When President Trump accused Pakistan of providing safe havens to terrorist groups during his Monday address on Afghanistan, he shined a spotlight on an issue that has long plagued the United States as it tries to wind down America’s longest war.
Trump’s predecessors also tried to pressure Pakistan into taking a harder line on terrorist groups. But Islamabad’s fears of India’s influence in Afghanistan, coupled with the United States’ need to avoid alienating a major non-NATO ally, have meant that the steps the United States has taken thus far have not yielded significant results.
Whether Trump fares better remains to be seen.
“I would say the rhetoric on Pakistan represents most the significant discontinuity” from the Obama administration’s Afghanistan strategy, said Joshua White, director for South Asian affairs in the Obama administration’s National Security Council. “But at this point Trump’s talk about Afghanistan is merely suggestive. While it may presage tougher policies, it’s not clear yet that the administration has the stomach for undertaking dramatic action with respect to Pakistan.”
The U.S. relationship with Pakistan has seen ups and downs over the course of the 16-year war in Afghanistan, with the tensest moment coming after U.S. special forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.
The United States has three main requests for Pakistan, according to White: clearing tribal areas used by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, delegitimizing terrorist groups focused on attacking India and ending so-called “vertical” nuclear proliferation — increasing Pakistan’s own delivery systems and warheads.
Most consequential for the Afghanistan conflict is the failure to clear out the Haqqani network, considered the most lethal insurgent group fighting in Afghanistan.
“The Haqqani network represents the most significant force protection threat to the U.S. military anywhere in the world,” White said.
Pakistan denies that it provides safe haven to terrorists, often pointing to the operation launched in 2014 to clear groups such as the Haqqanis from the Waziristan border region with Afghanistan. The operation was launched after the June 2014 attack on the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, which was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
“To scapegoat Pakistan will not help in stabilizing Afghanistan,” the country’s National Security Committee said in a statement Thursday after a meeting on Trump’s Afghanistan strategy. “On its own part, Pakistan has taken indiscriminate actions against all terrorist networks and sacrificed tens of thousands of troops and civilians in this fight.”
But experts say Pakistan does continue to provide the Taliban and the Haqqani network with refuge and support for two main reasons.
First and foremost in Pakistan’s calculus is using the terrorist groups as a counter to archrival India. New Delhi is Afghanistan’s biggest regional donor, giving than $3 billion in assistance since 2001 and building the country’s new parliament building, hydropower plants, dams and 2,500 miles of road.
“The elephant in the room is the India-Pakistan relationship,” said Moeed Yusuf, associate vice president of the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “India-Pakistan relations are only thing that Pakistan really cares about in terms of changing its behavior.”
In Pakistan’s mind, according to Yusuf, the Taliban is its best ally for countering Indian influence in Afghanistan.
The second main reason for Pakistan’s behavior, experts say, is that it is hedging its bets should the United States withdraw from Afghanistan, the current government collapse and the Taliban come back into power.
The Taliban and the Haqqani network “are the people who can guarantee them at least a sphere of influence in Afghanistan if things fell apart there,” said Marvin Weinbaum, director for Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute and former analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
U.S. options for pressuring Pakistan include curtailing or conditioning aid, sanctioning Pakistani officials, stepping up drone strikes inside the country, taking away its status as a major non-NATO ally or even naming it as a state sponsor of terrorism.
“All of those things you just listed are on the table for discussion if, in fact, they are unwilling to change their posture or change their approach to how they’re dealing with the numerous terrorist organizations that find safe haven inside of Pakistan,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Tuesday.
The United States has put conditions on aid to Pakistan. Former President Obama’s last Defense secretary, Ash Carter, withheld $300 million meant for Pakistan for fiscal 2016 over insufficient action against the Haqqani network.
Defense Secretary James Mattis decided last month to withhold the remaining $50 million for that fiscal year for the same reason.
But there are a number of factors keeping the United States from acting aggressively against Pakistan.
For one, U.S. forces rely on Pakistani ports and roads to resupply troops in landlocked Afghanistan. Pakistan could respond to increased U.S. pressure by cutting off access to those routes.
“They’ve got a chokehold on us,” Weinbaum said.
Another reason is that Pakistan’s concerns about India are so ingrained in the country’s security planning, nothing but drastic action could change its mind, experts say.
Yusuf said he does not see U.S. efforts on Pakistan working unless “there is a decision in Washington that it doesn’t matter if there’s a rupture” in the region.
Still, until the Trump administration specifies the new steps it will take against Pakistan, experts say it’s unclear how effective the effort will be.
“The reaction in Pakistan was much a sense of eye-rolling than fear,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Asia program, said of the reaction the Trump’s speech. “The proof is in the details. Will Trump actually be willing to take hard-line steps than before?”