Why the US Needs To Re-Evaluate Its Pakistan Policy

Engaging and enticing Pakistan into giving up its jihadist adventure in Afghanistan has let the country believe it can get away with harbouring terrorists.


US policy under both the former presidents George W. Bush and Barrack Obama had remained one of engaging and enticing Pakistan into giving up its jihadist adventure in Afghanistan. Credit: Reuters

A spate of terror attacks has recently hit Pakistan, with the deadliest being the one against the shrine of the pluralist Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. This round of violence has come after a relative lull of two years and points to the resurgence of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its splinter groups.

These attacks have also raised questions about the claims made by the Pakistani military of successfully wiping out terrorism.

The response of the Pakistani state – especially the military – to this recent bout of terror has not been much different from the past. The finger was instantly pointed at Afghanistan and several Afghans and Pashtuns residing in Punjab and Sindh were rounded up or threatened.

An ominous new development was that the Pakistani army resorted to shelling across the Durand Line, proclaiming that it had hit the TTP hideouts. And finally, a new military operation named Radd-al-Fasad – Arabic for ‘countering the mischief or strife’ – has been launched, without clearly specifying the objectives and targets.

These boilerplate measures indicate a lack of introspection on part of the Pakistani state and its tepid desire to correct course, if at all. The country must stop blaming the Afghan state for harbouring anti-Pakistan jihadists and the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) for controlling these TTP splinter groups.

In the case of Mullah Fazlullah – who is the chief of TTP and had practically ruled the Malakand region in Pakistan’s northwest from 2007 to 2009 – the Pakistani state not only conducted negotiations with him but also signed an agreement in May 2008 conceding his demand to impose Sharia in Malakand.

Fazlullah reneged on the deal and subsequently, a military operation was launched which ended his brutal reign. He, however, managed to escape. The Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, against whom Fazlullah had ordered an attack, writes in her book I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, “Lots of women were so moved by what Fazlullah said [on his FM radio channel] that they gave him gold and money, particularly in poor villages or households where the husbands were working abroad.”

The question then is whether the Afghan state compelled Pakistanis to contribute money and gold to the TTP or was it RAW that forced their hand? And why did the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf not stop Fazlullah from openly raising money? And if he indeed was an Afghan or Indian agent, why did the Pakistani state sign an agreement with him?

The agreements and negotiations did not stop with Fazlullah, who was a relatively minor figure in the TTP at the time. They were also held with the TTP’s central ringleader Hakeemullah Mehsud. In fact, when the US drone strike took Mehsud out, the Pakistani federal interior minister called the strike a “murder of peace.”

Differences in the Afghan and Pakistani leadership

While there might be some in the Afghan state’s apparatus who may hold a grudge against Pakistan and harbour the TTP, there is no indication that the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has ever entertained such an idea. This is the fundamental difference between the Afghan leadership, which makes clear its dislike for all hues of terrorism, and the Pakistani leadership, which readily claims that they have groomed the Taliban against the Afghans and continue to do so.

The Afghan state’s capacity to hit jihadists in that country’s northeast may be moot but its will certainly isn’t, as has been reiterated by Ghani several times. The recent elimination of Pakistani jihadist Saifullah Akhtar by the Afghan forces speaks volumes. What Pakistan fails to acknowledge is that the good and bad jihadists continue to share both creed and logistics. It is not possible for a foreign jihadist to reach and strike deep inside Pakistan without support from the sprawling domestic jihadist network. On the flip side, the sustained Taliban onslaught against the Afghan state creates ungoverned or ungovernable areas straddling the Durand Line. These areas – which serve as the classic shatter zones at the periphery – become those where non-state actors can thrive.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in its report released earlier this month noted that 2016 was the deadliest year in Afghanistan, with the civilian victims totalling about 11,418, including 3,498 deaths. The number reflects a 3% increase from 2015. A series of deadly attacks by jihadists in Afghanistan over the past month, including one at the Supreme Court in Kabul, indicates that 2017 may not be any different.

The role of US policy

It also highlights the fact that the US’s attempts to prevent Pakistan from harbouring terrorists, who unleash murder and mayhem in the neighbouring countries, have continued to flounder. The US and its NATO allies remain actively involved in stabilising the security situation in Afghanistan, and on several occasions, have borne the direct brunt of these jihadist attacks.

It is particularly concerning that while Pakistan has acted – through military action such as the Operation Zarb-e-Azb that had commenced in 2014 – against the Islamist insurgents who had attacked the Pakistani state, it seems to have given a carte blanche to the Afghan Taliban and its deadly affiliate, the Haqqani Network (HQN) as well as the India-oriented jihadists of Jamat-ud-Dawa (JUD) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).

Even when the casualties from jihadist terrorism inside Pakistan had declined, the toll in Afghanistan continued to register an increase, confirming the suspicions that Pakistan had carefully preserved the Taliban and the HQN during the Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

The top US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, told the US senate this month that “the Taliban and Haqqani network are the greatest threats to security in Afghanistan. Their senior leaders remain insulated from pressure and enjoy the freedom of action within Pakistan safe havens.”

