As Islamabad scrambles to clean up its erratic record on counter-terrorism to pre-empt potentially punitive actions by US President Donald Trump, military leaders, experts and former government officials are urging him to adopt a new and tougher approach to deal with Pakistan.
The top US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen John Nicholson, told lawmakers at a hearing on Thursday of the need for a “holistic review” of America’s “complex relationship with Pakistan”, and that it would be a priority in his discussions with his seniors and the White House.
A report published earlier this week recommended a harsher review of ties with Pakistan and said the new administration “must be ready to adopt tougher measures toward Islamabad” - don’t abandon it, but stop treating it as an ally. A member of this working group wrote in a separate piece, “The longest war in American history is a proxy war with Pakistan, and it has the fastest-growing nuclear weapons arsenal in the world.”
The Trump administration has not yet indicated if it has a plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the latter country may not even be a priority for the moment. But as a candidate, Trump had expressed concerns about the region, specially Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the fear of them falling into the wrong hands. He had gone as far as to suggest involving India to take care of the problem.
But as he rolled out his egregious travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, which has run into legal challenges, officials indicated the list could be expanded and questions were raised if Pakistan, the world’s leading terror hub, could be next.
Just days later, an anxious Islamabad moved swiftly to put Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, who carries a US bounty of $10 million on his head, under house arrest. The alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, who has dared the US to arrest him. promptly blamed India and Trump for it, when there was no evidence of either.
But Pakistan may have waited too long. Frustration has been growing with its spotty record on counter-terrorism and many US lawmakers from both parties, experts and officials have long concluded there is a need for a new approach, with extreme options including cutting financial aid — Pakistan has been a major beneficiary for decades — or declaring it a state sponsor of terrorism.
The authors of the report, “A new US approach to Pakistan: enforcing aid conditions without cutting ties”, don’t like that last option but want to keep it on the table. They are suggesting “US engagement with Pakistan must be based on a realistic appraisal of Pakistan’s policies, aspirations, and worldview. The US must stop chasing the mirage of securing change in Pakistan’s strategic direction by giving it additional aid or military equipment.”
“It must be acknowledged that Pakistan is unlikely to change its current policies through inducements alone,” they added, and proceeded to list some of those measures, including an end to treating Pakistan as an ally, tying military aid and reimbursements to specific counter-terrorism goals and working more with the civilian leadership.
The report was seen by members of Trump’s national security team, according to sources, and it has been welcomed by the think-tank fraternity because of, among other reasons, the composition of the task force.
It was co-chaired by Lisa Curtis of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, who is expected to land a senior position in Trump’s foreign policy team, and former Pakistani ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, now with Hudson Institute. Other members were former adviser to President Barack Obama, Bruce Reidel, who is with Brookings, and Anish Goel, a former White House head of the South Asia desk for Presidents George W Bush and Obama.
A leading South Asia analyst, who did not want to be identified, said that though he agreed there is a need for a rethink in US policy “because clearly the default policies of recent years haven’t worked out well at all”, he was not sure if “taking the drastic step of putting Pakistan on notice that it could soon be declared a state sponsor of terror would yield a better result”.
The analyst said: “Would this lead Pakistan to do more about its terrorism problem, or would it just make Pakistan double down and tighten its embrace of terrorist groups?”