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How Pakistan Is Playing Washington—Again
Trump thinks he can get Imran Khan to help as he exits Afghanistan. History suggests otherwise.
This week, U.S. President Donald Trump held out extravagant hopes to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, suggesting he wanted to resume security aid, multiply bilateral trade many times over, and even try to mediate the decades-old Kashmir issue with India (claiming, falsely, that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him for help).
Trump’s friendly display represented a major presidential entreaty with a singular goal: to induce Pakistan “to help us out to extricate ourselves” from neighboring Afghanistan, as the president put it.
To many experts and former U.S. officials dealing with Pakistan, Trump’s pleas had a familiar ring and promised similar results: Islamabad will smile and say yes to most things, and then go on with its close relationship with the Taliban—including welcoming the radical Islamist forces as they retake Kabul following a U.S. withdrawal.
“They are so good at this game—literally rope a dope,” said Vipin Narang, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Their incentive is to bait and bleed the United States and extract as many goodies (at one point a nuclear arsenal) out of us as they can. And we have been baited and bled for 40 years. This is the most profitable franchise in Pakistani history.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who has said he experienced Pakistani duplicity firsthand when the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was attacked—allegedly by what Crocker called “Pakistan-based insurgents”—said he views Trump’s outreach as part of an awkward departure plan that all sides will see through.
“I have had this sense from the start that by going into talks with the Taliban, without the Afghan government being there, we’ve effectively been saying, ‘We surrender.’ I see this as a pretty clumsily managed part of that overall endeavor,” Crocker told Foreign Policy.
Pakistan, Crocker added, may well induce the Taliban—who will be willing to go along—to accede to U.S. demands that the militants no longer attack U.S. forces, but that will only be a ruse to accelerate an American departure. And no matter what Khan might promise Trump, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency and military will continue to oversee their active support of the Taliban, he said.
“They will look forward to the Taliban taking over the country,” Crocker said. “That’s been behind their almost two-decade refusal to clamp down on the [Taliban] leadership.”
Still, some experts said any effort to bring the troops home from Afghanistan requires Pakistan’s help.
“Trump might well be getting played, but Trump’s clumsy lies might still usefully support what [U.S. envoy Zalmay] Khalilzad is doing with the Taliban and Kabul,” said James Schwemlein, a nonresident scholar in the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to Washington’s special envoy to Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, which to a degree operate independently of the democratically elected government in Islamabad, have long seen radical Islamist groups, including the Taliban, as a strategic counterbalance to India’s influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. After 9/11, Islamabad made fitful efforts to rein in the worst of the jihadis—but notably not Osama bin Laden, whom U.S. intelligence in 2011 tracked to a comfortable villa not far from a Pakistani military base. Instead, Pakistan has over the years offered a safe haven to Taliban members, who have targeted not just American forces but troops from all over the world who were part of NATO and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
Last year, the Trump administration halted $1.3 billion in aid to Pakistan, with the president saying that Pakistan does not do “a damn thing” for the United States. “We’re paying them nothing because that’s what they’ve done to help us. Nothing,” Trump told reporters at the time.
Since then, however, Trump has suggested that he’s halving U.S. forces in Afghanistan and he directed Khalilzad to negotiate only with the Taliban, dispensing with previous U.S. policy that demanded the Afghan government be a party to talks.
“The rationale for Pakistan’s support for jihadis has not diminished,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States. “Little has changed on the ground. Pakistan is in the midst of a major economic crisis, and the past pattern is that they will promise whatever they need to get assistance restored. They also want to avoid sanctions under U.N. terrorist financing laws.”
On Tuesday, a day after Trump met Khan at the White House, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was blunt in saying that Pakistan is now placing its hopes in its relationship with Trump personally. He also criticized previous U.S. envoys and career foreign service professionals by name. “We cannot forget the fact that the relationship between the two countries was such that no door was being opened for us in the time of Alice Wells and Lisa Curtis,” he said. Wells and Curtis both currently serve at the State Department. “We used to ask for time [for discussions], and they were not ready to give that to us.” By contrast, Qureshi said, Trump has already accepted an invitation by Khan to visit Pakistan.
According to a former U.S. defense official who worked on Afghanistan-Pakistan issues, Washington can expect at least temporary help from Islamabad in restraining Taliban attacks on U.S. forces—in return for some bilateral goodies.
“I think it depends on what the United States actually gives Pakistan for this,” the former official said. “Just a nice visit with Trump isn’t going to get them to be more helpful.” The former official believes Islamabad will want not only a resumption of military assistance but also that Washington stop lobbying the Financial Action Task Force, which monitors suspicious money flows, to keep Pakistan on its gray list or black list of ostracized countries and support Pakistan at the International Monetary Fund to keep the loans coming, as well as increasing trade. The former official added that Pakistan will want to hear some “public recognition they are helping with the Taliban.”
According to Crocker, “It will be completely transactional. That’s how the Pakistanis have viewed it since 9/11. I expect we’re asking them to get the Taliban to cease direct attacks on our personnel in Afghanistan since we’re leaving anyway. We’re saying, ‘It can go well for you, Pakistan. Just cooperate on the small things.’”
The Oxford University-educated Khan has been harshly critical of Washington in the past and has criticized Islamabad’s dependence on U.S. aid as “calamitous.” The prime minister repeated that claim during remarks this week at the United States Institute for Peace. He said the aid created a “dependency syndrome,” so he didn’t ask Trump to restore it. In an interview with the Guardian in 2011, Khan said: “A country that relies on aid? Death is better than that. It stops you from achieving your potential, just as colonialism did.”
And Crocker and others with long experience in the region say Pakistan will never trust the United States no matter what Trump promises.
“The Pakistanis learned a hard and bitter lesson after the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, when we also walked out the door, leaving them with the Afghan civil war while we were reimposing sanctions on them,” Crocker said. “After 9/11, they said, ‘We’re happy to have you, but we know how you work. You’re going to be leaving. And if you think we’re going to turn the Taliban into an existential enemy while you leave, you’re crazy.’”
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh