakistan: Why Washington should avoid bashing Islamabad

Published Mar 11, 2017 09:41am

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Does it make sense for the Trump administration and Congress to try to bludgeon Pakistan into doing Washington’s bidding? What about the ultimate sanction of labelling Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism? I don’t think so, but my side of the argument is losing ground. And if there is another major terrorist act in India or the United States that can be traced back to Pakistan, this debate could well be over.

The “squeeze Pakistan” camp is on the rise in Washington. There are three major complaints, all of which have plentiful justification. The first is Pakistan’s continued collusion with the Afghan Taliban, which has taken the lives of US soldiers while taking aim at the government in Kabul. The second is harbouring anti-India groups that carry out violent acts against targets in India and Afghanistan. The third is the pace and scope of its nuclear weapon-related programs, characterised by a former senior official at the National Security Council staff and the Pentagon as the fastest growing arsenal in the world.

Pakistan has paid heavily for these choices, which are made in Rawalpindi and not Islamabad. Its international standing has plummeted while India’s has risen. Its ties with Washington have frayed badly while US ties have shifted markedly toward India. Pakistan’s economic growth has underperformed its natural potential, and foreign direct investment (with the exception of China) has dwindled. Pakistan’s relations with neighbouring states have deteriorated, and its diplomacy has been shackled by talking points that lost persuasiveness many years ago.

In addition, the Congress began to impose new penalties by cutting down on the Coalition Support Fund to Pakistan and refusing to provide financing assistance for the sale of additional F-16 aircrafts. More needs to be done, according to a report by the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation, co-authored by Husain Haqqani and Lisa Curtis, who argue:

The “squeeze Pakistan” camp is on the rise in Washington. There are three major complaints, all of which have plentiful justification.

“[T]he objective of the Trump administration’s policy toward Pakistan must be to make it more and more costly for Pakistani leaders to employ a strategy of supporting terrorist proxies to achieve regional strategic goals. There should be no ambiguity that the US considers Pakistan’s strategy of supporting terrorist proxies to achieve regional strategic advantage as a threat to US interests.”

As for the ultimate US sanction, Husain, Lisa, and their co-signatories conclude that, “Designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, as some US congressional members have advised, is unwise in the first year of a new administration, but should be kept as an option for the longer term.” The “longer term” of the Trump administration isn’t that long.

House Foreign Affairs Committee hearings have become notable for Pakistan bashing. One of the Committee’s senior Republicans, Ted Poe, provided opening remarks at an event sponsored by hard-right-leaning American Foreign Policy Council. The meeting’s topic: “The Appalling ‘Ally’: Has Congress Lost Patience with Pakistan?”

My beef isn’t with critiques of Pakistan’s behaviour. Clarifying the negative consequences of Rawalpindi’s choices is essential, but the impulse to isolate, stigmatise and punish Pakistan won’t produce the outcomes that are best for Pakistan, India and the US. Among the losers will be those inside Pakistan who seek changes in national security policies. Worse, labelling Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism would be a profoundly unwise move. The leverage this threat provides would be lost with its execution, along with the potential for remedial steps. The terrorism issue, as important as it is, is less consequential than the nuclear issue.

The Hudson/Heritage report and the anti-Pakistan caucus on Capitol Hill reflect a broader trend: the impulse to punish has grown, diminishing space for diplomatic initiatives. The tough talkers forget about walking softly; they just brandish the big stick, even at the cost of substantive engagement – and even when their approach does not change the fundamentals of civil-military relations in Pakistan nor dampen growing nuclear dangers.

Clarifying the negative consequences of Rawalpindi’s choices is essential, but the impulse to isolate, stifgmatise and punish Pakistan won’t produce the outcomes that are best for Pakistan, India and the US.

Full disclosure: I, too, have advocated clarifying penalties for Rawalpindi’s choices, recognising that private demarches haven’t worked. But neither will public witch trials. Herein lies the dilemma of US diplomacy – and for all those who wish to preserve and improve ties with Pakistan. Washington will lose more influence over Rawalpindi’s choices than it will gain by wielding big sticks and raising the “state sponsor of terrorism” threat like the sword of Damocles.

