Washington’s big mistake in isolating Pakistan

The Trump administration has conducted its Afghanistan policy review but it is US-Pakistan relations that will be most impacted as calls to isolate Islamabad become louder

Washington’s big mistake in isolating Pakistan


Since March, Congressman Ted Poe has introduced a bill to designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism followed by one to strip Pakistan of its major non-NATO ally (MNNA) status, and a funding amendment that would withhold reimbursements to the Pakistani military. Although Poe has long called for a severing of US ties with Islamabad, his proposals are now complemented by outside policy recommendations to “get tough on Pakistan.” Early indicators from the Trump administration suggest that it is adopting this approach.

On June 23, 2017, the Trump administration announced that it was closing the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) which was intended as a diplomatic effort to augment military operations in Afghanistan. Trump has also granted Defence Secretary Mattis the power to unilaterally increase troop levels in Afghanistan by 3,900. These developments suggest that the administration increasingly views Afghanistan as a conflict with a military solution. With an exodus of senior leadership from the State Department, no new US ambassador for Pakistan or Afghanistan, and the potential departure of the SRAP, we are left with only a few clues as to what will emerge as Washington’s Pakistan policy.

Rather than threatening Pakistan, the US should acknowledge its own missteps in Afghanistan, initiate backchannel diplomacy between Pakistan, India, and even Iran, on the issues of Kashmir, Balochistan, and Afghanistan and recognise that for Pakistan the ‘war on terror’ has been fought at home

One clue is the choice of Lisa Curtis as Senior Director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council (NSC). She once served the State Department in New Delhi and was an analyst for the CIA. On April 17, 2017, Curtis accompanied US National Security Adviser Lt. General HR McMaster to hold official talks with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s adviser, Sartaj Aziz, allaying any doubt of her growing ability to influence policy. Although career diplomat Alice Wells serves as acting SRAP and Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department, Curtis will likely have greater proximity to Trump. Prior to the NSC, Curtis worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank and this provides a glimpse into her views. There, Curtis co-chaired a Pakistan policy review with former ambassador Husain Haqqani and they published a report earlier this year proposing that the US reduce military aid to Islamabad, as well as consider sanctions and a state sponsor of terrorism designation.

Haqqani has raised some valid criticisms of relations between the army and militants. Most recently he penned a New York Times article in which he derided “imaginary fears” about India and recommended the US strip Pakistan of its MNNA status in order to jolt it awake. But US policymakers must remember that the messenger is often just as important as the message. Elected officials and technocrats inside Pakistan may share some of Haqqani’s views but are accountable to more than the New York Times’ editorial board. Even Haqqani’s liberal admirers inside Pakistan who themselves are deeply suspicious of the military, occasionally label him as an opportunist because of the Islamist activism of his youth, followed by service to the PML-N, PPP, and allegedly Washington. American policymakers must put aside their unrelenting tendency to become enamoured with erudite exiles whose criticisms of their home countries seem to always align with US interests, and recognise that Haqqani is as polarising for Pakistan as Edward Snowden is for the US.

However, Haqqani and Curtis are not alone. Georgetown professor Christine Fair has long argued that the Pakistani military is taking the US for a ride and Washington should not consider Islamabad a partner. The Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel has made similar arguments. But would sanctions and a label of state sponsor of terrorism really address US concerns? When President George HW Bush was unable to certify that Pakistan did not possess nuclear weapons, Congress invoked the Pressler Amendment and cut off military aid. This did not prompt Nawaz Sharif to change Pakistan’s course in the early 1990s but instead pushed him closer to generals who sought a policy of “strategic defiance.”

Proponents of getting tough on Pakistan aver that previous attempts failed because economic aid was maintained and Pakistan never experienced true isolation. Conversely, Pakistan’s actions are motivated by a feeling of isolation and the timing of such a policy could not be worse. Narendra Modi’s decision to visit Washington and Tel Aviv in one trip was likely intended to amplify the least rational voices within Pakistan. If the US takes a hard stance toward Islamabad, Nawaz Sharif and his opponents will be forced to adopt increasingly nationalistic policies in their campaigns, not only to compete with Imran Khan’s platform, but to show the Pakistani electorate that they are not weak in the face of foreign cajoling. With Sharif embroiled in a corruption scandal made worse by the JIT report, and opposition parties preoccupied with political posturing, Pakistan may not even realise just how serious the situation has become.

Washington has grown impatient with Pakistan, yet claims it would like to see unbridled civilian rule. But the US has routinely undermined this goal by working directly with the military and ISI. If Islamabad were truly held accountable to the desires of Pakistanis, which often contradict US demands, would Washington refrain from interfering? Rather than threatening Pakistan the US should acknowledge its own missteps in Afghanistan, initiate backchannel diplomacy between Pakistan, India, and even Iran, on the issues of Kashmir, Balochistan, and Afghanistan, treat the Pakistani government and military as an equal partner, and recognise that for Pakistan the ‘war on terror’ has been fought at home. Taking Pakistan’s security concerns seriously will not be seen as an act of weakness or one that implicitly justifies Pakistan-based terrorism but rather one of much needed leadership.

 

The writer is a veteran of the US Marine Corps and served in Afghanistan. He works as a policy analyst and focuses on South Asia and Iran. He tweets at @AdamNoahWho

 

 

Published in Daily Times, July 16th , 2017.