The Definition of Insanity Is U.S. AfPak Strategy

The central problem confronting the United States in the region is no longer al Qaeda or the Taliban. It’s the Pakistan Army.


Donald Trump is right: America’s leaders are stupid. They’re nothing but a bunch of losers. Well, at least when it comes to Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s the only conclusion to be reached following two big developments this week.

The first was President Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States will decelerate its military drawdown from Afghanistan. Instead of preserving only a small force of about 1,000 troops, the new plan will station 9,800 in the country until 2016 and 5,500 into 2017. Their mission will be limited to training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations. This will help promote, in Obama’s words, an “Afghan-led reconciliation process” leading to a “lasting political settlement” that will make Kabul “a stable and committed ally.”

If that sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. The new policy is at best a band-aid and — given the likely cost in blood and treasure — not a pain-free one. David Galula, the French military scholar who is the ideological godfather of the U.S. counterinsurgency, understood years ago that support from a neighboring country could easily sustain an insurgency. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan cannot succeed as long as the Pakistan Army continues to tolerate and sponsor the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other terrorist groups. The U.S. intelligence community has been saying precisely that for years.

At one level, Obama appreciates the problem. “Sanctuaries for the Taliban and other terrorists must end,” he said on Oct. 15, adding that he would discuss the matter with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif when he visits Washington next week. The White House and the U.S. foreign-policy establishment still believe that Islamabad just needs to be convincingly persuaded about the merits of cracking down on terrorist organizations.

But let’s cut the crap. The central problem confronting the United States in the region is no longer al Qaeda or the Taliban. It’s the Pakistan Army, which has always pursued its own objectives over those of the country it is meant to defend. The Army has a 40-year history of supporting terrorists against Afghanistan, India, and (more recently) Americans. Even in the absence of a smoking gun, there is little doubt that the Army and its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, sheltered Osama bin Laden and protected Taliban leader Mullah Omar. This policy of supporting terrorism has been driven by a warped ideology, political imperatives, and corporate interests. The Army has long used Islamism and imagined foreign threats to consolidate its political primacy and shore up its commercial interests, which range from cement to telecommunications.

Sharif offers little help. Anti-government protests engineered by the Army in 2014 forced him to relinquish foreign and security policy to the military, in what many Pakistani commentators described as a “soft coup.” Today, few seriously believe that the prime minister calls the shots in Islamabad.

Why does the United States shy away from confronting Pakistan about its continued export of terrorism? The simple answer is nukes. Pakistan has been steadily increasing fissile material for its nuclear stockpile and now produces enough for between 16 and 20 warheads per year. Its justification was initially New Delhi’s nuclear program, except that India produces material for only around 5 warheads per year. India has a stockpile of an estimated 90 to 110 warheads in reserve; Pakistan is thought to have between 110 and 130 (though some experts believe it’s possible “to calculate a number twice this size”). But it’s not an arms race if only one party is racing.

Since seeking nuclear parity with India now has little credibility as an excuse, Pakistan has resorted to several flimsy reasons to justify its nuclear expansion. The one that gained the most traction blames an Indian Army doctrine, Cold Start, which would have involved punitive incursions into Pakistan following a terrorist attack. The Indian Army certainly considered Cold Start in 2004 — but the Indian military or government never formally adopted it. Pakistani strategists, many with ties to the military, have also blamed India’s defense spending, military modernization, and even its purportedly belligerent rhetoric as reasons for Islamabad to rely on nuclear weapons to compensate for the growing disparity between the two countries. These have never been more than convenient pretexts for a Pakistani nuclear arms buildup.

The real reason for Pakistan’s nuclear expansion isn’t India — it’s for blackmailing the United States. So fearful has Washington been of Pakistan’s nukes being sold, stolen, lost, sabotaged, or accidentally used that during George W. Bush’s administration, it reportedly spent as much as $100 million trying to secure the arsenal. Since 2001, the Pakistan Army has also received more than $20 billion in military support from the United States, even as it has continued to support groups like the Haqqani network that have killed hundreds of Americans. This is the greatest shakedown in history.

What makes this ploy all the more brilliant is that the blackmail victim doesn’t even realize it. Take the second major AfPak development of the week. According to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and the New York Times’s David Sanger, the White House is considering relaxing controls on Pakistan’s access to civilian nuclear technology, equipment, and fuel in exchange for promises that it will limit its nuclear weapons program. (The White House has publicly downplayed the possibility of a deal.) As Ignatius hints, such an agreement is closely linked to Pakistani cooperation on Afghanistan, possibly a sweetener for Pakistan to bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table.

But even dangling the offer of “nuclear mainstreaming” — as advocates of the policy have described it — is an awful idea. Forget for a moment that Pakistan is a state sponsor of terrorism or that such a deal risks incentivizing bad behavior. The deal also continues the long track record of the United States raising Pakistani expectations and then not delivering, a history of disappointment that has long fanned anti-Americanism in the country. A nuclear agreement of this kind will face resistance from within the U.S. government, not to mention Congress, given Pakistan’s history of duplicitous nuclear proliferation. Even then, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the powerful 48-nation international nuclear cartel of which the United States is a member, will almost certainly veto it.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that Islamabad will keep its end of the bargain. Washington would be helping Pakistan in the near term in exchange for a long-term commitment to limit its nuclear program, a promise that Islamabad has shown no prior interest in keeping. Ultimately, energy-starved Pakistan has far more to lose from its continued nuclear isolation than the international community has to gain from such a deal. The onus therefore is on Pakistan to show its bona fides — come clean about its past proliferation activities, stop supporting terrorism as a state policy, and adopt a stabilizing nuclear posture — before nuclear mainstreaming can even be considered. Finally, if such an agreement were to be realized, it would rock U.S. relations with India, which — despite a far better proliferation track record — had to jump through a number of legal, procedural, and political hoops between 2005 and 2008 to be allowed to import civilian nuclear technology, fuel, and equipment. The immense goodwill for the United States in India that was generated by that deal would be lost overnight.

The proposed agreement to mainstream Pakistan’s nuclear program and the failure to address the Pakistan factor in Afghanistan are, in Trump’s parlance, just dumb, dumb, dumb. The White House seems completely removed from South Asia’s political and security realities. It’s quaint, almost funny, that U.S. officials and experts still worry about a “rogue commander” with “radical sympathies” seizing control of a Pakistani nuclear bomb. The Pakistan Army radicalized and went rogue many years ago.


Dhruva Jaishankar is Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia.

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