After more than $30 billion in assistance to Pakistan since 2002, it is understandable that critics of the current United States policy toward Pakistan advocate a more coercive approach: slapping further conditions on assistance, imposing sanctions or listing Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The trouble is that such “sticks” are unlikely to change Pakistan’s behavior, because its existential concerns are tied to broader regional priorities. To get Pakistan to alter its approach in Afghanistan, the United States must understand and address Pakistan’s strategic anxieties.
The Pakistani military, in particular, is moved foremost by their country’s rivalry with India. They have always feared a scenario in which Afghanistan offers India a second base from which to squeeze Pakistan. Leaders in Islamabad also worry that India’s support may embolden their counterparts in Kabul to forcefully challenge the validity of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and reassert Afghan claims on Pakistani territory.
While most of India’s aid to Afghanistan has been economic, India has stepped up security assistance in recent years, including military equipment, to bolster the Afghan security forces against the Taliban. Other Indian efforts, like financing for Iran’s Chabahar port that allows landlocked Afghanistan to bypass Pakistan, have further stoked Pakistani concerns.
Though many in the United States and India believe Pakistan is being paranoid, the fact remains that Pakistan is convinced it is under threat. The Pakistani security establishment sees the Taliban as a check on Indian activity in Afghanistan and has doubled down on its efforts to counter deepening Afghan-India ties.
Yet Pakistan’s goal is not continued chaos in Afghanistan. Nor does it wish for a Taliban victory, as this would strengthen their militant kin in Pakistan. What Pakistan wants is a reconciliation process that ushers the Taliban back into the political fold in Afghanistan, without allowing the militants to control the country once again. The Taliban would counterbalance Indian influence in Afghanistan, and an inclusive political settlement would prevent their radical ideology from taking hold or spilling across the border.
United States policies toward Pakistan have long underestimated the centrality of this regional dynamic in defining Pakistani choices. An approach that links efforts to enlist Pakistan’s support in Afghanistan to a strategy aimed at improving India-Pakistan ties could change this.
Better India-Pakistan relations are necessary to reduce Pakistan’s apprehensions in Afghanistan. They also serve other long-term American interests: eliminating terrorist threats from the region, reducing the risk of nuclear war and supporting a greater global role for India.
To achieve this, the United States should facilitate an India-Pakistan dialogue on the full range of economic and political issues, including their mutual concerns in Afghanistan, without trying to stage-manage the results. The United States’ playing this role should be contingent on Pakistan preventing cross-border terrorist attacks in India.
President George W. Bush encouraged such a comprehensive dialogue after a dangerous nuclear standoff in 2002. Within three years, India-Pakistan relations had made unprecedented progress. Terrorist movement from Pakistan across the border dropped dramatically, and India and Pakistan got extremely close to signing a deal on Kashmir. The budding rapprochement was cut short in part by an internal political clash within Pakistan.
The United States must also get serious about a political settlement in Afghanistan that involves all elements of Afghan society, including the Taliban. An opportunity to start this process has been created by last week’s agreement between President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan to resurrect the stalled Quadrilateral Coordination Group (the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China). The United States should back this effort as a means of getting the Taliban to the reconciliation table. Other regional consultative forums like the Kabul Process, started by Mr. Ghani recently, will remain useful in keeping a larger set of important countries engaged.
Without reduction in Taliban-led violence in Afghanistan, the Afghan government will be unable to rally its people behind negotiations. So in exchange for getting a say in reconciliation through the Quadrilateral forum, Pakistan must take verifiable steps to curtail the financing and arming of the Taliban, target those Taliban elements that oppose talks, and give those willing to negotiate with the Afghan government the freedom to do so. The United States also should work closely with China to encourage Pakistan. China has committed over $60 billion in investment in Pakistan and risks losing it if the region remains unstable.
Our recent conversations with senior Pakistani officials suggest that a window of opportunity exists. Pakistani officials recognize that the Trump administration will have little patience with them if it senses their continued double-dealing on Afghanistan. At the same time, they will not move if they see this as ignoring Pakistan’s own security needs.
This new, more strategic approach would give Pakistan the incentives it needs to work with the United States on common priorities across the region. And it does so without eliminating any United States options should Pakistan still fail to see the benefits for its own future.