During his visit to Islamabad two weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the country’s leadership that Pakistan needs to “do more to eradicate militants and terrorists” operating within its territory. In a reflection of the priorities laid out in President Trump’s new South Asia strategy, Tillerson focused his visit on Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy. Namely, he discussed Pakistan’s alleged policy of providing sanctuary to the Taliban and other terrorist groups fighting the United States in Afghanistan. Tillerson said that “we have made some very specific requests from Pakistan in order for them to take action and undermine support that the Taliban receives and other terrorist organizations receive in Pakistan.” However, the question remains: how does the United States hope to change Pakistan’s domestic and regional security policy when Islamabad perceives Washington’s demand as a threat to its core strategic interests?
Tough Rhetoric from Washington: Can it Change Islamabad?
Pakistan’s ruling elite, particularly the military establishment, sees Washington’s new demands as the continuation of its traditional approach that has failed to understand or acknowledge Pakistan’s narrative when it comes to the Afghan peace process or Pakistan’s own domestic or regional security concerns. For the leadership in Islamabad, Washington’s “do more” demands stem from its decades-old treatment of Pakistan as a “proxy state” to find solutions for its own policy challenges in the region as opposed to a policy that also incorporates Islamabad’s security challenges. Recently, while briefing the Senate, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif remarked that the United States’ desire that “we act as proxies to fight their war” is “unacceptable.”
On the domestic front, while Washington wants Islamabad to take action against a number of insurgent groups that are based in mainland Pakistan, Islamabad maintains that the country needs time to deal with such groups. For instance, in the past, the country’s political and security elite have used a number of insurgent groups, particularly sectarian, to further the state’s security policies abroad. Now, however, a majority of these groups have deep social and political roots inside Pakistan. As a result, an all-out and direct military action against them could prove catastrophic to the fabric of Pakistani society. Foreign Minister Asif recently admitted that a number of proscribed organizations, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), are “liabilities” for Pakistan. On Pakistan’s part, one approach to deal with such liabilities, which has been criticized inside and outside of Pakistan, is to bring them into the country’s mainstream political fold. However, it remains to be seen whether this approach will, in fact, be a solution or create new problems.
Regionally, Pakistan’s security policy has a deep-rooted paranoia about India. Arguably, the culture of all civilian and military institutions in Pakistan is “geared for some type of inevitable conflict with India.” Pakistan’s India-centered security policy has caused the United States and Pakistan to diverge on key regional security priorities. For instance, during Secretary Tillerson’s recent visit, the country’s top civilian and military leaders stated that Washington’s allegations that Pakistan offers safe havens to terrorists are false. Arguably, this statement was not really made because insurgent groups are not given safe haven in Pakistan. Rather, Pakistani leaders made these remarks because Islamabad doesn’t see a number of insurgent groups, such as LeT, as part of its militancy problem, since its support for these groups has in the past furthered its political and security aims. In fact, while addressing the question of Pakistan providing sanctuaries to militant groups, the spokesperson of Pakistan’s military said that “we have our own narrative” when it comes to who is considered as part of the problem in Afghanistan and beyond. Yet the United States seems to have taken a comprehensive view of Pakistan’s support for militant groups, taking into account groups operating in India such as LeT as well as those launching attacks into Afghanistan like the Haqqani Network. Clearly, Pakistan and the United States continue to be locked in a struggle that places both countries’ interests on opposing ends.
From Pakistan’s perspective, India, Afghanistan and the United States appear to be uniting forces to isolate it in its own region. This perception has arguably been one of the key reasons that Islamabad continues to cling to its questionable policy of keeping ties with insurgent groups that are friendly to the state. Secretary Tillerson recently said that his country was willing to offer Pakistan one last chance to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan. However, for Pakistan, the new threatening tone adopted by Washington is a traditional policy approach to extract cooperation from Islamabad while undermining the latter’s interests. For instance, during his recent visit to South Asia, Tillerson candidly talked about India’s security concerns that allegedly emerge from Pakistan and also discussed Afghanistan’s vulnerabilities due to Pakistan’s alleged support for militant groups operating in Afghanistan. However, it’s surprising that Secretary Tillerson neither talked about nor attempted to ease Pakistan’s security fears, which stem from Afghanistan’s volatile security situation and New Delhi’s growing role in Afghanistan. For Islamabad, such rhetoric only confirms Pakistan’s longstanding conviction that Washington remains an unreliable partner that cannot be trusted.
What Needs to be Done
On Washington’s part, rather than aggravating underlying regional tensions, it would be a much wiser approach to listen to Pakistan’s security concerns and communicate them to regional states such as India and Afghanistan. Moreover, while Pakistan may not be willing to overtly take on militant groups the way the United States expects it to, Islamabad isn’t pleased with the presence of growing militant challenges. The United States needs to recognize that given Pakistan’s volatile and polarized domestic political dynamics, the country cannot simply take action against such groups. At the moment, Pakistan cannot afford to open another major military front when the country’s military is overwhelmed with counterterrorism operations in the mountainous border regions along Afghanistan. Moreover, Washington needs to incorporate Islamabad’s strategic concerns in its new Afghanistan policy. If the United States begins to view Pakistan as part of the solution to Afghanistan rather than part of the problem, it could adopt an approach that focuses on building trust rather than issuing threats and deadlines to Pakistan that only exacerbate the existing trust deficit between the two countries. The way forward lies not in threats of isolation, but in continuous engagement.
Image 1: Flickr
Image 2: Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Flickr