U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, during his recent surprise visit to Afghanistan, had sharp words for Pakistan. He not only accused Pakistan of providing safe haven to terrorists operating in Afghanistan, but also said that “President Trump has put Pakistan on notice” and “those days are over” when Islamabad can provide sanctuaries to militants in the country. Arguably, Pence’s statement directly threatening Pakistan of dire consequences unless the country changes its policy of allegedly sheltering terrorist organizations is perhaps the most serious warning that any U.S. regime has given to Pakistan since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Among other things, what the warning demonstrates is that the relationship has reached a point where they hardly share common goals in terms of their respective security and economic objectives. For Washington, China’s expanding economic and military might is a direct threat to U.S. global hegemony. In this regard, Pakistan has gained a strategic value: Islamabad’s geostrategic location offers Beijing a gateway that may ultimately define the success of its global infrastructure scheme, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Washington has openly opposed the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) recently, an infrastructure scheme that may very well revive Pakistan’s choked economy.
Moreover, for Washington, Pakistan’s inaction against groups that target U.S. interests has remained a consistent talking point whenever both countries leadership have set together to restore their partnership back to normalcy. Pakistan, for its part, claims that it has eliminated terrorist safe heavens from the country and it is Afghanistan’s turn to clean its house. Besides, Islamabad doesn’t consider a number of jihadist groups based in the country as terror organizations while Washington has designated them terrorists with millions of dollars in bounties.
It doesn’t appear that Islamabad is in any mood to pay heed to what Washington may be interested in: Pakistan is pursuing a policy of “mainstreaming militants” by bringing them into the country’s political fold. While Washington expects that Islamabad take military action against a number of insurgent groups based in the country, Pakistan is not interested in isolating their active presence, let alone taking military action against them. The bottom line is that Islamabad is not going to take action against any militant group unless it is deemed to be a threat to the state.
The question, then, is what do such warnings achieve when Washington seldom goes beyond rhetoric to action? By and large, Washington has offered threatening statements that appease other regional allies and fail to hold Islamabad responsible for the raging militancy in Afghanistan that continues to challenge the United States’ military, economic, and diplomatic might. Moreover, if the history of both countries bilateral relations is any guide, Washington has seldom put pressure on Pakistan that might lead to domestic rage against the country’s ruling elite.
However, if Washington is going to break from the past policy of “looking tough,” it’s going to be now. Under President Donald Trump’s leadership, the United States appears to have made clear to Islamabad that the it is willing to take all necessary steps to achieve its security objectives in Afghanistan and beyond. Ramping up pressure on Pakistan, the United States has demanded that the country ensure the safety of its nuclear assets. Moreover, Washington recently alarmed policymakers in Islamabad with a warning that “Pakistan may lose territory” if the country doesn’t take appropriate actions against insurgent groups that Islamabad perhaps considers strategic assets. Recently, members of Pakistan’s Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs voiced concerns that the United States may conduct a unilateral raid in Pakistan like the one it carried out against al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Amid all this however, the United States’ newly adopted aggressive approach toward dealing with Islamabad is a slippery slope, for it may end up jeopardizing whatever remaining leverage Washington has over Pakistan. The threats and warnings coming out of Washington only offer Islamists in Pakistan more fodder to accelerate their anti-U.S. propaganda drive. With the next general election in Pakistan rapidly approaching, the United States is only bolstering Islamist groups’ electoral agendas, which would ultimately nurture the latter’s support base, which already believes that Washington is part of a major international conspiracy to disunite the country. On the other hand, this also raises domestic pressures on the country’s civilian and military elites that makes bilateral cooperation additionally difficult.
It would be a much wiser approach if the U.S. would refrain from hurling threats publicly and rather take up strategic discussions with Pakistan’s leadership behind closed doors. Moreover, Washington needs to respect Pakistan’s security and economic interests. In this regard, expanding economic cooperation to show that Pakistan strategic importance exists beyond security cooperation can prove to be a good starting point to restore some trust between the two countries. Pakistan’s domestic political realities don’t allow the state to take some of the actions – such as taking action insurgent groups based in Punjab – that the U.S. demands from the country. Washington’s interests would be better served if it takes into consideration the political and strategic realities of Pakistani politics.