Beyond the Trumpian bluster: Is there a longer game on Pakistan?

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, chief of the Islamic charity organisation Jamaat-ud-Dawa, speaks to supporters during a gathering in Rawalpindi

Executive summary

The Trump administration announced in January 2018 the suspension of most U.S. security assistance to Pakistan. Critics have argued that the decision was poorly executed and will prove insufficient to change Pakistan’s “strategic calculus” toward its neighbors. These critiques, while persuasive, may overestimate what the administration intended to achieve from the announcement and underestimate its willingness to pursue a longer game in South Asia.

It is unrealistic to expect that pressure on Pakistan can serve as the primary policy fulcrum for shifting the balance of power in Afghanistan. That said, this policy brief argues that the aid suspension introduced five distinct opportunities for the United States to advance its interests in South Asia over the coming year by (1) reducing U.S. “reputational exposure” to Pakistan; (2) minimizing security assistance as a mutual irritant in the relationship; (3) signaling U.S. seriousness to India and China; (4) stepping up pressure for action against the Haqqani Network; and (5) presaging tougher policy action in other domains.

Securing even these modest gains depends on the administration’s ability to carry out a more disciplined policy process and messaging campaign, carefully manage risks to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and adopt a public posture that does not undermine those Pakistani elites who are trying to use this moment to spark a debate about Pakistan’s own choices and the future it is making for itself.