Pakistan returned to the headlines last month, after a U.S. air strike eliminated Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Mansour inside Pakistani territory. It marked the first ever U.S. strike on an Afghan Taliban leader inside the group’s Pakistani sanctuary of Baluchistan, which had been off-limits to U.S. drones as part of an informal arrangement with Islamabad. Washington has touted the drone strike as an important victory for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. However, it will prove symbolic and short-lived unless it prompts more fundamental reform of America’s Pakistan policy. To effect real change, Washington must increase pressure not just on the Taliban residing in Pakistan, but on Pakistan itself.
After a U.S. military drone eliminated commander Mullah Mansour as he traveled by taxi to the Afghan Taliban headquarters in Quetta, the militant group moved swiftly to appoint a successor. The sons of Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, the late leaders of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, were considered and quickly dismissed due to their youth and inexperience. A more obscure religious figure, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, arose as the consensus candidate. Analysts have now turned their attention to what Akhundzada’s appointment means for the nascent Afghan peace process, and whether the strike was a “one-off” or the catalyst for an expansion of America’s drone campaign into Baluchistan.
While these are important tactical questions, they’re of limited value if the underlying strategy remains flawed. A more consequential question is why Pakistan’s harboring of yet another terrorist commander has been met with a collective shrug by the United States and the international community. It’s an uncomfortable reminder that Pakistan’s “double game” has become old news. Accepted wisdom. Permitted behavior. In Washington, anger has been dimmed by exhaustion, with many now hoping to reach a modicum of stability in Afghanistan and put the whole messy affair behind them. History, however, has been unkind to great powers that fail to learn from their mistakes.
To be clear, few in Washington are under any illusions about the extent of Pakistan’s perfidy. Hillary Clinton has warned that Pakistan “poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world.” In his memoir, Defense Secretary Robert Gates recalled how “in every instance” the United States shared intelligence with Pakistan about a target, “the target was forewarned and fled” or Pakistan launched a botched operation of its own. “I knew they were really no ally at all,” he explained.
America suffers not from a lack of information, but from a lack of resolve. And a lack of perspective. They say the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. The greatest trick Pakistan ever pulled was convincing America it only had two choices: tolerate and bankroll Pakistan’s double game, or stir an unstable cocktail of Islamist extremism and weapons of mass destruction.
It’s nonsense—a fabricated dichotomy in a fictional reality where the mere specter of U.S. pressure threatens the integrity of the Pakistani state, where the million-man Pakistani army is powerless to protect its nuclear arsenal and where a severing of bilateral relations would prove more costly to the United States than to Pakistan. This narrative has ensured the U.S. toolbox is brimming with $20 billion in carrots but desperately lacking in sticks. What’s worse, the sticks America does possess are only to be wielded in the event Pakistan crosses an existential threshold, such as a successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil planned or perpetrated from its territory.
Arguably the fundamental flaw in America’s Pakistan strategy was withholding its sticks for this single punitive threshold and refusing to apply calculated, escalating pressure in response to repeated bouts of Pakistani malfeasance short of that threshold.
A punitive threshold should have been crossed the first time U.S. intelligence intercepted Pakistan’s notorious intelligence service, the ISI, feeding the Taliban information about U.S. airstrikes, or aided them in organizing attacks in Afghanistan. Or when the Haqqani Network, a known proxy of the ISI, orchestrated the deadliest attack on the CIA in the agency’s history in 2009. Or when the same group orchestrated an attack on the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan two years later. Above all, it should have been crossed when Pakistan’s “game” resulted in the death of American servicemen and women in Afghanistan.
Each flagrant offense should have triggered an escalating wave of pressure, from suspension of aid to economic isolation, and from targeted sanctions on the ISI or Pakistani military to unilateral kinetic operations inside Pakistan against nonstate and, if necessary, state actors. The pressure should have continued until the United States was convinced Pakistan had altered its course. That’s what superpowers do when their interests are threatened and their soldiers are under fire. And that’s what “making no distinctions between terrorism and those who harbor them” means.
Instead, America has responded to each Pakistani provocation with lucrative aid and scholarly lectures about the unethical and counterproductive nature of its support for Islamist militants. Yet from Pakistan’s perspective, its strategy has been anything but counterproductive. For the past decade a formidable coalition of powers has been committed to a secure and stable Afghanistan free from Taliban rule. They include the United States, Russia, Iran, India, the EU, Central Asia and even China. The lone country pursuing a weak and divided Afghanistan under Taliban rule has not only bested this coalition, it’s forced them to bankroll their own defeat. The problem isn’t with them; it’s with us.
The next U.S. president must learn from, and avoid repeating, the mistakes of their predecessors. My advice: trying to alter Islamabad’s cost-benefit calculation without imposing costs is a fool’s errand. Don’t be afraid to use calibrated pressure as a direct response to Pakistani transgressions. And don’t conclude that employing sticks will produce catastrophe before you’ve deployed your first.
Don’t accept the canard that nuclear terrorism is the only alternative to the status quo. And don’t be deluded into thinking America is a hopeless victim at the mercy of the Pakistani military, incapable of imposing unbearable costs on any person, group or institution it deems a threat to national security.
Don’t assume employing sticks with Pakistan will be easy or cost-free. But remember that, like most rational actors, Pakistan’s generals are concerned foremost with self-preservation. They have a great deal more to fear from a fundamental rift in U.S.-Pakistan relations than America does.
Finally, and above all, if showering Pakistan with money has a demonstrated track record of failure, don’t assume throwing more money at the problem will produce a different result. That, they say, is the definition of insanity.
Jeff M. Smith is the Director of Asian Security Programs at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the 21st Century (2014).