The case for getting tough on Pakistan

Soldiers from the Special Security Unit (SSU) hold Pakistan's national flag during a ceremony to celebrate the country's 70th Independence Day at the mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Karachi, Pakistan, August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro - RTX2KOOP

Eight years ago, President Barack Obama called me to ask if I would chair an urgent interagency review of American policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. He had discovered on his first visit to the Pentagon that the war in Afghanistan was going much worse than his predecessor had admitted. Pakistan was abetting the Afghan Taliban in the war with NATO forces, and the United States military needed immediate and substantial reinforcements. Worse, al-Qaida was running rampant inside Pakistan, posing an urgent threat to the American homeland. The president announced the results of the interagency study in a speech to the nation in March 2009, just before a NATO summit in France. After 60 days in the White House, during which I was on leave from Brookings, I returned to the Institution.

Last fall I collaborated with a number of my fellow Pakistan watchers in the think tank community in Washington on a review of American policy toward Pakistan. Scholars from the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute and other institutions came together. We did so as scholars—not institutions—and had a healthy, collegial, and civil debate. My compliments to the co-chairs of this important piece, Lisa Curtis and Husain Haqqani.

Pakistani safe havens for the Afghan Taliban remain the single most difficult challenge to the NATO effort to stabilize Afghanistan.

The report concludes that Pakistani safe havens for the Afghan Taliban remain the single most difficult challenge to the NATO effort to stabilize Afghanistan. Efforts to encourage the Pakistani army to curtail their assistance to the Haqqani network and the Taliban have failed, despite over $25 billion in U.S. assistance by two presidents over 15 years. The longest war in American history is a proxy war with Pakistan, and it has the fastest-growing nuclear weapons arsenal in the world.

A new approach is therefore critical. The report suggests a more vigorous effort to encourage Pakistan to break ties with the Taliban and other terrorist groups based in Pakistan like the Lashkar e Tayyiba group that attacked Mumbai in November 2008. These groups have enjoyed Pakistani backing for decades. The civilian government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has very little role in this patronage network—rather, it’s the so-called “deep state” of the intelligence service and the army high command that’s in charge.

So the report recommends curtailing assistance to the military as long as it assists groups that kill Americans, either GIs in Afghanistan or Americans in India. It recommends revoking Pakistan’s status as a Major Non-NATO ally in six months if the army does not change. A review of whether Pakistan should be considered a state sponsor of terrorism—a draconian measure—should not be ruled out if conditions don’t improve. The report also lays out a roadmap for change for Pakistan to take. Our quarrel is not with the Pakistani people or their elected leadership, but with the generals who back terrorists.

Using almost entirely unilateral means, President Obama succeeded in significantly diminishing the al-Qaida threat in Pakistan over the last eight years. The SEAL team that delivered justice to Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, the home of the Pakistani equivalent of West Point, was the dramatic high point of Obama’s war. He specifically ordered that no one in Pakistan be informed of the commandos operation until they were homeward bound out of Pakistan’s air space.

America is safer today for his leadership, but we have a long way to go with Pakistan. It’s critical to get this right—for Pakistan, as both a victim and patron of terrorism, its region, the United States, and beyond.