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Trump’s Three Missteps on Pakistan

Daniel Markey
Sunday, July 28, 2019, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Pakistan is where good policy options go to die. U.S. administrations have struggled to develop a coherent and effective policy toward Islamabad, trying to coerce and co-opt it, with limited success at best. Daniel Markey of SAIS offers a readout of Prime Minister Khan’s visit to Washington. He points out mistakes the Trump administration made and argues that a continued tough approach is necessary.

Daniel Byman


Published by The Lawfare Institute
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Editor’s Note: Pakistan is where good policy options go to die. U.S. administrations have struggled to develop a coherent and effective policy toward Islamabad, trying to coerce and co-opt it, with limited success at best. Daniel Markey of SAIS offers a readout of Prime Minister Khan’s visit to Washington. He points out mistakes the Trump administration made and argues that a continued tough approach is necessary.

Daniel Byman


Pakistan’s prime minister, army chief and other top national security officials arrived in Washington, D.C., on July 20 for a working meeting at the White House and cabinet-level talks at the State Department and Pentagon. In briefings ahead of the visit, senior U.S. officials stressed their desire to use the visit as a means to encourage Pakistan to further facilitate ongoing negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, while Pakistani officials proclaimed their own more expansive desire to “reset” relations with Washington.

The Pakistani delegation likely left town more satisfied than their American hosts. President Trump’s remarks to the press included at least three dangerous missteps (not including his inexcusable comments on Hong Kong). His comments sent mixed messages to U.S. partners in India and Afghanistan, inflated Pakistan’s role in regional diplomacy, and signaled a strong U.S. endorsement of the Pakistani prime minister when Washington should still be working to enhance its leverage with Islamabad.

Two of the three failures have already received a fair amount of public attention. First, President Trump fabricated a conversation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Unbidden, he claimed that Modi asked him to mediate Indo-Pakistani talks on Kashmir. Within hours, Indian officials set that record straight; New Delhi has never had any interest in U.S. mediation, preferring instead to conduct talks with Pakistan over Kashmir and other issues bilaterally. Trump’s comment is unlikely to create a lasting rift with New Delhi, but it demonstrated his untrustworthiness as a diplomat-in-chief in ways that India’s leaders will not soon forget and contributes to an already growing set of frictions in the relationship.

That said, although it was almost certainly unpremeditated, Trump’s comments could conceivably have a small silver lining. The threat of his personal intercession in the Indo-Pakistani relationship could, in itself, motivate India’s top diplomats to find their way back to a bilateral dialogue with Pakistan. Even if such a move proves purely tactical on India’s part, with little prospect for yielding any breakthrough agreements, it could be a marginal improvement over the diplomatic silence that now prevails. At the very least, a resumed dialogue would give Prime Minister Modi something to suspend the next time he needs to publicly display his frustration with Pakistan—a diplomatic “safety valve,” of sorts. It would also strengthen New Delhi’s argument that India is not the main obstacle to peace in South Asia.

For his part, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, calmly played Trump’s comments to his advantage. Pakistan has aimed to leverage American influence in its dealings with India for decades. Pakistani leaders tend to favor the idea of a three-sided negotiating table over Kashmir in the (perhaps fanciful) hope that they stand a better chance of influencing Washington than of achieving their aims in one-on-one talks with New Delhi. More immediately, Khan recognized the tactical benefit that Trump’s words would sour U.S. relations with New Delhi and place the onus for restarting any Kashmir dialogue on India.

Trump’s second misstep came in his commentary on Afghanistan, in which he stated that the main U.S. alternative to a negotiated settlement with the Taliban would be to drop GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bombs (as U.S. forces used in April 2017 against an ISIS tunnel complex in Nangarhar) and wipe Afghanistan “off the face of the earth.” But because those plans would kill “10 million people,” Trump said that he would prefer a negotiated settlement in which “Pakistan is going to help us out to extricate ourselves.”

Many other American leaders have argued that the war in Afghanistan can only be ended through negotiations, but none has spoken so recklessly about the U.S. use of force or so callously about killing Afghans. It was no surprise that the Afghan government immediately called for a “clarification” of Trump’s comments, and U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad received an earful from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in their subsequent meeting.

