Blackmailing Pakistan is Bad U. S. Policy
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
Anyone who understands the geopolitical and security dynamics of Pakistan and neighboring countries – Afghanistan, Iran, India, and China – and the complex and variable relationships between and among these countries, must be scratching their heads trying to figure out current U.S. strategy in the region. Arguably, the most plausible conclusion is that by undermining the Pakistani military, as President Donald Trump has done by cutting military-security assistance and support, it threatens U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the entire sub-region.
In addition to alienating Pakistani military leadership, this non-strategy weakens quasi-moderate Islamists in Pakistan and emboldens Islamic hardliners and violent extremists. Most importantly, by reducing significantly U.S. security assistance to, and creating tensions between the U.S. military and Pakistan’s military, the Trump administration has initiated the dismantling of Pakistan’s military security shield against anti-U.S. Islamist extremists gaining control over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Securing Pakistan’s control over its nuclear arms has been a policy of all U.S. presidents ever since Pakistan joined the ranks of nuclear powers. Furthermore, U.S. soft power assistance, also threatened by the Trump administration, has played a significant role in bolstering moderate Islamist governments and NGOs in Pakistan.
There was never a great deal of trust between the U.S. and Pakistan. The alliance between the two countries has been one of convenience primarily serving U.S. security interests in the region. In particular, Pakistan’s intelligence agency – the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – while having cooperated to some degree with U.S. intelligence during the campaign against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and on counter-terrorism efforts in the post-9/11 period, was never deemed to be trustworthy. On numerous occasions, long-standing ISI-Taliban relationship has interfered with U.S. military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and, in many instances, U.S. counter-terrorism campaign against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. It was the ISI that introduced Osama bin Laden to the Taliban in 1996. However, it was always better to have this bifurcated relationship with the ISI, the Pakistani military, and civilian government than to alienate them.
ISI’s ties to the Taliban go back to the very beginnings of the Taliban when Afghan refugees were schooled in Pakistan’s Islamist schools – Pakistani madrassas – and returned to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. These madrassas were funded primarily by Saudi Arabia. As U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn) pointed out in a speech (January 29, 2016) to the Council on Foreign Relations, “in 1956 there were 244 madrassas in Pakistan” and now “there are 24,000.” According to Murphy, most of the terrorists known to the U.S. are Sunnis that are greatly influenced by Wahhabi, Salafist teaching in Saudi Arabia-funded madrassas in countries around the world.
The Taliban’s emergence as a separate force in 1994 in Afghanistan, after having fought the Soviets as part of the Mujahidin, was as a direct result of arms and other support provided by Pakistan. Taliban forces fleeing Afghanistan following U.S. military invasion and subsequent operations have also found refuge in Pakistan. Taliban refugees also include active Taliban fighters who are protected by the Pakistani military which denies the U.S. military the right to pursue them in Pakistan’s territory.
Similarly, it was always suspected that Osama bin Laden enjoyed safe haven in Pakistan’s territory, thus it was no big surprise when he was finally hunted down and killed by U.S. Special Forces on orders from President Barack Obama a short distance from a Pakistani military base on May 2, 2011. President Obama’s order to enter Pakistan territory to get bin Laden violated Pakistan’s territorial integrity and was highly criticized by Pakistan’s political and military establishments. Also, U.S. military campaigns against terrorist groups, such as the primarily Pakistan-based Haqqani Network, a very dangerous group, are stymied by Pakistan military’s restriction of access to Pakistan’s territory. In some cases, Pakistan’s recalcitrant behavior is driven by a delicate balance of political and religious dynamics in the country. Cutting assistance to Pakistan will undermine efforts at moderation and cooperation and destroy the institutional capacity building that depends on U.S. assistance to counter anti-U.S. violent extremist ideology in the country.
Despite this less than full cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan military and intelligence services, the U.S. has benefited from existing levels of cooperation. However, past U.S. administrations, including President Obama’s, have never been satisfied and have pressured Pakistan for greater levels of cooperation. Diplomatic means have been the preferred course, and there have been gradual improvements over the years, including during the Obama administration. While never deemed sufficient, without Pakistan’s cooperation the U.S. will be hard-pressed to support its military operations in Afghanistan. The U.S. has access to certain Pakistan military bases and overland supply routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan. For example, military supplies flowing through Turkey overland to Afghanistan must go through the Khyber Pass – Pakistan/Afghanistan territory.
Violent ideological extremists control over a future Pakistan – substituting Islamic hardliners for quasi-moderate Islamists – will pose significant dangers, not only to the countries in the region but to U.S. national security interests in the region. With the future of Afghanistan teetering in the balance a political realignment of Pakistan is not in the U.S. best interest. There will emerge issues regarding extradition of terrorists from Pakistan to the U.S., already a difficult issue for Pakistan’s government. There will be greater scrutiny and restrictions on under-the-radar intelligence-military operations against terrorists in Pakistan. There is the specter of possible loss, or reduction in use of military bases and reduced access to overland supply routes in support of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. Cutting U.S. military and soft power assistance to Pakistan also creates more space for the growth of China-Pakistan relations; raises questions about India’s future role in Afghanistan and the region; and whether Iran, a neighbor of Pakistan, is being given an opening for increased Iran-Pakistan collaboration.
In my most recent article Hopes, Fears, and Challenges for 2018 – The Global Landscape I discussed two major challenges – North Korea and Iran. Now we must add Pakistan. Cutting U.S. military and civilian assistance to Pakistan is bad U.S. policy. Threatening Pakistan is even worse.
© 2017/2018 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post