America’s hammer for a Pakistan-sized nail

It has been a rich couple of weeks for South Asia think tank watchers in Washington. This was prompted, of course, by the American government’s announcements that it was looking at ways to increase the pressure on Pakistan to amend its policies vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban, and in particular its subsidiary which resides in Pakistan, the Haqqani Network.
The US wants Pakistan to cut off ties with the Haqqanis and to their easy access to shelter in Pakistan while it fights an insurgency in Afghanistan. Most Pakistan watchers (including me) understand that it is Pakistan’s indo-centricity that stops the Army from cutting ties to the Haqqanis, and while we think this indo-centricity completely passe’ understand that it cannot be changed overnight but only through long and honest discussions.
This was an utterly predictable shift in US policy. And unlike most other issues in Washington these days, it is not a partisan issue. Influential members of Congress of both parties have been pushing the line that Pakistan is an unreliable ally for several years, and the relationship of the Pakistani ISI to the Haqqani Network is always the central example. These congressional voices argued that the US should not be providing Pakistan such large amounts of assistance, when Pakistan was cozy with the Haqqanis.
The Obama Administration spent a lot of time and effort trying to persuade the Pakistan Army to cut its ties and to go after the Haqqanis, at least to chase them into Afghanistan and prevent them from coming back and forth so they could be dealt with on the battlefield. Pakistan denies that the ISI has ties to the Haqqanis, but I have heard this asserted with such confidence that it is hard to believe that the US does not have incontrovertible intelligence that it is so. US Army leaders in Afghanistan have said for many years that the war against the insurgents cannot be won if the insurgents can hide in Pakistan, attack over the border into Afghanistan, and then go back to sanctuary in Pakistan.
Most experts believe that negotiations are unlikely as long as the Taliban think they are winning. Everybody has heard the joke that the Taliban motto is: “You have the watches, we have the time”
In the Obama years, this pressure was conveyed in private, so as not to antagonize Pakistan in public. I believe that the Obama Administration, in its waning days, did not let up on its pressure campaign on Pakistan, but that it also understood that the Pakistanis were unlikely to agree, in the near-term at least, and to convince them that Pakistan’s interests in a stable, peaceful Afghanistan were even greater than ours would take a considerable amount of time. Nor was that administration willing to rupture the transactional relationship that was developing with Pakistan on other counter-terrorism issues on which the interests of the two countries were aligned. However, it should have been clear, that until Pakistan was convinced that the US would stay the course in Afghanistan, and that our aims for a peaceful Afghanistan (which probably involved what role we saw India playing in and after a peace agreement) were also aligned. Given President Obama’s great skepticism about the war, and his administration’s very warm relations with India, neither of these conditions seemed likely to obtain.
The Trump Administration has a much less nuanced approach to foreign policy, and it was clear that once the President made the decision to continue the US effort in Afghanistan, with a few more troops, and a more active engagement plan, the new administration would view the task of getting Pakistan to change its ways regarding the Haqqanis in the classical way of “getting a bigger hammer.”
Now (a digression), it is clear that US military leaders do not believe the war can be won militarily, at least in the classic sense (I know no one who foresees a Taliban surrender); these leaders appear to define “win” as getting the insurgents to the negotiation table to affect a peace process. Most experts believe that is unlikely as long as the Taliban think they are winning. Everybody has heard by now the joke that the Taliban strategic motto is “You have the watches, we have the time.”
And, in fact, the US strategy looks a little threadbare. First, despite the bigger hammer, there seems little chance that the Pakistan Army will agree to sacrifice what it believes are its strategic assets until it is certain that there will be a denouement to the insurgency that fits its perceived interests. But as mentioned above, that does not look like a good bet right now.
And even the US military leaders do not believe the war is winnable (in their definition of winning) unless the Haqqanis and other Taliban groups cannot operate from sanctuaries in Pakistan. So how long will US patience hold out before we pick up stakes and leave? Who knows. Without going into much further detail which would be somewhat repetitive with what is above, the chances or this conundrum working out as we would want, or as Pakistan would want, look like a diplomatic version of a Rubik’s Cube which advertised itself when it came out as having “3 billion combinations but only one solution.”
And so, the think tanks got to work and produced several rewarding meetings on US-Pakistan relations and on Afghanistan which offered knowledgeable and penetrating analyses. They took place against the backdrop of the US government’s effort to put pressure on the Pakistan government over its recalcitrance with the threat of grey-listing by the Financial Action Task Force. This is a list of countries with “strategic deficiencies” to stop terrorist financing and money laundering. The move did not work immediately because China, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia voted against it. But it may work in three months, as when the US got a second vote, giving Pakistan three months to rectify its deficiencies, Saudi Arabia and China remained silent, and only Turkey opposed.
So now Pakistan must rectify its financial deficiencies within this time or go on the list. This was clearly a first step of the campaign to ramp up pressure on Pakistan. It seems unlikely to make much difference as Pakistan has been on this list before, from 2012 to 2015.
The most interesting think tank discussion was over what measures might be a big enough hammer to persuade Pakistan to change its policy regarding the Haqqani Network. Most analysts do not believe that any amount of pressure will work in the near-term. One analyst opined that the only action that might change the Pakistani mindset would be to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. This would be the biggest hammer of all. There are now four such states: North Korea, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. This is a group that a state does not want to be in for all kinds of reasons, including the company. The penalties can be severe—restrictions on US assistance, a ban on US defense exports, and sales, controls over dual use items, financial restrictions, and most importantly, penalties on “persons and countries engaging in certain trade…” This is, I guess, the nuclear option in pressuring countries, and I only heard one, relatively hardline, analyst, suggesting this option, and not with enthusiasm.
My final thought is that, in this case, Pakistan has the time too, so a non-hysterical approach is the answer. The Trump Administration is wobbling as we all know, and the recent actions of the special counsel, Mr. Mueller, have made it wobble even more. So has Mr. Trump’s own inept handling of the gun control debate that rages in the wake of the tragic high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Readers will know that it took great forbearance on my part not to write about Mr. Trump and his problems. I look for nothing to change while he is in office, but what I hope is that once he is gone, and the big hammer psychology with him, the US and Pakistan will sit down and talk out their problems, and mindsets, and what is in the best interest of both countries in South Asia. The overlap may be larger than they think.

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