Editor’s Note: Since we published this post in August 2017, numerous rumors, leaks, and tweets about reduced American support to Pakistan have now been transformed into policy. The State Department announced on Thursday that it will be suspending most U.S. security aid to Pakistan. Though details remain unclear, this post explores the dynamics of U.S.-Pakistan relations and the difficulties that the United States faces in trying to coerce Pakistan.
President Trump’s recent speech on Afghanistan put Pakistan “on notice” for supporting the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. Trump threatened aid reductions and targeted sanctions — unless Pakistan changes course. India and Afghanistan are happy; Pakistan is not.
Here are five reasons these threats won’t work:
1) Pakistan does not treat all groups equally. There is little reason to expect substantial changes in Pakistan’s approach to armed groups. In a forthcoming Security Studies article, we (with Sameer Lalwani) systematically studied the Pakistan army’s strategy toward 20 armed groups on the northwest frontier since 2002.
We found that a complex blend of ideological and operational considerations shaped the army’s approach. Pakistan’s army carefully sorted groups by assessing their ideological position toward the state and whether they could help extend its influence into Afghanistan, India and hard-to-govern border areas.
Our research used new quantitative and qualitative data on cease-fires, peace deals and military offensives, sourced from field interviews, press reporting, academic research and government documents.
This approach let us identify how the Pakistan army categorizes these groups by their “political roles” — ranging from armed allies to mortal enemies — along with the strategies it has pursued toward these groups. We studied four cases in greater depth, exploring relations with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, the Pakistani Taliban), the Haqqani network, the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group and the Mullah Nazir group.
2) The Pakistan army treats the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network as armed allies. Neither group challenges the military’s vision of Pakistani nationalism. Instead, they are valuable agents of power and influence within Afghanistan. The army leaves the Haqqanis alone for the most part — at worst moving them to a different location during major military offensives against other groups in the same areas of Pakistan.
The army also cut deals with or ignored unsavory but tolerable “gray zone” organizations, even those with a history of clashes and tension with the military. Creating spheres of influence and carving out durable cease-fires with these groups stabilizes the periphery, weakens radical insurgents and limits the need to build state infrastructure in these areas. The country’s northwest border is dotted with a variety of armed orders, including extensive military alliances and armed groups with which the army has limited cooperation.
3) Domestic politics factor into army crackdowns. The army vigorously targets groups that make unacceptable political claims against the state and military. The highly radical TTP and al-Qaeda directly challenged the dominant status of the Pakistani military — and Pakistan’s security forces hunted them down. These two groups stand badly degraded from these crackdowns, which resulted in immense loss of civilian and military life.
4) U.S. pressure is unlikely to change the situation. In the face of new U.S. threats, Pakistan is likely to offer minor concessions, such as launching token crackdowns and perhaps handing over individuals the military does not view as allies. This was a pattern in past responses to U.S. demands for army action against groups in Pakistan.
Analysts who advocate getting tough on Pakistan argue that the problem has been insufficient coercive pressure from the U.S. government. But U.S. pull in Pakistan has real limits, even though Pakistan certainly relies on U.S. military hardware and economic aid. On the margin, targeted sanctions and reductions in aid would hurt. But they would not impose a debilitating strain that outweighs the benefits Pakistan’s security elite sees from its influence over neighboring Afghanistan.
A multilateral approach, especially against key nodes in the Pakistani security establishment, would perhaps be painful. But the Chinese, who quickly moved to support Pakistan after Trump’s speech, would certainly veto any U.N. sanctions against Pakistan. Pakistan-China cooperation provides Pakistan valuable, though not guaranteed, insurance against U.S. sanctions. The Chinese have stepped up their aid to Pakistan, while the United States has gradually reduced it.
5) The Trump administration will confront serious trade-offs. The existing bilateral cooperation on counterterrorism against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State has its limitations but would be undermined by a further decline in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. This would also erode Washington’s ability to manage the risk of nuclear theft and conflict in South Asia — and increase the risk of terrorism against the U.S. homeland.
And if the United States looks to expand raids against the Haqqanis and Afghan Taliban in Pakistan — through drones or Special Operations — it would require Pakistan’s help. Pakistan would need to support de-conflicted airspace for constant surveillance and tolerate on-the-ground U.S. intelligence collection.
Yet concessions to Pakistan are not the answer. There is little reason to believe that assuaging Pakistani concerns vis-a-vis India, or the Indian presence in Afghanistan, is plausible. Afghanistan is part of Pakistan’s strategy against India, and the India-Pakistan rivalry will not end anytime soon. The United States has no interest in forcing any agreement over Kashmir, much less one that satisfies Pakistan. Nor is installing a Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul an appealing, or realistic, option. Regional peace on Pakistan’s terms won’t happen.
What does the future hold?
As dramatic as Trump’s speech was, South Asia’s security dynamics do not respond easily — or quickly — to the wishes of any U.S. president. It’s unlikely that there will be any dramatic change on any of these fronts. Pakistan will not radically retaliate, because it benefits from cooperation with the United States, even as Washington is limited in how hard it can push that cooperation. India, for its part, will continue to do development work in Afghanistan but will probably not adopt a major security role in the country. These predictions are hardly provocative — but they reflect the most likely trajectory.
Asfandyar Mir is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Chicago and pre-doctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
Paul Staniland is an associate professor of political science and co-director of the Program on Political Violence at the University of Chicago.