Trump’s Hard Line on Pakistan Is All Bluster
U.S. needs in Afghanistan have overridden promises to get tough on Islamabad.
U.S. President Donald Trump is meeting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House today. According to a White House statement, the two leaders will “focus on strengthening cooperation between the United States and Pakistan to bring peace, stability, and economic prosperity to a region that has seen far too much conflict.”
That’s a striking contrast from Jan. 1, 2018, when Trump rang in the new year by tweeting angrily about Pakistan: “They have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. … No more!” But it’s indicative of how the tough line the administration once promised on Pakistan has turned out to be mostly bluster.
In the early days of the Trump administration, the White House certainly talked tough on Pakistan, vowing to apply more pressure to compel Islamabad to crack down on the terrorist groups on its soil that threaten and target U.S. interests and troops in Afghanistan. U.S. media reports, citing unnamed administration officials, said the White House was considering a variety of new pressure tactics. These included increasing the number of drone strikes in Pakistan and revoking the country’s status as a major non-NATO ally.
“We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” Trump thundered in an August 2017 speech laying out his South Asia strategy. “But that will have to change, and that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials.”
The administration had ample incentive to follow through on its threats. After all, Trump had prioritized counterterrorism in his foreign policy, and the overseas dimension of his “America First” strategy is supposedly about protecting U.S. interests and lives.
But over two years on, nothing has really happened. Aside from the tough rhetoric, the Trump administration hasn’t taken a hard line on Pakistan. Its bark has been much worse than its bite.
One of its few punitive measures, implemented in early 2018, was a suspension of Pakistani security assistance. But this isn’t new; Washington cut security aid to Islamabad in the past as well, such as in the 1990s when it did so in response to Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons. The Trump administration also placed new restrictions on the movement of Pakistani diplomats posted in the United States, though these came largely in response to long-standing U.S. complaints about the harassment of American diplomats in Pakistan. Additionally, the White House ended its military and education training program with Pakistan.
But that’s about it. Instead of using an iron fist, the Trump administration has generally treated Pakistan with kid gloves. And the main reason why is Afghanistan.
Washington knows that if it provokes Islamabad with overly harsh measures, Pakistan can use its most powerful tool of leverage—suspending the supply routes on its soil used to convey materiel for U.S. and other NATO militaries in Afghanistan. This happened once before, in 2011, after NATO helicopters killed 24 Pakistani border troops. Islamabad kept the routes closed for more than seven months, until U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued an apology for the border incident.
America may have less to fear from such a retaliation now compared with in 2011, given that there are tens of thousands fewer U.S. troops in Afghanistan. However, several other complicating factors are at play today. First, the only alternative supply routes lie in Central Asia. Not only are these costlier and more circuitous, but they’re also in Russia’s backyard—and Washington’s relationship is more fraught with Moscow now than it was eight years ago. Second, U.S. forces in Afghanistan are stepping up attacks on the Taliban to strengthen America’s bargaining position in current negotiations to end the war.
And those negotiations most explain why Washington hasn’t sought to tighten the screws on Pakistan.
The Trump administration is holding bilateral talks with the Taliban in an effort to wind down a war and a U.S. military presence with which Trump has never been comfortable. And make no mistake: Getting a deal in Afghanistan is now Washington’s biggest policy objective in South Asia.
Washington views Islamabad as a critical player in an Afghan peace and reconciliation process, largely because of the leverage it enjoys with the Taliban for having provided the insurgents with safe havens and other support during the war. Administration officials initially asked Islamabad to help bring Taliban negotiators to the table. And on this front—as evidenced for example by the release of a top Taliban leader, Mullah Baradar, from a Pakistani prison in order to participate in talks—Pakistan delivered. The Americans are now looking to Islamabad to prod the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire and to negotiate with the Afghan government key U.S. demands that haven’t elicited much interest from the Taliban.
In a striking indication of the importance that Washington ascribes to Pakistan’s role in Afghan reconciliation, U.S. representatives participated in a meeting on the Afghan peace process on July 10 and 11 in Beijing with counterparts from China, Russia, and Pakistan. It marked the third such consultation between Washington, Beijing, and Moscow—and the first one with Islamabad joining the group. A joint statement declared: “China, Russia, and the United States welcomed Pakistan joining the consultation and believe that Pakistan can play an important role in facilitating peace in Afghanistan.”
That meeting came on the heels of another notable development: The State Department’s designation, on July 2, of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a terrorist organization. The BLA is a violent separatist organization waging an insurgency against the Pakistani state and against Chinese laborers and projects in Pakistan.
While the U.S. decision to designate the BLA may be tied to considerations about China—whether to encourage Beijing to relax its position in current trade talks with America or to complete a quid pro quo that began with China agreeing to let the United Nations designate the Pakistani terrorist leader Masood Azhar—it may well be connected to Afghanistan as well. In effect, by formally assigning the terrorist label to one of the biggest anti-state threats in Pakistan, Washington offered a sweetener to Islamabad to scale up its cooperation in Afghan peace talks.
The bottom line is that Washington badly needs Islamabad’s help in Afghanistan, and it can’t afford to take a harder line toward a partner that it doesn’t want to antagonize. With its hands tied, the United States is in no position to wield a big stick.
This isn’t to say the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is now flourishing. The Trump administration has frequently indicated that there are limits to cooperation with Pakistan. Its first National Security Strategy, released in December 2017, called for building trade and investment ties—but only “as security improves and as Pakistan demonstrates that it will assist the United States in our counterterrorism goals.” More recently, in a statement to Congress last month outlining the latest budgetary request for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and South Asia, Alice Wells, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, echoed the same theme: “Sustained progress” on Afghan reconciliation and counterterrorism, she said, “will lie at the heart of a renewed bilateral relationship.”
The implication is clear: Washington may look favorably on the idea of deeper trade ties and other nonsecurity cooperation, but it will have to wait until Pakistan has delivered on Afghan reconciliation and Pakistan-based terrorism. This isn’t to say that Washington is ruling out economic and trade cooperation altogether; the two countries held trade consultations as recently as May, and trade and investment opportunities are sure to come up during Khan’s visit. Still, trade and economics remain a sideshow in the relationship compared with reconciliation and terrorism, which will continue to occupy center stage.
Additionally, there are still very real bilateral tensions. Washington remains skeptical that Islamabad is cracking down sufficiently against Afghanistan- and India-focused terrorist groups on its soil, much less eliminating ties to them. Fundamental policy divergences—on the issues of Kashmir, India, and China—remain entrenched. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, based on Pakistan’s conspicuous absence from official documents on the policy, envisions no role for Islamabad. Even Afghanistan, the issue that prevents the U.S.-Pakistan relationship from plunging into crisis, is a bone of contention. Washington is less enthused about a prominent Taliban role in a political settlement than is Islamabad. And America does not share Pakistan’s desire for an Afghan government that is not friendly to India.
Finally, in Washington, the tone of U.S.-Pakistan relations continues to be quite negative. Based on my own conversations with U.S. officials in recent months, my sense is that there is little enthusiasm within the Trump administration for exploring broader collaboration—just a grudging commitment to double down on the narrowly defined goal of partnering on Afghan peace. So if the Pakistanis hope that Khan’s meeting with Trump will result in a reset of the relationship, they’re sorely mistaken.
Indeed, despite the White House’s claim that a wide range of issues will be on the table, Trump will likely come to the meeting with one sole talking point: Afghanistan. To be sure, he will broach other issues—perhaps the importance of Pakistan and India resuming dialogue or the need for irreversible Pakistani steps against terrorism—but Afghanistan will figure most prominently.
Khan’s agenda will be more ambitious. He may want to discuss how Pakistan, buoyed by Chinese infrastructure investments, can be a force for regional connectivity and prosperity; argue that Pakistan’s recent arrests of militants and closure of their facilities give reason for the Financial Action Task Force, a global forum that monitors terrorist financing, to keep Pakistan off its blacklist; and call on Washington to unfreeze Pakistani security aid and scale up economic assistance. On these issues, he’ll have trouble getting Trump’s ear. Accordingly, we shouldn’t oversell the immediate significance of any comments unrelated to Afghanistan or to terrorism that appear in a post-meeting joint statement.
Still, these disconnects aside, we should expect a fairly cordial meeting between Trump and Khan that solidifies their shared commitment toward pursuing peace in Afghanistan. And above all, the meeting should finally give the lie to the notion that the Trump administration is taking a hard line on Pakistan.