The Right Way to Stop the Taliban
by Whitney Kassel and Philip Reiner
As the Donald Trump administration has reviewed its plans to manage the war in Afghanistan, the question of troop levels has dominated discussions of U.S. policy. Washington is on track to modestly increase the number of military personnel deployed to Afghanistan, a stop-gap measure indicating that the United States’ presence in the country is unlikely to end soon. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, to whom the president has delegated decisionmaking on the Afghan war, has promised a new strategy by the end of July.
If that strategy is to lead to progress in Afghanistan, the United States must rethink its approach to neighboring Pakistan, whose active and passive support for terrorist groups such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network undermines Afghanistan’s stability. Whether one believes—as many do—that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is directly funneling weapons and money to these groups, it is clear that the Taliban is better equipped, funded and more operationally efficient today than ever before and that senior Pakistani military leaders are well versed in how to support such groups covertly. Evidence of the ISI’s direct support for the militants is thin, but it is through the ISI that these groups, which have targeted American, Afghan, and coalition forces, survive and operate.
The United States has given Pakistan billions of dollars in military and civilian aid despite this duplicity, ostensibly in exchange for Pakistan’s cooperation on counterterrorism and its support for U.S. operations in Afghanistan (neither of which Pakistan has fully delivered). Out of fear of losing this cooperation and American access to transportation routes into Afghanistan, Washington has kept up its support, enabling the Pakistani officials in charge of their country’s double game in Afghanistan and indirectly funding Islamabad’s support for militants.
How should the United States deal with this problem? Although the Barack Obama administration became increasingly critical of Pakistan over its time in office, its strategy amounted to a quiet tolerance of the country’s double dealing. The Trump administration’s approach remains unclear, but there are signs that it will assume a more adversarial stance. Such an approach would be a mistake, since any attempt to manage the war in Afghanistan without addressing the role and concerns of Pakistan is bound to fail. It would also seriously hinder the United States’ efforts to deal with Pakistan on a range of other important issues, including its expanding nuclear program.
Some observers, such as the former U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and the political scientist Moeed Yusuf, have argued that the United States must address Pakistan’s insecurities with respect to India to gain its cooperation in Afghanistan. Others, such as the scholar Christine Fair, have advocated a much harder-edged approach, calling for the United States to break ties and isolate Pakistan if it does not stop supporting insurgent groups in Afghanistan.
These analysts are right that Pakistan’s double game must end if insurgent groups in Afghanistan are ever to put down their arms. But there is a better way to achieve that outcome than by bowing to Pakistan’s irrational fears of encirclement by India or by putting U.S.-Pakistani relations on a collision course.
The United States should covertly and overtly attack the insurgent groups that threaten its interests across Pakistan, without apology or concern for the fallout in the U.S.–Pakistani relationship. At the same time, Washington should restrict its military aid to Pakistan until the country goes after the terrorists it has historically protected, including those who target India. To balance these actions, which would damage the Pakistani military’s status and ability to lead, the United States should offer to reward Islamabad if it pursues the insurgent groups. Washington should promise to provide the Pakistani military not just with the kinds of counterterrorism equipment it currently supplies, but also with conventional weaponry—such as the attack helicopters, armed unmanned vehicles, artillery, and other pieces of equipment Pakistan has long sought. This combination of carrots and sticks has been considered but never pursued by previous administrations. It would help eliminate the militants’ safe haven and preserve bilateral ties by addressing Pakistan’s fear of India, which is what has led the country to back terrorist groups in the first place.
ELIMINATING SAFE HAVENS
More aggressively hunting down the insurgent groups Pakistan protects would have a number of benefits. It would show Pakistan that the United States’ tolerance of its duplicity is over and that Pakistan must do more to bring insurgents to heel. It would also degrade the groups that have killed U.S., NATO, and Afghan soldiers and civilians. Islamabad has historically tolerated U.S. strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a mountainous region in Pakistan’s northwest. Washington should step up its efforts there, and it should also pursue terrorists in the other parts of Pakistan where they operate with impunity, such as Baluchistan, Karachi, and the southern Punjab. The militants’ safe haven in those areas has helped them make a dramatic resurgence in Afghanistan without repercussions for their safety in Pakistan. Eliminating the insurgents’ safe havens and stabilizing Afghanistan requires both aggressive action and diplomacy.
Next, the United States should restrict its military assistance to Pakistan until it shows that it is willing to target insurgent groups beyond the ones it considers internal threats (such as the Pakistani Taliban). That would put more pressure on Pakistan’s military to change course. The Pakistani army and air force particularly rely on American equipment and cash reimbursements for their counterinsurgency operations. Reducing U.S. support would have swift effects, as would eliminating the provision of irreplaceable American hardware. (The United States should continue to provide unconditional civilian aid to Pakistan’s poor, who should not be made to suffer for their leaders’ choices.)
But Pakistan won’t give up its militant habit simply as a result of U.S. opposition or increased military action, because it deems the insurgents essential to its national security. Indeed, Islamabad would probably respond to more American operations within Pakistan much as it did to the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden: by denying that it knew terrorists were operating on Pakistani soil and decrying the United States’ violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. The Pakistani army is particularly likely to lash out. To preserve its reputation as Pakistan’s protector, it would likely threaten to attack U.S. forces and push Pakistan’s civilian leaders to break ties with Washington. Restricting U.S. military aid, meanwhile, would lead to reduced counterterrorism cooperation between Washington and Islamabad and encourage Pakistan to work more closely with the militaries of U.S. rivals, including China, Russia, and Iran. It could also lead Pakistan to unleash its proxies in Afghanistan, India, or further afield.
The United States should hedge against those outcomes by offering up front to restore and broaden its military aid to Pakistan if it takes action against the insurgent groups. By offering Pakistan conventional military aid in exchange for its cooperation, U.S. officials would increase its leaders’ confidence that they can defend their country against what they see as its primary threat—India—without recourse to terrorist groups.
THE NECESSARY BALANCE
Opponents of this approach may argue that it would be naïve to rely on Pakistan to take action against the insurgents and that providing the country with conventional military aid could destabilize the region and alienate India. But this kind of quid pro quo is the most realistic way to prevent the breakdown in ties that the aggressive U.S. pursuit of terrorists throughout Pakistan would produce—and it is an approach that has not been seriously attempted since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, turning up the pressure on Pakistan without promising to address its insecurities would be a recipe for disaster: it could permanently derail the bilateral relationship, leaving the U.S. without insight into or influence over an important partner in the fight against international terrorism. What’s more, although the United States must deal with Pakistan’s deceit forcefully, neither it nor the rest of the world can afford to let the country—with its rapidly growing nuclear arsenal and historical support for terrorists and nuclear proliferation—become a pariah state outside of global rules and norms.
India would strenuously object if the United States provided more conventional military aid to Pakistan. U.S. officials could weather its displeasure, however, so long as they invest enough diplomatic effort and remind New Delhi that the demise of Pakistani-backed insurgents would improve India’s security more than Pakistan’s conventional gains would undermine it. After all, those militants pose a more immediate threat to India than the Pakistani military does.
The drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan on a pre-announced timeline during Obama’s presidency led the Pakistanis to believe that they would be left on their own to manage the consequences of Afghanistan’s instability and India’s increased influence there. Together with the United States’ growing military support for India, this situation deepened Islamabad’s perceived need to support its insurgent proxies—the opposite of the outcome the United States seeks in Afghanistan and the region. This does not justify Pakistan’s harboring of militants responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians and soldiers. But it does show the way to a better approach: one in which the United States works to find a balance with Pakistan while bringing its double game to the end it deserves.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.