Courtesy The National Interest-
President Trump has decided to follow the lead of his military advisers in Afghanistan, choosing not to pull out the U.S. troops that candidate Trump had pledged to withdraw. Rather, he’ll send more troops, with the express purpose of training and supporting the Afghan security forces. Also, he emphasized that he won’t engage in nation building. Instead, he will simply defeat the Taliban.
As part of this approach—not all that different from that of his predecessors—Trump plans to eradicate ISIS and other terrorist groups. He will seek greater commitment from India to assist in Afghan economic development and, of course, get tough with Pakistan, a sentiment that has sparked an alarming reaction in Islamabad.
There is a popular argument that there are no good alternatives in Afghanistan, and this may be true. But now, more than ever, the United States must do what it can to support the government of Ashraf Ghani. Just as many have wondered whether the United States has learned critical lessons over the last sixteen years of engagement in Afghanistan, they may also wonder if U.S. leaders might seek to better understand what the country wants and what is possible—especially it those leaders plan to get “tough with Pakistan.”
In 2011, I vividly recall when a member of the National Security Council staff in Washington, frustrated with the apparent duplicity of the Pakistani army, phoned me in Islamabad, which is where I was serving as U.S. ambassador. The staff member asked me to “dial up the pain” on Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief of staff at the time. To many, it may have appeared that Kayani and the Pakistani military richly deserved such pain. But I asked: Isn’t the point of diplomacy and a farsighted policy to try to take action that will lead to a desired result? Methodically, what would even be the sequence of events that would follow once the pain was “dialed up”? It begged the larger question: what did we want from Pakistan and how do we reach our objective in cooperation with the country?
The same questions apply today.
In the case of Pakistan, the United States still does not seem to have an overarching strategy. If the goal of U.S. policy is protecting U.S. troops engaged in Afghanistan, then it is no surprise that U.S. policymakers insist that Pakistan stop support for the Taliban and throw the jihadis out of their sanctuaries in the tribal areas on Pakistan’s western border. But, if the goal of U.S. policy were to seek stability in a nuclear-armed country, which has a population of two hundred million people geographically situated between India and Afghanistan, then one would think that there would be more to the U.S. approach than the simple “pain-pleasure” behavioralism that only makes demands of the country. Isn’t the point to compel the Pakistanis to change their approach, to stop their (in my opinion) self-destructive support of proxy forces in Afghanistan, among them the notorious Haqqani network? And thus, isn’t the point to try, in some way, to get beyond simple denunciations of Pakistani behavior and try to understand the many other reasons why such a wrong-minded approach by Islamabad has lasted for more than a decade, despite repeated entreaties and actions by the United States?
Some suggest that the United States simply cut off assistance to Pakistan. That would have the benefit of punishing bad behavior and prove deeply satisfying to frustrated U.S. policymakers. Of course, it could also lead to a repeat of severing the lines that supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which happened in 2011. In addition, it opens the door to a new reality: the Northern Distribution Network (through Russia), an alternative supply route. The network is in the hands of a decidedly less sympathetic President Putin and it showcases the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, which has promised $46 billion in assistance to Pakistan. This would give the impression (correct or not) to Pakistani leaders that they can do without the Americans anyway. The questionable logic of giving money to people who ignore what Washington really wants is manifest, but it should be noted that cutting off aid to Pakistan is unlikely to make the war in Afghanistan more winnable. Additionally, it is unlikely to “change the calculus” (in the standard U.S. parlance) of Pakistan.
The main point is this: formulating a policy that accurately addresses the concerns of the Pakistanis takes a lot of thought, on topics spanning from India-Pakistan relations to economic and political reform to regional security. Yes, the experience of recent years may make it emotionally difficult for American policymakers to recognize such concerns. But responsible diplomats are supposed to look beyond emotion, as the venerable politician and diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand proclaimed in the nineteenth century. Simply being accommodating to Pakistan is not a solution. Still, it is imperative that in today’s rapidly changing circumstances within South Asia that the United States think more carefully as to what is in America’s best interests. Also, the United States must take into consideration the interests of others in order to achieve and implement an effective policy and vision.
Does Washington want the satisfaction of dialing up the pain in Islamabad? Or does Washington want to see a sustainable solution to the situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region? Finding such a solution will require a great deal more exploration, finesse, closer coordination with allies and time. Importantly, the United States has the strategic expertise that can help make a discernible impact during this critical juncture in Afghanistan and Pakistan.