And yet, carrots don’t work, either.

There is evidence of learning and change in some areas of Pakistan’s national security – but not in others. Rawalpindi’s thinking has clearly changed with regard to taking on former proxies, albeit selectively. A new counter-terrorism campaign, Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, has begun which widens the net, most notably in the Punjab. As with previous campaigns, this one was forced by painful embarrassment and loss of life due to weak implementation of prior commitments to fight extremism.

Pakistan’s political and military leaders are now riding a wobbly bicycle. They can either continue to move forward or fall behind. Falling behind means failing to succeed in tackling Pakistan’s internal security and image problems – and quite possibly inviting another near-war scenario with India – if not worse. If Pakistan’s military and political leaders continue to refrain from tackling men like Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar, their nation will remain stigmatised. Even so, continued engagement in this domain is required, not righteous indignation, excoriation and banishment. The rate of positive change depends on internal decisions that are, in turn, shaped by external pressures. External pressures work best when they don’t demand kow-towing to Washington.

Relations between Pakistan and India, as well as between Pakistan and Afghanistan, are volatile, as is evidenced by raids and firing across unsettled borders. A major crisis between India and Pakistan could well occur during Trump's administration. The US is obliged to function as an effective crisis manager, which won’t happen by shunning Pakistan. How do those leading the charge to squeeze Pakistan propose to proceed with crisis management and war prevention?

Washington’s ability to change Pakistan’s national security policies toward Afghanistan, India and nuclear weapons is limited.

Pakistan’s military leaders are making truly bad decisions with respect to nuclear weapons. They are investing heavily in warheads and missiles of last resort while trusting that deterrence will succeed so that they will not have to use these weapons first in a war triggered by incompetence or collusion with anti-India extremists based in Pakistan.

Under these circumstances, Pakistan’s first use of nuclear weapons on a battlefield – after seven decades of non-use – will establish its pariah status beyond recall. Pakistan looses either way: by believing that deterrence requires a nuclear competition with India, or by believing that a breakdown in deterrence can be solved by nuclear weapons’ use.

A recalibration of defense expenditures – between nuclear weapons that Pakistan’s leaders dare not use and conventional weapons that are Pakistan’s first line of internal and national defence – can only be made in Rawalpindi. There’s no telling how long it will take for Pakistan’s military leaders to figure this out, but by trying to isolate Pakistan, Washington will only reinforce the mistaken value Rawalpindi places on nuclear weapons.

As for Afghanistan, the convergence of US and Pakistan interests does not appear to extend beyond generalities, like the need for a political settlement. Such nostrums break down where the rubber meets the road – over the composition of a coalition government in Kabul, the contest for influence between Pakistan and India, and the actions of the Afghan Taliban, which Rawalpindi may again discover are beyond its ability to control.

The missteps of both Pakistan and the US in Afghanistan are already legion, the result of pipe dreams interrupted by harsh realities. One of those pipe dreams is the belief that Pakistan can be muscled into subordinating its perceived interests in Afghanistan to those of the US. More convergence is possible if Rawalpindi can rethink its Afghan strategy, but this heavy lift – as with trying to change Pakistan’s open-ended embrace of nuclear weapons and its anti-India policy – won’t occur by wielding a big stick.

Demanding fundamental change in Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan ignores the following logic chain: first, Pakistan is more strongly committed to its policies in Afghanistan, however mistaken, than is the US; second, the future of Pakistan is more important to the US than the future of Afghanistan. Therefore, to sacrifice the former for the latter, as some Pakistan squeezers and bashers demand, is folly.

So, where does this leave US-Pakistan relations? In a bad place. Washington’s ability to change Pakistan’s national security policies toward Afghanistan, India and nuclear weapons is limited. Carrots and sticks work only at the margins. Pakistan can expect more penalties unless its national security policies change in some respects. Change for the better will come only if Rawalpindi changes course.

In the meantime, Washington’s priorities are to stay engaged, clarify the consequences of Pakistan’s present course, work on reducing nuclear dangers during this period of intensified competition, and prepare for crisis management.


The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C based policy research centre.