Breaking the AfPak logjam

Breaking the AfPak logjam

The US and its allies will need to put in place a comprehensive sanctions package, beyond cutting civilian and military assistance, to force Pakistan to cave in.

By Sushant Sareen

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The British statesman Winston Churchill is believed to have famously observed: You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else. The South Asia policy of President Donald Trump seems to be that point of inflexion, when after having tried everything else, the US is priming up to do the right thing.

After 16 years of fighting the wrong war and the wrong enemy, the Trump administration finally seems to have figured out where the nub of the problem lies – Pakistan. Compared to his ostensibly ‘intellectually’ inclined, diplomatically refined and politically correct predecessors, President Trump has looked at the AfPak problem with a far greater sense of realism and hard-headedness. Notwithstanding the scepticism of South Asia policy wonks in Washington, many of whom were architects, advocates, and even apologists, of failed US policies in the AfPak region, Trump’s South Asia policy has a much higher chance of success, provided, of course, it doesn’t get deflected, distracted, derailed by other conflicts (North Korea, Iran) or even deceived by cosmetic steps – the ‘hostage rescue’ of the American-Canadian family is a stark example.

The US has always been aware of the double-speak, double-game and double-cross by the Pakistanis. And yet, until Trump came on the scene, the US was always ready to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s shenanigans in Afghanistan. This was partly because of a strategic (mis)calculation that the price being paid in men, money and material by the US was much less than the strategic cost of inviting open hostility of Pakistan as also the distasteful prospect of watching Pakistan becoming a virtual satellite of the Chinese. Partly, the US soft-peddling on Pakistan’s perfidy was the outcome of its dependence on the air and ground lines of communication that went through Pakistan.  There was also the whole issue of Pakistan’s importance because of its strategic location.

But these considerations no longer have the same salience they had in the past. Pakistan is already deeply embedded in the Chinese sphere of influence. Nothing that the US does for or gives to Pakistan will change that. Of course, Pakistanis and their apologists in the US system will use China as the bogey to make a pitch for continuing with the same old policy. The lines of communication through Pakistan remain important but are no longer as critical given the much smaller footprint of the US-led forces in Afghanistan. Finally, Pakistan is strategically important only if it plays ball and does what is asked of it, otherwise, it is more of a strategic nuisance. Despite all this, there are many people in Washington who are not ready to make a break with the policies of past administrations that have consistently failed to deliver. But here’s the thing: While it is quite possible that Trump’s South Asia policy which centres on going tough on Pakistan fails to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, it is virtually a given that doing more of the same – mollycoddling Pakistan, encouraging it, rewarding it or even giving in to its tantrums – will end in failure.

Clearly, those sceptical about the efficacy of the Trump policy have no real or workable alternate plan of their own. Their doubts about US ability and capacity to force compliance on Pakistan by following a coercive strategy are based on a somewhat exaggerated notion of Pakistani defiance. The fact of the matter is that for all Pakistan’s bluff, bluster and bellicosity, they are quick to change tack the moment they realise that the US is dead serious on its demands. The U-turn made by the Pakistanis after 9/11 is a good example. Overnight, and on one phone call, the Pakistanis dumped the Taliban, and were ready to bend over backwards to stay on the right side of the US.

The readiness with which the Pakistanis complied with US demands post 9/11 left the US blindsided to a simple reality: the Pakistanis had caved in to US demands but at the same time, hedged their bets by not giving up entirely on the Taliban option. In the Pakistani scheme of things, if the US focus and pressure is tactical, the Pakistani response will also be tactical; but if the US pressure is strategic, then the Pakistani response too will be strategic. Therefore, as soon as the US shifted focus from Afghanistan to Iraq and got enmeshed in the war there, the Pakistanis felt emboldened to re-activate the Taliban option. Over the last decade, Pakistan’s perfidy has created a situation which can only be retrieved by the US doubling down on the hard-line approach enunciated by the Trump administration. Tinkering around the edges, or adopting an incremental policy (including the blow-hot-blow-cold approach of many US officials) will not build the momentum necessary to change the dynamics of the dirty war in Afghanistan.

Perhaps the biggest mistake the US can make with Pakistan is trying to win the hearts of the people, or for that matter of the ‘deep state’. Clearly, if the US has nothing really to show for the tens of billions of dollars it has spent to win over Pakistani hearts, then it is time to change the strategy. What works with Pakistan is not so much winning hearts as it is getting them to focus their heads on how much they will lose and the heavy price they will pay if they defy the US. Just like Iran only became amenable to a nuclear deal after the US sanctions caused an economic collapse, so too will be the case with Pakistan. Unlike Iran which has the cushion of oil and a culture of resistance, Pakistan has neither. What is more, for all their talk of eating grass, the Pakistanis have no taste for grass, certainly not of the garden variety. The Pakistani elite is used to the good life and the only ‘consistent strategic approach’ to which they are wedded is protecting their way of life, perks, privileges and entitlements. For this, Pakistanis will do whatever it takes to prevent the US from exercising the “enormously powerful number of options” to force compellence on Pakistan.

Instead of piecemeal or very limited and targeted sanctions, the US, along with its allies, needs to put in place a comprehensive sanctions package that will force Pakistan to cave in. Merely cutting off civilian and military assistance or taking away the major non-NATO ally status will be pretty much water off a duck’s back as far as the Pakistanis are concerned. This means taking the sanctions regime to the next level. Until now, the US has desisted from imposing crippling sanctions. Even the piecemeal sanctions were either lifted or relaxed the moment they started biting. The Pakistanis, therefore, calculate that the US will bark but refrain from biting, even less so if they take some eyewash of an action to keep the US placated and thinking that Pakistan is starting to deliver on what is being asked of it.

If the Trump administration wants a victory in Afghanistan, it will only become possible after it shatters the Pakistani calculus of stringing the Americans long until they get involved elsewhere and forget about the AfPak region. As the great disrupter with an uncanny knack for unsettling his adversaries, President Donald Trump has the opportunity to win what until now has proved to be an unwinnable war. But this will be possible only if he is ready to break with the past policies and forge and persist with the new and more robust strategy that was outlined in his South Asia policy.