By Chuzi Xiao
The United States and Afghanistan accused Pakistan of turning a blind eye to the issue of safe havens and sanctuaries to members of the Afghan Taliban and the notorious Haqqani network. But the Pakistanis are not the right people to blame. The administration should appreciate the strengths in United States-Pakistan collaboration, rather than creating more friction.
President Trump addressed his military plan on Afghanistan in a nationally televised prime-time speech at Fort Myer, Virginia. on August 21st: “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”
Despite warning against a “hasty withdrawal” from Afghanistan, President Trump is determined to end the nearly 16-year-old conflict in Afghanistan. He lays at least some of the blame for the conflict on the country’s southeastern neighbor, criticizing what he calls safe havens for Islamist terrorists on Pakistani soil.
Trump says the United States will implement new forms of pressure on Pakistan to crack down on the terrorist groups residing along its border with Afghanistan. The Trump administration has stepped up its actions and made them much more severe. State Department officials have said the United States would establish explicit conditions on assistance to Pakistan—for example, holding back $255 million in military aid to Pakistan, unless Pakistan pursues the Taliban and Haqqani network more aggressively.
Trump’s call for a strategic partnership with India also has wide implications for Pakistan, which has been in a long-enduring rivalry with its neighbor and has created a turbulent new chapter in United States-Pakistani relations. Soon after the State Department officials’ remarks, Pakistan’s National Assembly passed a resolution strongly denouncing President Trump’s new policy on Afghanistan and calling his statements about Pakistan “hostile and threatening.” In Islamabad, protesters also have objected to Trump’s allegation that Pakistan is harboring militants who attack United States forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistan will not allow itself to be a scapegoat for the United States’ stalemate in Afghanistan as Pakistan remains a critical partner contributing a great deal to the United States’ counter-terrorism efforts and even to its grand strategy. Pakistan provides valuable air-to-ground communication for the United States and its NATO allies. Both ground and air lines of communication, current routes used to transport supplies through Pakistan to Afghanistan, are in fact sponsored by the Pakistani government. The United States is likely to be more dependent on Pakistan for transferring military personnel and equipment into Afghanistan if a troop surge occurs.
Pakistan has been collaborative with the United States’ combat operations. The United States has carried out drone strikes periodically on Pakistan’s territory against high value targets. Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour was taken out in a drone strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan province last year. Although Pakistan argues that drone strikes are a violation of its sovereignty and has threatened to shoot them down, it has never followed through. In addition, Pakistani troops are waging a productive offensive to crush the Taliban in the Swat Valley, northwest of its capital city.
If Trump favors India, Pakistan may lean towards China. Maintaining close relations with China, after all, is already a central part of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Now the Trump administration has invited India to have a finger in the pie, a move Pakistan considers highly antagonistic. It is wise for Washington to understand that India cannot be a wedge between United States-Pakistan partnerships, increasing the likelihood for strategic miscalculation encountering the rising China.
What about Pakistan’s dual policy, receiving United States military assistance while housing terrorist groups battle U.S. in the Afghanistan? In fact, the lynchpin is the low efficiency of the United States and Afghanistan in actions against fugitive terrorist groups hiding in Afghanistan. In a quarterly report to the United States Congress, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) states that less than 60 percent of Afghan territory is under the control or influence of the Kabul government. The Afghan Taliban controls large swaths of Afghan territory and therefore does not need to flee to Pakistan for safe havens or sanctuaries. The United States should help make sure the Kabul government stabilizes its fragile security and political situation at first.
Although Trump declared, “In the end, we will win,” his strategy won’t succeed without a greater input from Pakistan. As long as the United States is still trying to scapegoat Pakistan for an unproductive campaign, Islamabad will be less cooperative to work on the settlement of the Afghan conflict. An efficient and well-functioning collaboration between the United States and Pakistan is essential to regional counterinsurgency and counterterrorism now and in the future.
Chuzi Xiao is a Master candidate in International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. Her research mainly focuses on Asia security issues, particularly in Northeast Asia and South Asia.