“One Last Chance” for Pakistan

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Quotes of the week:

“Pakistan is now hoist on its own petard. Calling off cross-border terrorism in Kashmir would insure that militancy within Pakistan intensifies, while continuing to support cross-border terrorism would alienate Pakistan even further internationally.”
—P.R. Chari, “Nuclear Restraint, Risk Reduction, and the Security-Insecurity Paradox in South Asia,” 2004

“Each country, as a result of history, has found itself in the unfortunate position of functioning as an objective constraint on the hopes, visions, and ambitions of the other.”
—Ashley Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 2001

The Trump administration has joined its predecessors in warning leaders in Islamabad and Rawalpindi of dire consequences by continuing to harbor groups that are active in Afghanistan, Jammu and Kashmir and occasionally, with spectacular destructive effect, in major Indian cities. U.S. threats have been articulated for so long that Pakistan’s national security community might be forgiven for not taking Team Trump’s “one last chance” warning seriously. After all, Washington still needs Pakistan’s help to arrive at a political settlement in Afghanistan and to provide logistical support for U.S. troops stationed there. And besides, nothing in diplomacy is forever.

Even so, this particular fork in the road matters: it’s an opportunity for Pakistan to improve its fortunes. Pakistan’s national security establishment, which is far from monolithic, has to recognize that it has less running room for policies toward India and Afghanistan that haven’t served national interests. But asking for fundamental change is asking for quite a lot, as U.S. policy makers have themselves discovered in Afghanistan. How often do nations fundamentally change badly mistaken policies, rather than re-tooling them?

Pakistan’s national security managers have yet to turn against the leadership of groups like the Lashkar e-Toiba and Jaish e-Muhammad (or whatever they are calling themselves now) because they have perceived utility in dealing with India. Despite their baggage, these outfits are cost-effective offsets to India’s conventional military power. And besides, they haven’t carried out spectacular strikes against India for almost ten years, their leaders can always be placed under periodic house arrest, and they might even be tamed by entering mainstream Pakistani politics. Hope springs eternal.

This line of reasoning can only be inferred by outsiders because the argument used for foreign consumption is threadbare. Ever since 2002, we’ve heard that taming these wild men will happen but will take time. Everyone knows that the Pakistan Army has the resolve and capability to deal with outfits that are perceived enemies of the state, like the Pakistan Taliban. The surest indicator that anti-India groups, along with the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban, aren’t viewed as enemies of the state is that they haven’t been treated as such.

The first impulse of Pakistan’s national security managers will be try to finesse Washington’s latest “test.” Pervez Musharraf successfully managed maximal U.S. pressure applied by the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks by agreeing to terms, only to parse them later.

Successive U.S. administrations have offered carrots to help Pakistan to choose wisely, feeding into the transactional nature of bilateral relations. U.S. generosity toward Pakistan – something that is strongly contested there — has been discredited in Washington. Long gone is the ambitious Kerry-Lugar-Berman approach during the Obama administration. The idea back then was to shore up civilian authority and to induce shifts in military practices. The Obama administration didn’t make much of a dent on either account. Congress has now seen fit to reduce large sums from Coalition Support Funding and denied Pakistan preferential terms for big-ticket military purchases.

U.S.-Pakistan relations now seem to be in a post-transactional phase. The Trump administration is calling on Pakistani leaders to do the right thing for their national wellbeing. This is exactly the right message, but it still entails doing what Washington wants. Those who remain wedded to Pakistan’s failed policies toward India and Afghanistan can deflect this message and avoid substantive debate by arguing that Pakistan must continue to resist dictation. The extent to which they resort to form will reflect the absence of change in Pakistan’s national security policies. If, however, this argument is muted, something interesting may be afoot.

Support for Pakistan on Capitol Hill, think tanks and the U.S. media has cratered. Pakistan blames the India lobby for this state of affairs, but this is far too facile an explanation. For sure, the India lobby is now very powerful, but so, too, is the Israeli lobby – and Egypt continues to receive help from the U.S. Treasury and the Pentagon. The key difference is the policies adopted by Egypt and Pakistan toward a friend of the United States. Egypt signed a “cold” peace treaty with Israel, while Pakistan’s national security establishment has been committed to the dead end policy of enduring enmity with India.

If Pakistan’s national security leaders were to seek a genuine peace with India, Washington would do an about face. But as long as Pakistan’s national security establishment resists change, Pakistan bashers in Washington will set the tone of debate. Their agenda is clear: they seek Pakistan’s isolation and punishment. Without changes in Pakistan’s national security policies, bashers will continue to hold the high ground.

Noted U.S. analyst Ashley Tellis now goes so far as to argue that it is worthless to call for talks between India and Pakistan because reconciliation is futile until there is a sea change in the Pakistani establishment’s hostility toward India. Ashley would even extend this argument to the utility of talks to reduce nuclear dangers that are now growing along several fronts.

Shall we also apply this standard – to reject diplomacy until there is a sea change in the national security policy of problem states – elsewhere? Shall we object to negotiations with North Korea because U.S. and DPRK national security objectives are so far apart? Shall we also demand fundamental change in Russian and Chinese national security policies as the price for the resumption of negotiations? In circumstances where nuclear dangers are growing, the rejection of diplomacy between states that are one incident away from a serious crisis is a senseless invitation to ugly headlines. The avoidance of conflict and uncontrolled escalation are, in and of themselves, sufficient reasons to engage in diplomacy.

I take Ashley’s point: Talks are unlikely to result in breakthroughs until Pakistan’s national security establishment changes course. And absent fundamental change, talks become intermittent activities broken off by provocations. Ashley is also correct in noting that whenever New Delhi has sought to turn the page, it has been rebuffed by irreconcilables in Pakistan who aid and abet strikes against Indian diplomatic or military outposts. This has already happened on three occasions during Prime Minister Modi’s tenure.

Nonetheless, breakthroughs aren’t the only reason for diplomacy – they are the culmination of patient diplomacy. When nuclear dangers are growing on the subcontinent, Washington’s rejection of diplomacy can’t be a serious policy option. Instead, it makes sense to link Washington’s standard talking point calling for the resumption of dialogue with the public message that Pakistan’s national security establishment will be held responsible for the actions of groups operating on its soil that seek to foil diplomacy.

This is a tough spot for Pakistan’s national security leaders. Donald Trump is advised by distinguished military officers who know a great deal about Afghanistan and about the particulars of Pakistan’s behavior there. I wouldn’t bet on Team Trump to be as forgiving as the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Nor would I bet on sea changes in Pakistan’s national security policies. But the tide is clearly turning. It’s up to Pakistan’s national security establishment to recognize this, and to begin to act on this recognition.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on October 24, 2017.

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