Supporters of Pakistani religious parties chant anti-American slogans during a rally in Lahore, Pakistan, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017.

Supporters of Pakistani religious parties chant anti-American slogans during a rally in Lahore, Pakistan, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017. K.M. Chaudary/AP

The Art of Dealing with Pakistan

Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy may help get Islamabad moving in the right direction.

Pakistan is unlikely to be a front-burner issue for President Trump, but it’s a country he’ll have to reckon with sooner rather than later. It is difficult to know what to expect from a Trump administration regarding a country that remains by any objective measure both a critical counterterrorism partner and a state supporter of terrorism. Options are limited, yet there are certainly constructive paths to choose.

It is unlikely, but possible, that the president is mulling a grand bargain. In a late-November phone call with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Trump offered his help with “any outstanding problems.” This was taken by some in India and Pakistan as an offer to help resolve the two countries’ dispute over Kashmir, an interpretation reinforced by then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who said Trump could use his dealmaking for precisely this purpose. But this would almost certainly be a non-starter with New Delhi and could jeopardize America’s growing strategic relationship with India. There are few reasons to suspect U.S. efforts would work and many to suggest that these efforts could backfire.

Alternatively, Trump might adopt an aggressively coercive posture. In 2012, the New York businessman tweeted, “Get it straight: Pakistan is not our friend. We’ve given them billions and billions of dollars, and what did we get? Betrayal and disrespect — and much worse #TimeToGetTough.” As president-elect, he signaled that combating “radical Islamic terrorists” will be his top national-security priority. Given Pakistani support for the Taliban, Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) among others, this could put the country in America’s crosshairs.

But the United States currently has a limited number of coercive measures at its disposal. The most extreme is punitive military action, which would be reckless under the circumstances. (Some analysts have suggested that if Trump were to apply the madman theory of international relations, Pakistan could be a good place to start. Yet even they conclude that this could produce extraordinarily bad results.) The most commonly mooted form of coercion would be to designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, a step many U.S. lawmakers and experts outside government have recently called for.

The United States, however, should resist this suggestion. There is no disputing Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups, but there is also no escaping its importance for counterterrorism cooperation and access into Afghanistan. It would also be a bad idea to add volatility to South Asia when the United States faces other pressing global priorities and growing uncertainty about its role in the world.

American policymakers need not accept the status quo.

Yet American policymakers need not accept the status quo. The incoming administration and Congress have available a range of unilateral and multilateral mechanisms that could enable a more methodical, calibrated, and realistic approach. (I explored this more deeply in The Washington Quarterly’s most recent edition, which outlines an agenda for the next President.) Executed consistently and coherently, this approach could lead Pakistan to undertake tactical shifts on militancy that might have strategic effects over time. Doing so requires three things.

First, establish a firm foundation for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, creating enough space to allow Washington to escalate or de-escalate depending on Islamabad’s behavior. This requires reducing the size of the defense relationship. The administration should work with policymakers on the Hill to agree on plans to reduce security assistance, which should remain narrowly focused on counterterrorism, and to end Coalition Support Fund reimbursements to Pakistan. Created after 9/11, CSF was intended to enable Pakistan military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to support the U.S. and NATO/ISAF mission in Afghanistan. Combat operations in Afghanistan have ended; today, Pakistan maintains forces in the FATA as part of its counterinsurgency campaign. There is no need for U.S. taxpayers to foot this bill. The administration should also transition the Office of the Defense Representative – Pakistan into a smaller and more traditional security cooperation office under the purview of the defense attaché.

Second, test the Pakistan military’s claims that it has a plan to act against groups like LeT and JeM. If Pakistan does not deliver, then the United States should develop its own way forward, including milestones to measure action, and use it to guide requests to Pakistan. Such requests must be realistic, consistent, concrete, credible, and informed by realities on the ground. The United States should also seek a similar plan for action against the Taliban and Haqqani network.

Third, employ a mix of positive conditionality and escalatory coercion to back up U.S. requests. Even if this approach fails to yield progress, pegging assistance to realistic requests with clear metrics provides an opportunity to reinforce U.S. credibility by withholding assistance when benchmarks are not hit.

No offers of security assistance have changed the Pakistani military’s strategic calculus regarding support for certain militant groups. Positive conditionality could be used to promote tactical shifts that might have strategic effects over time and stand a better chance of success than attempts to bribe Pakistan into making major changes to its security policies. One way would be to tie the ongoing provision of certain equipment or materiel to its use. (These goods must be consumable, unlike a weapon that can be re-used and which is not easily taken back.)  Another way to institute positive conditionality would be to draft a Memorandum of Understanding that articulates the shared goals of U.S. assistance, metrics for success, methods of measurement, and the consequences for Pakistan if these metrics are not met. Congress could also set aside a portion of the total amount authorized for security assistance to Pakistan for a grant program. This would force Pakistan to make its case for assistance and give both sides more flexibility in how it is used.

When it comes to coercion, U.S. policymakers should note that Pakistan views reputational costs as more difficult to bear than financial ones. The United States could develop releasable evidence of Pakistan’s material support for certain militant groups and publicize it. In addition to the shaming aspect, this would signal that the United States is building a case toward designating Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. Along similar lines, Congress could create a grading system like the one used in countering terrorist financing, in which states might find themselves on a “black list” if they do not take appropriate measures. Limited penalties could be tied to the “black list” that punishes its members while still allowing engagement. This would provide Pakistan space to reform yet leave open further escalation. The United States could also threaten to revoke Pakistan’s Major Non-NATO Ally status, or work more overtly and aggressively with India on various areas of counterterrorism, including joint terrorist designations of certain militant leaders at the United Nations. 

These measures, and others, should be deployed individually and carefully, leaving room for engagement, escalation, and de-escalation as necessary. This approach is far from perfect, but it is more sustainable than the current model and would allow for greater flexibility than a blunt-force option. It also plays to Trump’s strength: transactional deal-making.

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