Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Afghanistan: US offers Pakistan yet another ‘last chance’

US threats are not seen as credible and are unlikely to work on Pakistan in the future.

Photo: Sabir Mazhar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Photo: Sabir Mazhar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Following US President Donald Trump's address on Afghanistan policy in August, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing that the US is willing to work with Pakistan 'one more time' in Afghanistan. In another hearing, General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, alleged that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) maintains links with terrorist groups.

For Pakistan, neither calls for 'one last chance' nor allegations of ISI links with terrorist groups are anything new. As such, the same old US policy repackaged by a new administration is likely to get the same old response from Pakistan.

For US policymakers to get results with Pakistan, they must realise two things:

  1. To fix Pakistan, the US must fix its approach to dealing with Pakistan, especially in terms of engaging the security establishment.
  2. US threats are not seen as credible and are unlikely to work, given the safeguards Pakistan has against extreme measures from the US.

Pakistan is likely to call the US bluff on its recent threats. From extensive interviews with the members of the security establishment in Pakistan, there are clear indicators that mounting US pressure is seen not as threat to isolate Pakistan, but an attempt to isolate the Pakistan Army in particular and upset the civil-military divide by characterising ISI as a rogue agency. The sense in the Pakistan Army and the ISI is that the US is playing up the civil-military divide in Pakistan to align Pakistan's national security policy with its own. This 'divide and conquer' approach has motivated Pakistan's security establishment to aggressively thwart any US attempts (especially via the civilian government) to change Pakistan's position on the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network.

If the US is looking for security cooperation with Pakistan, it cannot extend an olive branch with one hand while holding a whip in the other. The US needs to find a way to restore trust and working relations with a security establishment that mistrusts not just US adventurism in the region and its negative role in Pakistan's domestic affairs, but also (and perhaps more so) the US approach to solving the Afghanistan issue.

Pakistan's security establishment continues to believe (rightly so, in some ways) that it is squashed between two enemy states in Afghanistan and India. Pakistan wants a peaceful solution in Afghanistan, but not one that compromises its national interest and sovereignty. This is a concern that US policymakers understand on the surface but do very little to resolve on the ground.

Over at least the past decade, Pakistan has become inured to US threats, and has established measures to ensure that the cost of translating those threats into action have increased substantially. With Trump's low global standing and US inability to intimidate North Korea, Pakistan's interest in backing off from its long-held position on Afghanistan is limited. Over the years, Pakistan has created its own safeguards, such as through accelerating the development of its nuclear and missile technology systems. The Pakistani security establishment believes that if it were not for nuclear weapons, Pakistan would have suffered the same fate as Iraq.

Nuclear weapons are not the only safeguard. Through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $46 billion infrastructure project with China, Pakistan has bolstered its security by allowing China to take major stakes in Pakistan. The US-Pakistan issue now is more of a US-Pakistan-China issue, providing Pakistan with another layer of protection.

After billions of dollars of US aid, anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is still abundant. Some of this ill will is America's own doing, but some is also orchestrated by the deep state. There are over 100 million Pakistanis under the age of 25, who often hold very negative opinions about US policies in Pakistan and the Islamic world at large. US attempts to pursue any particularly extreme measures against Pakistan would be a potential time bomb that could have catastrophic results in terms of growth in terrorism and instability in the region.

And then there are the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOCs) that go through Pakistan to provide supply to US troops in Afghanistan. In 2011, Pakistan briefly shut down the GLOCs after the Salala attack and the refusal of the US to apologise for killing Pakistani troops. With the US highly dependent on these GLOCs, Pakistan has some leverage to defy the US.

In a 16 year-long war, the US has gone through several rounds of 'last chances' with Pakistan, facing similar results each time. The problem is that in Afghanistan, the US is looking for a military solution to a problem that is essentially political in nature. With Pakistan, US policymakers expect to coerce a country to give up its long-held national interest for that of the US short-term interests, without any guarantees or assurances. Pakistan has a direct interest to work with the US to resolve the crisis in Afghanistan – but for that to happen the US has to first develop trust and credibility that it wants a long-term solution that works for everyone, not just for the US.

A good way for President Trump to start would be by not threatening its long-standing ally and frontline state in the war on terror, and end the Obama era strategy of 'fixing' the civil-military divide in Pakistan from the inside, in the hope that it serves US strategic interests.

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