This second error also works to Pakistan’s benefit. Trump’s assertion that the United States faces a stark decision in Afghanistan—either kill millions or work with Pakistan toward a peaceful solution—put Khan in the role of indispensable American partner. Given Trump’s January 2018 tweet that Pakistan had “given us nothing but lies & deceit,” this was a remarkable and welcome turnaround for the prime minister.

Trump’s third misstep may have been his worst. To be fair, the president needed to pull off a difficult balancing act, deftly encouraging aspects of Pakistan’s current policy on Afghanistan and counterterrorism while stressing that a huge amount of difficult work remains to be done. Over the past two decades, Washington has always had trouble delivering a calibrated message to Pakistan that navigates between an overly generous “good job” and the patronizing demand to “do more.”

But rather than try to find that balance, Trump skipped subtlety altogether. He repeatedly showered Khan with praise, noting for instance that “[w]e’ve made a lot of progress over the last couple of weeks, and Pakistan has helped us with that progress.” He then added, “a lot of great things are happening. A lot of things are happening for the United States, and I think a lot of great things are going to be happening for Pakistan too, under your leadership. I really feel that.” The president went on to stress the “tremendous upside” potential of increased U.S.-Pakistan trade, observing that “I see great trade with Pakistan. And I’m not—I’m not talking about a little bit more. I’m talking about—we could go 10 and even 20 times what we’re doing right now.”

Trump clearly believes that flattery and bold promises can be powerful tools for dealing with leaders like Khan. And, to be sure, other senior U.S. officials (reportedly including Ambassador Khalilzad) also believe that Pakistan has taken important steps to facilitate dialogue with the Taliban and will be critically important to achieving a “permanent cease fire” there. The entire Pakistani visit, the first by any Pakistani prime minister since 2015, was intended to serve as a marker of forward progress and an incentive to continue along similar lines.

Taking a more critical perspective, however, there are good reasons to doubt the value of Khalilzad’s negotiations and, by extension, to perceive that the United States gains rather little from Pakistan’s assistance. To some observers, the entire negotiating process looks more like a face-saving way for the United States to abandon Afghanistan again. By this logic, Pakistan’s “help” in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table represents little more than a roundabout means for Islamabad to assert influence over the war’s outcome in ways it has wanted from the start.

Talks with the Taliban could prove fatally flawed. They are, at the very least, highly uncertain. Yet at this point, the same could be said of all other U.S. policy options. The battlefield stalemate is unlikely to be broken by any realistic U.S. military escalation, and a U.S. military withdrawal without a political settlement would be far worse. If played out over time, negotiations at least offer some potential for the United States to achieve its core security goal of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for the reemergence of al-Qaeda or other similar international terrorist groups, for cease-fires to take hold, and for an extended period of intra-Afghan politicking to settle national differences that have not been resolved on the battlefield even after decades of war.

The bigger problem with Trump’s effusive praise is that it exposes the narrowness of the administration’s agenda with Pakistan. Khan could now easily believe that if Pakistan delivers on Afghanistan, the Trump administration will forgive (or forget) its other differences with Pakistan and get back to business as usual, possibly even including a return to sales and transfers of U.S. military equipment.

Those problems persist, though, even if the Trump administration prefers to ignore them. The way Trump downplayed Pakistan’s recent backsliding on democracy and human rights was troubling, if not surprising. The president and prime minister jocularly compared their contentious relationships with journalists and the media, at a time when the Pakistani state has jailed opposition parliamentarians and clamped down on press freedoms. For the many Americans who actually care about liberal democratic values, Khan’s poor record in these areas would be reason enough to question a return to business as usual with Pakistan.

Trump also avoided Pakistan’s persistent ties to regional terrorist groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). To its credit, prior to the visit the Trump administration repeatedly and publicly called on Pakistan to take “irreversible action” against all armed militants on its soil, and to “to shut down all groups once and for all.” In addition, the Trump administration has worked through various diplomatic means, including threatening sanctions through the Financial Action Task Force, to place targeted pressure on Pakistan in ways that generate meaningful pain and embarrassment for the state. But no one would know that from Trump’s comments alongside the prime minister.

