The Pakistan Plan: How a Poisonous Relationship Could Become Prosperous

July 16, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Lebanon Watch Tags: PakistanAfghanistanTalibanTerrorismWar

The Pakistan Plan: How a Poisonous Relationship Could Become Prosperous

The Khan-Trump meeting provides an opportunity for American and Pakistani officials to begin a conversation about potential areas of convergence on controversial topics, like Afghanistan.


Next week, Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan will visit Washington where the charismatic, outspoken ex-cricketer will meet with another outsized personality: President Donald Trump.

The visit of Khan has been in the works since early this year, but it is nonetheless a surprise given Trump’s history of hostility toward Pakistan, including a 2018 New Year’s Day tweet in which he said that Pakistan has “given us nothing but lies and deceit” despite having received “over $33 billion” in aid.


Trump’s sentiment toward Pakistan has also been reflected in his administration’s so-called South Asia strategy, which identified Pakistan as a destabilizing force in Afghanistan and India and depicted it as an obstacle to U.S. interests in the region.

Trump unveiled his South Asia strategy at an Army post next to Arlington National Cemetery in August 2017.  During a speech about the strategy, he noted that Pakistan “has much to gain” from helping the United States in Afghanistan and “much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.” The strategy, however, contains few carrots and many sticks, amounting to an effort to compel Pakistan to change its policies toward Afghanistan and India.

Washington has deferred agreeing to a Trump meeting with his Pakistani counterpart. It appears to be using the meeting as a reward for behavioral change. So Khan’s upcoming trip to Washington begets the following questions: Why is the visit taking place? What has changed to make it possible? And has the strategy for compelling Pakistan worked?

The Exit to Afghanistan Goes Through Pakistan

When it comes to Afghanistan, the biggest changes have come from Washington, not Islamabad. 

Even before assuming office, Trump made clear that he felt that the Afghan war was a lost, wasteful effort. And those sentiments lingered through much of the first year of Trump’s presidency as he dragged his feet on announcing an Afghan war strategy.

In his August 2017 “South Asia strategy” address, Trump said that his “original instinct was to pull out” of Afghanistan but instead decided to increase troop deployments and abandon timelines, criticizing Obama’s time-bound surge in Afghanistan. Though the Trump administration continues to escalate air and ground raids targeting suspected Taliban militants, leading to record-high civilian deaths, its commitment to an open-ended war quickly dissipated. 

By March 2018, Alice Wells, a senior U.S. diplomat on South Asia, publicly asked the Taliban to begin talks with the Kabul government. The Taliban still refused to do so, but the U.S.-Taliban dialogue soon began. And the pace at which they’ve proceeded indicates the sense of American urgency in securing a deal with the Taliban. 

In July 2018, Wells began direct talks with the Taliban. In the fall, the Trump administration appointed veteran diplomat Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad as special envoy for Afghan peace and, at Khalilzad’s request, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence released Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar from detention. Both moves gave the negotiating parties credibility, signaling that they had the endorsement of the senior U.S. and Taliban leadership and indicating that they had gone beyond an exploratory phase.

Baradar’s release, as well as Pakistan’s subsequent condemnation of violence in Afghanistan, are examples of how American diplomacy, not coercion, has been key to advancing talks with the Taliban. That diplomacy, however, hasn’t always been quiet.

In early April, Khalilzad publicly called for Pakistan and Qatar to condemn the Taliban’s summer offensive. Almost two weeks later, Pakistan instead condemned “the surge of violence in Afghanistan from all sides” and said that it “will not be a party to an internal conflict in Afghanistan anymore.” It was an important concession by Pakistan, but on its own terms.

By spring, U.S. officials began to change their tone on Pakistan, indicating an appreciation for the measures Islamabad had taken—both public and unadvertised—to advance the U.S.-Taliban dialogue. In March, Trump said that Washington planned to meet with Islamabad. “I think our relationship now is very good with Pakistan,” Trump said. By “with Pakistan,” Trump clearly meant Khan.

Trump remains keen on an exit from Afghanistan, though he may now favor a residual intelligence or special operations presence. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington would like to see a peace deal by September 1. So now, instead of doing away with timelines, the Trump administration is on the verge of agreeing to a withdrawal timetable with its adversary, the Taliban. 

