In case there were any doubt, Pakistan seems to have indicated that it won’t fulfill U.S. expectations for the reset in U.S.-Pakistan relations offered by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his recent stopover in Islamabad. Prime Minister Imran Khan set the tone ahead of Pompeo’s visit, pledging not to give in to any “one-sided demands.” Other prominent politicians are delivering the same message, explicitly rejecting Pompeo’s urge to “do more” to rein in terror groups. And Pakistani leaders’ view of their country’s interests in Afghanistan, which differ vastly from those of the United States, limits the prospects of cooperation in ending the Afghan war.
Part of the problem is definitional: Pakistan’s leadership defines terrorism differently than the U.S. government and thus is unlikely to act against all terrorist groups, as Pompeo demanded. U.S. diplomats have spent almost three decades trying to lure Pakistan’s decision-makers into seeing things their way. This has led to what President Donald Trump recently described as Pakistan’s “lies and deceit” regarding the $33 billion in economic and security assistance it has accepted from the U.S. government since 9/11.
While diplomats are expected not to forsake engagement and optimism, it is equally important to understand when the other side is unwilling to compromise. Pakistan and the United States have disagreed over Afghanistan almost consistently since the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. Americans wanted the Soviet-installed regime to be replaced by a broad-based non-communist government while Pakistan favored hardline Pashtun fundamentalists.
After the bloody civil war that began with the collapse in 1992 of the Afghan communist government, Pakistan supported the rise of the Taliban and abandoned them after the 9/11 attacks only because it faced the prospect of an angry Bush Administration bombing Pakistan “back to the stone age.”
Pakistan’s then-dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, expected the U.S. military to stay in Afghanistan for a relatively short time. He hoped that Pakistan’s help in capturing al-Qaeda fighters would suffice for the Americans to declare victory and leave Afghanistan. Musharraf acknowledged years later that Pakistan continued to support the Afghan Taliban because of its fears of India’s alleged influence in Afghanistan.
Barring the first four years of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Americans have constantly voiced concerns about Pakistan offering safe haven to the Taliban and the notorious Haqqani Network. Americans have also praised Pakistan’s military effort against the Pakistani Taliban in the hope that it will subsequently be extended to the Afghan Taliban. But after fighting the “irreconcilable” Pakistani Taliban, the Pakistani military has yet to fire a single shot at the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan’s leadership and the Afghan Taliban have both been playing the long game, hoping to wait the Americans out.
Pakistan refused to align its Afghan policy with America’s even after U.S. officials publicly started criticizing its relationship with the Taliban, accompanied with periodic threats of cutting off aid. That refusal persisted for years, even when Pakistan depended on U.S. aid more than it does now and the country’s fantasy of having access to unlimited Chinese assistance had not yet taken hold.
It is unlikely that Pakistan or the Afghan Taliban will change their calculus at a time when they believe that the U.S. military is eager to leave Afghanistan. The United States has now become closer to India than to Pakistan, and China, not the United States, is viewed in Islamabad as the country’s principal benefactor.
The Pakistani military has operated under the assumption that it can wait the Americans out in Afghanistan. Why would it give in and make compromises at a time when it feels its dream of American withdrawal is about to materialize?
Instead of continuing efforts to change Pakistan’s calculus, the Trump Administration now seems ready to bypass Pakistan and directly negotiate with the Afghan Taliban. Pompeo has already announced that legendary Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad will now be “the State Department’s lead person” for reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad might be the only American diplomat capable of determining through direct contacts whether a deal with the Afghan Taliban is even feasible. As an Afghan-born former Ambassador to Afghanistan, he knows the history of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and would be less willing to let a diplomat’s eternal optimism about prospects for peace interfere with a realistic appraisal of the situation.
In addition to Afghanistan, the Trump Administration should also be prepared for less cooperation from Pakistan with respect to its other major concern: terrorism. Pakistan’s civil and military leaders have voiced opposition to terrorism for years, but their definition of terrorists and extremists is dramatically at odds with the U.S. government’s.
Within a week of Pompeo’s short stopover in Islamabad, Pakistan’s Supreme Court overruled restrictions imposed by the previous government on Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a front for the terrorist Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and its charity arm, Falahi Insaniyat Foundation (FIF). The restrictions on JuD and FIF reflected the U.S. designation of both organizations as terrorist fronts.
Both JuD and FIF are linked to LeT’s founder, Hafiz Saeed, who has been subject to United Nations sanctions since December 2008 for “participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, preparing or perpetrating of acts of activities by, in conjunction with, under the name of, on behalf or in support of” LeT and al-Qaeda. Saeed and his followers are known outside Pakistan for their role in the Mumbai attacks in November 2008.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court is notorious for acting at the behest of its national security apparatus and its current Chief Justice, Saqib Nisar, has earned a reputation for being close to both the country’s establishment and the newly appointed civilian government, led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
The message of the court’s judgment, though it lacked sound legal reasoning, was clear. In the Pakistani view, terrorism that targets its people is wrong; terrorism that targets anyone else in the world might also be wrong, but is not Pakistan’s responsibility to eradicate—and indeed, in some cases can be usefully promoted. Thus, groups and individuals who advance Pakistan’s strategic interests remain exempt from the kind of action the U.S. government has demanded for several decades. The day after Pompeo’s visit to Islamabad, a joint India-U.S. statement “denounced any use of terrorist proxies in the region” and “called on Pakistan to ensure that the territory under its control is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries.”
That statement also “called on Pakistan to bring to justice expeditiously the perpetrators of the Mumbai, Pathankot, Uri, and other cross-border terrorist attacks” and spoke of “strengthening cooperation and action against terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, ISIS, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hizb-ul Mujahideen, the Haqqani Network, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, D-Company, and their affiliates.”
The issue of terrorism has been a sticking point in relations between Pakistan and the United States almost since the end of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1989, during which the erstwhile allies had collaborated. While Americans have warned Pakistan to stop using jihadis as proxies against India and in Afghanistan, Pakistan has either duplicitously denied doing so or explained it away as a national security imperative.
The time may have come when that cycle of Americans warnings and Pakistani denials gives way to a recognition on both sides that their interests simply do not converge. The United States might have to increasingly assume that its admonishments will not change Pakistani behavior, while Pakistan will have to learn to live without expecting American support.