The Pakistan Puzzle: How Will Trump Deal with It?
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Tridivesh Singh Maini

The Pakistan Puzzle: How Will Trump Deal with It?

Apr. 13, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The media focus during Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s recent US visit was on the fact that he was frisked and had to go through a security screening like other passengers. The Deputy Spokesperson at the US Embassy in New Delhi clarified that since Abbasi was travelling in his private capacity without his diplomatic passport, he could not be exempted from routine security screening.


On March 16, 2018, Abbasi met with US Vice President Mike Pence. A White House statement on the meeting between Pence and Abbasi stated: “Vice President Pence reiterated President [Donald] Trump’s request that the government of Pakistan must do more to address the continued presence of the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and other terrorist groups operating in their country.”


PM Abbasi reportedly told the US Vice President that Pakistan is doing all it can to fight terrorism, and that its efforts need to be recognized. One of the challenges which the US is facing is that despite taking tough measures on Pakistan in recent months, there has been no visible change in Islamabad’s approach towards terror groups. A senior US official commented that: “We continue to make very specific requests, and when provided with very specific information, they have responded. But we have not seen them proactively take the steps that we expect and know they are capable of.”


Some of the stringent steps US has taken include the suspension of aid to Pakistan. In January 2018, the US suspended over USD 1.1 billion in security assistance to Pakistan, citing Pakistan’s unwillingness to take action against the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network. The US President tweeted on January 1 that the US had received nothing in lieu of the USD 33 billion of aid which it has provided to Pakistan except “lies and deceit,” and that Pakistan had provided a “safe haven” to terrorists.


It was also a consequence of US lobbying that Pakistan was put on the terrorist financing watchlist of the FATF (Financial Action Task Force), a global money laundering watch dog, in February 2018, and is likely to be officially put on the gray list in June 2018. China and Saudi Arabia were initially opposed to putting Pakistan on the watchlist, but ultimately dropped their opposition.


The US is exploring other options as well, such as suspending Non-NATO ally status to Pakistan, permanently cutting off US military aid which had already been suspended in January 2018, and imposing visa bans and/or other penalties and sanctions on Pakistani government officials who are providing support to militants.


The US government has also added seven Pakistani firms to a list of foreign entities that pose a “significant risk” to US national security and interests. According to the US Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS): “Three are listed for their involvement in the proliferation of unsafeguarded nuclear activities that are contrary to the national security and/or foreign policy interests of the US. Two are accused of procuring supplies for nuclear-related entities already on the list and the remaining two are accused of acting as fronts for listed entities.” This would considerably dent Islamabad’s bid to join the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).


Some important steps have been taken by both sides to calm down the tempers. A few days after Pakistan was put on the watch list of the FATF, Lisa Curtis, the Senior director for South Asia and Central Asia at the National Security Council of the US, travelled to Pakistan and asked the Pakistani government to take action against terror groups and also conveyed concerns about Pakistan’s anti-terror financing regime. This was followed by Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua’s visit to US. Janjua put forward Pakistan’s strategic concerns, stated that having a good relationship was in the interest of both countries, and spoke about the need for closer economic ties. Senior US officials reiterated not just the need for continued engagement between both countries (given Pakistan’s strategic importance), but also praised Pakistan for its role in fighting terrorism.

It remains to be seen how Trump, Pompeo, Mattis and Bolton, who have a myriad of foreign policy challenges to contend with, will seek to resolve the “Pakistan puzzle.”

The current US National Security Advisor-designate John Bolton, who is a hawk on Iran and North Korea, is more pragmatic on Pakistan — if one were to go by his comments in opinion pieces. Bolton has argued that there is no point in pushing Pakistan to the wall. In an article titled “Dangers of a Jihadist Pakistan” written for The Wall Street Journal, Bolton argued that putting excessive pressure on Pakistan would be counterproductive: “In this unstable environment, blunt pressure by the US — and, by inference, India — could backfire.”

Husain Haqqani and Lisa Curtis have argued that doing away with all nuance and taking an unrealistic approach vis-à-vis Pakistan would be detrimental: “It also is not in the US interest to make an enemy out of Pakistan without fresh efforts to change Pakistani behavior … While Pakistan frequently does not behave like an ally, it does selectively cooperate with the US.”

Significantly, Bolton has argued in favor of using China to prevail upon Pakistan if necessary: “The US can use its leverage to induce China to join the world in telling Pakistan it must sever ties with terrorists and close their sanctuaries. The Trump administration should make clear that Beijing will face consequences if it does not bring to bear its massive interests in support of this goal.”

Bolton’s views with regard to using Pakistan’s allies were echoed by Haqqani and Curtis: “Washington must seek to work more closely with China, which shares concerns about the presence of terrorist groups in the region and the threat they pose to the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) … Beijing may be willing to work with Washington behind the scenes to press Pakistan to crack down on terrorists within its territory. Gulf Arab countries, too, must be encouraged to press Pakistan to change its direction.”

Given the current tensions between China and US, this may not seem a feasible option, but the Saudis could also be used to pressure Pakistan. On the eve of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the US, a senior official in the Trump Administration alluded to the possibility of the Saudis emerging as an interlocutor between the US and Pakistan. Given Trump’s good rapport with the Saudis this option could work.

The US should ensure that it does not push Pakistan’s civilian government into one corner, as this will further strengthen the army and hardliners backed by the Pakistan army. This would not be good news for anyone, including India. Sane elements in Washington as well as New Delhi realize that civilian leadership needs to be given space. Similarly, providing civilian aid may not result in short term benefits, but removing it will not be advantageous in any manner.

About a decade ago, in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright described Pakistan as an “international migraine”: “Pakistan has everything that gives you an international migraine. It has nuclear weapons, it has terrorism, extremists, corruption, very poor and it’s in a location that’s really, really important to us. And now with this issue with India. So, I think that the current President and the current Secretary of State, who’s on her way to India right now, have a very big job ahead of them.”

Not much seems to have changed since then except that Pakistan has moved even closer to China, while ties with the US have gone downhill. It remains to be seen how Trump, Pompeo, Mattis and Bolton, who have a myriad of foreign policy challenges to contend with, will seek to resolve the “Pakistan puzzle.” A lot will also depend upon the behavior of the Pakistan army over the next few months, as well as the verdict of the June 2018 election. The Trump Administration would be well advised to reach out to civilian leaders across the board, while maintaining a tough posture vis-à-vis the army.

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