Khan and other Pakistani leaders claim they are already doing more than ever to rid their territory of terrorists. At one level, their claims hold merit. Pakistan’s army has, especially after the 2014 terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, taken ever more energetic steps to disband and destroy anti-state militant groups like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, or Pakistani Taliban). As a result, many Pakistanis now enjoy a sense of personal security that five years ago would have seemed a matter of wishful thinking. This increased domestic security in a nuclear-armed country also benefits the security of the United States. Whereas in 2009 Secretary of State Clinton warned of a Taliban threat to Pakistan that “poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world,” similar fears no longer haunt most American policymakers.

Of course, Pakistan has always prioritized its counterterrorism efforts against threats to internal security. Anti-Indian groups like LeT and anti-Afghan groups like the Haqqani Network continued to enjoy Pakistani state support, both passive and active, even as the government targeted the TTP. From the perspective of generations of Pakistan’s army and intelligence officers, these proxy groups offered a means to destabilize a hostile but powerful India and project influence into a weak and war-torn Afghanistan. Now, however, Khan is claiming a full-scale, comprehensive crackdown on “all militant groups,” including the arrest of LeT founder Hafiz Saeed.

In background briefings, U.S. officials have expressed skepticism about whether Pakistan is serious about its latest crackdown. Rather than dismissing Pakistan’s moves out of hand, however, they are likely engaging in the tricky business of trying to discern “irreversible” progress from tactical maneuvers intended to placate Washington and other international partners (including China).

Such irreversible progress would presumably include incarcerating terrorists; confiscating their assets; shuttering their facilities; and limiting their access to the media, politics and society. Some recent actions along these lines, including the state’s closure of 182 religious seminaries and LeT offices, as well as an asset freeze of the groups’ “charitable” arms, have been touted by Pakistani leaders as evidence of their intentions.

But similar steps have been taken before. Former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani helpfully notes that this is Saeed’s seventh arrest since 2001. And when Khan was asked at a public forum hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace whether Saeed would once again be set free, he demurred, citing the need to abide by Pakistan’s system of justice.

Irreversible progress would also mean forsaking further support to armed militants from the Pakistani army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which includes training, equipping, and logistical and intelligence cooperation. This would mean, in effect, that Pakistan would drop one of the core politico-military tools it has used for decades, potentially at the cost of domestic political cohesion and security. It would require Pakistan’s government to pick a sustained fight against powerful nonstate institutions that enjoy deep and long-standing ties of interest and sympathy with military and intelligence officers, as well as other powerful and prominent figures throughout Pakistani society.

To really take Pakistan seriously, the United States—through its eyes and ears on the ground in Pakistan and throughout the neighborhood—would need to see long-term evidence of these shifts, as well as their painful consequences. Like the TTP, Pakistan’s other terrorist groups will not go down without a fight; analysts should watch carefully for signs of a backlash and decisive break. Given the stakes, it will pay to be skeptical until the evidence is irrefutable.

The facts line up with a different story: Pakistan, facing external military and economic pressures and with a fresh face at the helm of its ship of state, is once again finding a way to make itself minimally useful to Washington without permanently abandoning its dangerous Islamists, implementing deeper structural economic and political reforms, or building a healthy foundation for relations with India or Afghanistan.

Under such conditions, it may still make sense for Khalilzad and his negotiating team to use its narrow convergence of interest with Pakistan to press ahead with Taliban talks. It also makes sense for the U.S. diplomatic and intelligence communities to keep an extremely close eye on how Pakistan is actually dealing with its homegrown terrorists.

But to deliver more to Pakistan at this stage would be to vastly oversell the nature of its progress so far, reward Islamabad (prematurely) for partial progress, and send yet another confusing message to America’s friends in Afghanistan and India. The United States should not take its foot off the coercive pedal before we cross any relevant finish lines. Unfortunately, that is precisely the direction President Trump signaled he would take during his meeting with Prime Minister Khan last Monday.

Daniel Markey is a senior research professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of No Exit From Pakistan (Oxford University Press, 2013) and the forthcoming China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

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