South Asia

Earth Calling Trump: Stop Giving Pakistan’s Military a Pass

A new report by US-based experts has called for the Trump administration to take a tougher stand against Pakistan to urge it to turn its back on terrorist groups.

US President Donald Trump. Credit: Reuters

US President Donald Trump. Credit: Reuters

Washington: Will Donald Trump be the American president who finally breaks his country’s Pakistan habit? Will the disrupter-in-chief, already known for being tough on allies and foes alike, take on a country whose kinship to terrorism is now a universally accepted fact?

With hope in heart and an exit strategy in mind, a group of US-based experts have made sensible suggestions on how to change existing US policy on Pakistan and make it “more and more costly” for Rawalpindi to pursue its terrorist business as usual. Time for ambiguity is over.

Although experts giving policy recommendations to an incoming administration is common, it is the first time so many experts, including respected academics, have come together on a single platform. The report has already been sent to the National Security Council, Department of Defense and the CIA.

A New U.S. Approach to Pakistan: Enforcing Aid Conditions Without Cutting Ties,’ prepared under the aegis of the Heritage Foundation and the Hudson Institute – both conservative Republican think tanks – says terrorist groups based in Pakistan threaten vital US national security interests.

Eight years of the Obama administration’s policy of bribing Pakistan to change its strategic calculus yielded few results. The carrots were not backed by “the threat of effective sticks”. In fact, by designating a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Washington sent mixed signals while undermining its own policy in the wider South Asia region, the report says.

The experts who have worked on the recommendations include Lisa Curtis of Heritage, Husain Haqqani and Aparna Pande of Hudson, Christine Fair of Georgetown University, John Gill of National Defense University and Bruce Riedel of Brookings Institution among others.

This coming together of minds would likely not have been possible eight years ago when many of Washington’s thinkers and movers still had blinders and Barack Obama believed he could change the world and Pakistan’s worldview with it.

As the authors acknowledge, Obama wasn’t the first president to believe in Pakistani promises and be frustrated – the tradition goes back to Dwight D. Eisenhower. But they hope he would be the last.

Looking towards Trump to break the policy wall, they ask the US to “stop chasing the mirage” of changing Pakistan’s strategic direction by giving aid and military equipment. Begin with the assumption that “inducements” will not work.

Instead, the administration should “enforce” the conditions on its military aid to Pakistan put into law seven years ago but “waived” by the Obama administration several times. It was the US Congress that finally took the lead last year and blocked $300 million from going to Pakistan because of its failure to tackle the Haqqani Network (HQN). Subsidies for the F-16s were also blocked.

While enforcing its own laws, the Trump administration would do well to ignore Pakistan’s many “excuses” for its failure to take strong action. Pakistani officials have told their US counterparts in the past that Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad are “too powerful and pervasive for the military establishment to challenge now”.

In particular, US officials must stop “trying to balance policies toward India and Pakistan and should instead pursue shared mutual interests with each,” the report says. They should also not exaggerate their ability to bridge the India-Pakistan divide.

“Avoid viewing and portraying Pakistan as an ally,” the report says. For starters, the new administration should warn Islamabad that its status as a “major non-NATO ally” is in serious jeopardy. If Pakistan doesn’t take immediate steps to curb terrorist groups, Washington should revoke the status within six months. But keep the door open for the future.

The authors do not support designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism in the first year of the Trump administration but keeping it as an option “for the longer term.” “The administration should state up front that it intends to review the intelligence on Pakistani involvement in supporting terror much more critically than its predecessors.”

The authors also suggest the Trump administration present a list of “calibrated actions” for Pakistan to end support to the Afghan Taliban and HQN and “make clear that failure to make substantial progress on those steps could eventually result in Pakistan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism”.

In other words, take tougher measures that involve taking risks to evoke a different response from Pakistan, while Washington should engage civilian leaders and continue its humanitarian programmes in Pakistan. “Rolling back the tide of extremism will be an enormous task and could take a generation,” the report says while pointing out some “hopeful signs”.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government went ahead and executed the assassin of Punjab governor Salman Taseer last year despite opposition from some quarters. Similarly, Sharif rehabilitated physicist Abdus Salam, whose contributions had gone unacknowledged because he was an Ahmadiya, by re-naming the National Centre for Physics after him. These are small but important steps in the right direction.

The Trump administration should also engage China and the Gulf countries that can privately pressure Pakistan to turn its back on terrorist groups even if they won’t embarrass Islamabad in public.

With India-Pakistan tensions on the rise, a new US policy approach must be formulated “quickly,” the experts urge. “Another major terrorist attack in India conducted by Pakistan-based militants could precipitate a wider conflict that has the potential for going nuclear,” they warn. India public’s “frustration with Pakistan” has reached a “tipping point.”