While calling for a “holistic review” of the US’s Pakistan policy, General Nicholson reiterated what the Afghan officials have been saying for the past decade and a half, that the sanctuary that the Taliban and the HQN (Haqqani Network) enjoy in Pakistan affords them the strategic initiative and the ability to calibrate the pace and intensity of the conflict without much fear of attacks against the jihadist leadership.

The US policy under both the former presidents George W. Bush and Barrack Obama had remained one of engaging and enticing Pakistan into giving up its jihadist adventure in Afghanistan, which has let Pakistan believe, quite rightly, that it can get away with harbouring terrorists without as much as a wrap on the knuckles from the US.

The result is what General Nicholson has called “a stalemate” in Afghanistan. The US commander also repeated a demand for more US troops in Afghanistan, something that Obama administration had resisted but President Donald Trump is likely to approve.

Would more US troops help?

The question remains what could more US troops – mostly in advisory and training role – achieve that the previous troop surge could not achieve? The answer is that without inducing a meaningful change in Pakistan’s regional strategic and tactical calculus, a few thousand more US and allied troops won’t change much. The South Asia watchers in the US are of the view that without a negative reinforcement i.e., making Pakistan face the consequences of its actions, its behaviour won’t change.

Two conservative US think tanks, the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation, have recently launched a joint report, ‘A New US Approach to Pakistan: Enforcing Aid Conditions without Cutting Ties,’ which comes closest to the holistic review that General Nicholson has sought. The report, which came out of a working group comprising several South Asian experts at a variety of think tanks, provides actionable policy recommendations to the Trump administration while putting in perspective the reasons behind the policy failures during Obama years. It notes first and foremost that the new US administration should “avoid viewing and portraying Pakistan as an ally,” till such a time that Pakistan, especially its military establishment, ends the thinly-veiled hostility and acts against the jihadists and extremists without distinction. The fact is that no US ally, expect Pakistan, has ever taken largesse to the tune of over $30 billion and turned around and unleashed terrorists who have killed US personnel.

The report warns against a complete breakdown in the US-Pakistan relations and calls for prioritising “engagement with Pakistan’s civilian leaders” and continuing humanitarian and social assistance programs administered by the civilian authorities there.

This is imperative since the people of Pakistan must not be penalised for the vicious patronage of jihadism by their military brass. And since the target audience of the report is a trigger-happy Trump administration, it is even more important to underscore that regimes and juntas, not people at large, should be penalised.

The conventional diplomatic and think-tank wisdom in the US has been to keep Pakistan engaged and accommodate its demands vis-à-vis Afghanistan. The fundamental problem with that approach has been that even when the US literally abandoned Afghanistan from 1990-2001 and left it at Pakistan’s mercy, the result was Mullah Omar and his Taliban who harboured al Qaida, JeM and even JuD.

That same decade also saw industrial strength radicalisation within Pakistan with jihadist and quasi-jihadist group living large. Left then to its own devices, Pakistan developed a jihadist ecosystem in that era which eventually culminated in the 9/11 and Mumbai 2008-type attacks. While the KGB and the CIA walked away from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, the ISI never did for it was gung ho about the use of jihadist irregulars in pursuit of the so-called strategic depth.

Identifying the problem

The Hudson-Heritage report has zeroed in on the crux of the problem – the Pakistani military establishment’s pursuit of strategic objectives through the tactical use of jihadist proxies. The report recommends to “enforce counterterrorism conditions on the US military aid and reimbursements” thereby making a clear distinction between the military aid and assistance and the one intended for the civilian side of the Pakistani state.

This distinction is critical since the Pakistani military conducts its jihadist policy virtually independent and irrespective of the country’s civilian political dispensation. The report advises against an open-ended and generic demand to the Pakistani military to dismantle its jihadist subsidiaries responsible for attacks outside Pakistan. It recommends setting up identifiable and measurable benchmark with a clear timeframe for Pakistan to take such measures against groups like the Taliban, HQN and the JuD and to link future military assistance to such steps.

While the report rightly calls a negotiated settlement with Taliban a long shot, it recommends to “pursue Taliban reconciliation talks on a track separate from US and NATO troop-level decisions and levy consequences on Pakistan if it poses obstacles to such peace efforts”. It also emphasises that the US government must retain the option to unilaterally act against the jihadist such as through drone strikes. Both recommendations have tremendous merit since the Taliban and their handlers’ game plan has all along been to outlast the US while enjoying the sanctuary in Pakistan.

The drone attacks, such as the one which eliminated Taliban emir Mullah Akhtar Mansour inside Pakistan, have been effective when boots-on-the-ground has not been an option.

The timeframe is of the essence since the broad consensus in the US now is that Pakistan indeed continues to harbour jihadists who undermine the US interests in Afghanistan and target the US personnel directly and the status quo, therefore, is untenable. The report advises against declaring Pakistan as the state sponsor of terrorism, in the first year of Trump administration thereby not taking that prospect off the table while allowing a reasonable time horizon for Pakistan to comply.

As the new US president arranges his diplomatic and national security corps, the Hudson-Heritage report can help him hit the ground running. Whether the new US administration puts Pakistan on notice will largely depend on Pakistan, especially its army, dropping the use of jihadism as an instrument of prosecuting its foreign policy. As for Pakistan, the sooner it realises that it has to quit its jihadist habit for its own sake and not for someone else, the better it will be.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.