Pakistan, under pressure from the United States, cracks down on homegrown militant groups wreaking havoc in neighboring Afghanistan. The Pakistani state disintegrates as the clampdown unleashes a deadly blowback. Amid the ensuing anarchy, terrorists get their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear codes and unleash weapons of mass destruction against America and its allies.
That is the doomsday scenario that Pakistan and its powerful lobby groups in Washington, D.C. have sold to American generals, politicians, and journalists since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Pakistan has convinced America that it has only two options. One, Washington must tolerate and bankroll Pakistan’s “double game” in Afghanistan, where it is supports the Afghan insurgency even as it receives around $1 billion a year from Washington for its help in combating those same militants. Or, two, it can pressure Pakistan to root out terrorists and risk destabilizing a nuclear country with unimaginable costs to both Pakistan and the United States.
But this is a self-serving narrative based on the false premise that Islamabad will crumble at the slightest U.S. pressure, Pakistan’s million-strong army is powerless to protect its nuclear warheads, and Washington would suffer most from a cut in ties than Islamabad.
Washington has been reluctant to call Islamabad’s bluff. Instead, American taxpayers have forked out around $20 billion in military aid and equipment to Pakistan. Islamabad has laughed all the way to the bank, cashing in American taxpayer money to arm, fund, and protect the same militants that have killed over 3,600 American soldiers, contractors, and civilians in Afghanistan.
For 15 years, Washington has tried and failed to get Pakistan on its side through carrots. Now, it is time to try the stick.
There is a lot at stake. We have all heard of Pakistan’s long list of failures: Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy Seals a stone’s throw away from a Pakistani military academy. Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in an U.S. air strike on Pakistani soil in May. But that is nothing compared to what could happen if the United States maintains the status quo. As the Afghan government threatens to fall apart, Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is allowing the expansion of Islamic State and al-Qaeda militants across the country. It mirrors the same conditions that preceded the worst-ever attack on the U.S. homeland 15 years ago.
Instead of forking out billions, the United States could sanction the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment for backing extremist groups that kill Americans, cutting military aid to Pakistan, ending the subsidized sale of military hardware, and taking action on the ground against high-profile militant targets on Pakistani soil. Pakistan will only stop its current policy in Afghanistan when it feels it is too financially and politically costly to sustain its meddling in its western neighbor.
At the same time, the United States could realign itself away from Pakistan and toward India, the world’s largest democracy whose core strategic interests in supporting the Afghan government, fighting militancy, containing China, and supporting nuclear nonproliferation match Washington’s. The two have deepened security and economic ties in the past few years, with President Barack Obama describing the relationship as “the defining partnership of the 21st century.” The U.S.-India-Afghanistan alliance would give Washington a strong foothold in the region, protect its soldiers and investments in Afghanistan, and give it two staunch friends in the region. Those three partners will meet later this month in New York –without Pakistan.
Pakistan is not “a major non-NATO ally,” as designated by the U.S. government. The U.S. alliance with Pakistan is an outdated, Cold War-era marriage of convenience that worked when they both had a common enemy in the Soviet Union. The circumstances have radically changed.
There are signs that Washington is belatedly taking action against Pakistan. In recent years, Obama has cut both military and economic aid to Pakistan. He has also authorized the expansion of U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani soil and overseen the killing of top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. But Obama’s actions have had minimal effect because there has been no follow through. What is needed is the resolve to maintain and expand actions that will bring about a fundamental change in Islamabad.
Target The Military
To send a message to Islamabad, Washington could target the powerful Pakistani military, which has an oversized role in domestic and foreign affairs. It is the army and Pakistan’s notorious spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which have orchestrated Pakistan’s strategy of using militant proxies to exert influence in neighboring Afghanistan and India.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani journalist and the author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, notes that the Pakistani military possesses not just security-related businesses, but also hotels, shopping centers, insurance companies, banks, farms, and an airline. Siddiqa estimates the military’s capital is worth over $20 billion.
Just as U.S. sanctions against Iran successfully targeted and squeezed individuals and companies tied to that country’s nuclear program, Washington could identify and sanction individuals and businesses tied to the Pakistani military that are funding terrorism and endangering American lives.
“Is an army that is hooked on business enterprise and money willing to give up what they have?” asks Mohammad Taqi, a prominent Pakistani political analyst. “Pakistan would not be able to sustain half the sanctions Iran faced for even half the time.”
Cutting Military Aid and Subsidies
Washington is on the right path by significantly cutting military aid to Pakistan in recent years, reflecting mounting frustration over Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, which has expanded into areas in Afghanistan that the United States once helped to secure at great cost and blood.
U.S. civilian and military aid to Pakistan, once the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, is expected to total less than $1 billion in 2016, down from a recent peak of more than $3.5 billion in 2011, according to U.S. government data.
Washington has sent a strong signal to Pakistan that it is no longer willing to write blank checks. If the United States were to cut all military aid, Pakistan would see that its backing of the Taliban would simply become too costly. Pakistan does not receive such generous military aid from any other country besides the United States.
The United States could also be better served by eliminating subsidized military equipment to Pakistan.
The Pentagon has said it will not pay Pakistan $300 million in military reimbursements after U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told Congress that Pakistan was not taking adequate action against the Haqqani Network.
It is the first time the Obama administration has withheld military aid to Pakistan because of the Haqqani Network, which has been a major source of U.S. concern in Afghanistan and which in the past U.S. officials have claimed had links to Pakistan’s ISI.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has promised to stop any U.S. funding for Islamabad’s purchase of Lockheed Martin Corp F-16 fighter jets valued at $700 million, thereby blocking Pakistan from using another pool of American military aid to buy weapons.
Target Safe Havens
Insurgencies that receive support from external states achieved their objectives more than 50 percent of the time. Not only that, but 43 percent of insurgencies have been successful when they have safe havens in a neighboring country. Pakistan has given both to the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. The United States can reinforce the message to Pakistan by putting pressure on the Taliban and its sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Washington demonstrated that it is willing do this in May when a U.S. drone strike killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in Pakistan. It was the first U.S. air strike against an Afghan Taliban leader in the group’s sanctuaries in Pakistan’s southwest, which has been off-limits to the U.S. as part of an informal agreement.
The attack on Mansour could have been a message with teeth. But it was only symbolic and fleeting. There has been no follow through since Mansour’s killing and the Taliban have only become more emboldened.
Drone strikes are controversial and some cause civilian casualties. But the payoff would be worth the risk when targeting the high brass of the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and al-Qaeda, extremist groups bent on killing Americans. Without its sanctuaries in Pakistan, the Taliban would not be able to survive as an insurgency.
Washington’s reluctance to change Pakistan’s policies has left Afghanistan, an American ally, stranded and exasperated for the past 15 years. A record number of Afghan civilians are being killed and security personnel are suffering unsustainable losses. If the United States maintains the status quo, the Taliban will capture towns and cities across the country, a scenario that could drag Washington toward a renewed military involvement in Afghanistan. That is a scenario nobody wants.
By giving Pakistan and its terrorist proxies a free hand, the United States is inadvertently setting in motion a series of events that could end in another attack on the U.S. homeland, 15 years after those horrific scenes in New York City, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran for RFE/RL. He has reported extensively from the region for nearly a decade. He is a contributor to The Atlantic and has been published in Foreign Policy Magazine, The Guardian, and Defense One.