Brig. Gen. Mike Nagata, (left) deputy chief of the Office of the Defense Representative Pakistan and Vice Admiral Mike LeFever, commander of ODRP, watch as relief supplies are offloaded from a U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk in Uthror, Pakistan in 2010.

Brig. Gen. Mike Nagata, (left) deputy chief of the Office of the Defense Representative Pakistan and Vice Admiral Mike LeFever, commander of ODRP, watch as relief supplies are offloaded from a U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk in Uthror, Pakistan in 2010. Staff Sgt. Kali Gradishar/U.S. Air Force

A Year On, Pakistan Still the Weak Link in US South Asia Strategy

The Trump administration's strategy has produced no definitive improvements along its pillars. Pakistan remains a safe haven for terrorist groups.

One year ago, President Donald J. Trump outlined a new South Asia strategy in a speech at Fort Myer. In his speech, the president did three things: one, he shifted the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan from a timetable approach to a conditions-based approach; two, he publicly upbraided Pakistan for ostensibly being a U.S. ally while simultaneously providing safe haven to terrorists, the Afghan Taliban, and others; and three, he called upon India to do more in Afghanistan as an economic assistance and development partner.

Here’s what I wrote about this speech at the time: “The Not-So-New ‘New’ South Asia Strategy.” The upshot: the supposedly “new” approach drew on elements of the Barack Obama administration’s strategy that were already in place, and marked in many ways a continuation of past policies. (The president’s sharp remarks about Pakistan—“we can no longer be silent”—did mark a departure in tone, and certainly elevated the level of public U.S. dissatisfaction. Trump’s New Year’s Day tweet about Pakistan’s “lies and deceit” further abandoned all diplomatic niceties.)

One year on, it’s fair to ask how things are going. The answer: not terribly well.

In Afghanistan, recent headlines show that the question of a negotiation with the Taliban is back on the table. This marks a step toward some kind of potential solution, but we know little about the content of these talks and whether they will succeed, drag on interminably, or fail. Continued Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, including in Ghazni most recently, create further confusion about the Taliban’s intentions; are they ready to discuss politics? Does renewed violence indicate a lack of interest in negotiation, or is the Taliban jockeying for a better bargaining position?

To the south, the Trump administration is trying disincentives to gain greater Pakistani cooperation on terror, after previous administrations attempted to use security assistance as an incentive. We are now eight months into this tougher approach. The Trump administration suspended all security assistance in January to increase pressure, and Pakistan has been named to the Financial Action Task Force “gray list” for its insufficient controls on financial flows to terrorist groups. Further, we learned earlier this month that Pakistani participation in the International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs has been curtailed. Has the assistance cut shaped Pakistan’s approach to fighting terrorists? Well, in Pakistan’s recent national elections, “hundreds with terror ties” ran for office. That doesn’t look like a country taking every step to tackle terrorism.

Pakistan just swore in a new prime minister, Imran Khan. His early statements have suggested interest in better ties with Afghanistan, with India, and with the United States. But Khan has a long record of blaming the region’s terrorist problem on the United States rather than on the terrorist groups themselves, or acknowledging the Pakistan army’s well-documented role in nurturing them. Moreover, it’s the military that makes key national security decisions in Pakistan. We shall see soon whether Khan can shape a different outcome. A Pakistan that remains a safe haven for terrorist groups that threaten stability in Afghanistan will—as has been the case for seventeen years—continue to undermine hard-won progress. That’s why Pakistan has been the weak link in regional strategies all these years.

What about the third element of the strategy, India’s role? U.S.-India ties continue to strengthen, despite ongoing problems on trade that the Trump administration has made worse. On the security and defense side, things are going well, though they could move faster. The first U.S.-India “2+2” ministerial meeting, bringing together Secretaries Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis with their Indian counterparts, Ministers Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman, will be held in New Delhi on September 6. They are sure to discuss Afghanistan, where India is the fifth-largest bilateral donor. They are also sure to discuss the Chabahar port in Iran, India’s gateway to Afghanistan.

Unfortunately the snapback sanctions on Iran—due to the president’s decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May of this year—create new uncertainty for India about this port. (More on this issue, plus some maps, here.) So the country that the president called upon to support further development in Afghanistan faces questions about its overland access to Afghanistan because of U.S. tensions with Iran. Indian strategic thinkers are worried. Here’s a special report on this complex issue from India’s Observer Research Foundation.

All this adds up to limited change, a year in, with the central questions still unanswered. Of course, prior to 9/11, Afghanistan was unstable and a source of regional and global terrorist activity. Against that yardstick, things have surely improved.

The Trump administration should give its strategy a little more time, and indeed could still take additional steps to ratchet up the pressure on Pakistan. These include actions such as those outlined in a 2017 report from the Hudson Institute, inclusive of revoking the “major non-NATO ally” designation, possibly barring individuals from travel to the United States, and holding out the prospect of the state sponsor of terror designation as a last resort.

But Americans are asking, rightly, how long the United States should support a continued presence there without clear markers of progress. I am not very hopeful that Pakistan will change course and help create a solution, but would welcome being surprised on this front.

This piece, first published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is used with permission.