The U.S. exit from Afghanistan, much like its entry, is through Pakistan.  With the Khan visit, Trump is rewarding Pakistan for the progress toward achieving a political settlement with the Taliban.

So careful, steady diplomacy—led by Khalilzad—has achieved more results than compellence. As I argued last year, coercion would not work to change Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy for two reasons: geography and salience. 

Regardless of what Americans say, a U.S. exit from landlocked Afghanistan will take place at some point. And the American exit from Afghanistan, barring an unexpected rapprochement between Tehran and Washington, goes through Pakistan—both physically and diplomatically. 

Pakistan knows that superpowers not only eventually leave landlocked Afghanistan, but also leave behind a great mess. Fear of another 9/11 keeps America in Afghanistan. But for Pakistan, the Afghan war has been a forty-year problem, costing the lives of tens of thousands of Pakistanis (and many, many more Afghans). And that is why, despite its financial difficulties, Pakistan is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fence its border with Afghanistan.

Where Compellence Has Worked

Trump’s South Asia strategy has not been a complete failure. Washington has been able to develop and sustain a diplomatic consensus to pressure Pakistan to intensify and sustain a crackdown on militant groups that target India and Indian-controlled territory. 

As the Trump administration engages Pakistan as a core actor on Afghanistan (Islamabad recently took part in a U.S.-Russian-Chinese multilateral on Afghanistan in Beijing), it has pursued a separate track coercing Islamabad to fulfill its international obligations to deny Jaish-e Muhammad and Lashkar-e Taiba the ability to operate on Pakistani soil.

Last June, Pakistan was put on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) gray list and has remained on it since then. While it has avoided the black list, the sword of Damocles is likely to remain over its head. As a result, Pakistan has this month charged the Lashkar-e Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed with terrorism financing after banning his two charities earlier this year. 

Compellence vis-a-vis Pakistan’s policy toward India-focused militant groups has worked for a number of reasons. First, there’s a global consensus that these groups are bad actors. In contrast, when it comes to the Afghan Taliban, regional powers like China and Russia, as well as American allies like the United Kingdom, favor a political settlement and see Pakistan as essential partner to achieve one.

Second, America and, more specifically, the U.S. dollar, dominate the global financial system. Washington is adept at using sanctions and other forms of coercive economic diplomacy. The proliferation of both American economic sanctions and military special operations has been a feature of the post–9/11 era. 

Beyond sanctions, Washington has also used its influence at the International Monetary Fund, from which Pakistan has sought a bailout, to get Islamabad to sustain efforts to curb the operations of globally designated terror groups.

For Pakistan, this should be a wakeup call. It is indispensable to the world with respect to the problem of Afghanistan, but Afghanistan alone. Pakistan’s economic underdevelopment and dependence on foreign aid are national-security vulnerabilities. And those vulnerabilities could increase should Pakistan’s balance of payments crisis morph into a debt crisis. Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership should be aware that the pain the Trump administration is inflicting on ordinary Iranians could, to some degree, be replicated in Pakistan.

On the whole, China has provided Pakistan with a safety net from American pressure. But pivoting even more toward China, including greater use of Renminbi-denominated transactions, may create another dependent relationship for Pakistan mirroring its tortured partnership with the United States.

The Long View

Some observers speak of the Khan-Trump meeting as an opportunity to reset the bilateral relationship. But the leadership and policymaking communities in both countries lack a vision for U.S.-Pakistan ties. Their agendas are largely negative, focused on how to prevent the other side from being an impediment to their domestic or regional goals.

Indeed, when Khan and Trump meet in the Oval Office, China and India will be the elephants in the room. Washington has zeroed in on Beijing being its next geostrategic rival and there is a consensus in the Beltway that India, Pakistan’s archrival, must be cultivated as a counterweight to China in the broader Indian Ocean region. As America withholds military aid to Pakistan and deepens its defense partnership with India, it widens the conventional military gap between Islamabad and New Delhi, increasing Pakistan’s dependence on China. Pakistan, once again, will bear the externalities of great-power rivalry.

While Pakistan has successfully diversified its relations with regional powers—its budding partnership with Russia is a testament to that—there are limits to what leveraging multipolarity can offer. America remains an important market for Pakistani exports and a potential source of foreign direct investment. And it is home to a prosperous and upwardly-mobile Pakistani diaspora.