Why Pakistan supports terrorist groups, and why the US finds it so hard to induce change

A flag flutters amid cables of illegal electricity connections at a low-income neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro - RC132EB1C580

The Trump administration’s decision to suspend military aid to Pakistan is one of the most significant U.S. punitive actions against Pakistan since 2001. The United States has long been frustrated with Pakistan’s persistent acquiescence to safe havens for the Afghan Taliban and its vicious Haqqani branch in Pakistan (both of which benefit more from misgovernance in Afghanistan, but Pakistan’s aid helps a lot). Worse yet, Pakistan has provided direct military and intelligence aid to both groups, resulting in the deaths of U.S. soldiers, Afghan security personnel, and civilians, plus significant destabilization of Afghanistan.

Previous U.S. efforts since the 9/11 attacks to persuade Pakistan to crack down—through military and economic largess, as well as through punitive measures—have failed. Many in the U.S. policy community, who have long called for greater pressure, are delighted to finally see Washington run tougher experiments in coercion.

But although U.S. grievances are just, the suspension of military aid, and other possible increased U.S. coercion, are most unlikely to get Pakistan to fundamentally alter its behavior.

Pakistan’s logic

Pakistan has long been a difficult and disruptive neighbor to Afghanistan, hoping to limit India’s influence there, and cultivating radical groups within Afghanistan as proxies. It has augmented Afghanistan’s instability by providing intelligence, weapons, and protection to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. But years of U.S. pressure on Islamabad and Rawalpindi (the seats of Pakistan’s government and military establishments, respectively)—alternating with economic aid and efforts to forge a strategic partnership—have failed to induce Pakistan to change.

Why does Pakistan act this way? It fears an unstable Afghanistan that becomes a safe-haven for anti-Pakistan militant groups and a dangerous playground for outside powers (even though this has already happened). Pakistan bets that the Taliban will maintain significant power in Afghanistan—and perhaps even obtain formal political power—and does not want to alienate it. After all, the Taliban is Pakistan’s only—however reluctant and unhappy—ally among Afghanistan’s political actors.

Pakistan further fears that targeting Afghanistan-oriented militant groups will provoke retaliation in Pakistan’s Punjab heartland. Its long refusal to fully sever support for these groups is a product of Pakistan’s lack of full control over the militant groups it has sponsored, even though it is loath to admit it. Such a disclosure of weakness would be costly: reducing the omnipotent image of Pakistan’s military-intelligence apparatus with respect to varied domestic audiences, including opposition politicians, and further encouraging misbehavior of militant groups. And while such a disclosure may somewhat reduce international pressure on Pakistan, it would also weaken Pakistan’s hand in international bargaining.

Pakistan is also afraid of a strong Afghan government aligned with India, potentially helping to encircle Pakistan. In his August 2017 speech on Afghanistan, President Trump invoked the India card to pressure Pakistan—calling for a greater Indian engagement in Afghanistan, though cushioning it by mostly endorsing India’s economic engagement there. That is not likely to moderate Pakistan’s behavior. Instead, it can increase Pakistan’s paranoia of India’s engagement in Afghanistan, including its perceived support for Baluchi separatist groups in Pakistan. After President Trump’s speech, senior U.S. officials sought to mitigate such fears, recognizing Pakistan’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan and saying that the United States was keen to see (and could facilitate) an improvement in India-Pakistan relations.

America’s toolbox

Suspending military aid to Pakistan—and perhaps even permanently discontinuing it in the future, if Pakistan does not change its behavior—was the most directly available coercive tool for the United States.

But quite apart from the political outrage it has generated in Pakistan, the pain it delivers is quite limited. Parts of the Coalition Support Fund—designed to enable Pakistan to go after counterterrorism targets and militant groups— have been suspended for a long time because of Pakistan’s continued support for the Haqqanis.

U.S. military aid to Pakistan decreased by 60 percent between 2010 and August 2017, without a significant impact on Pakistan’s behavior.

Overall, U.S. military aid to Pakistan decreased by 60 percent between 2010 and August 2017, without a significant impact on Pakistan’s behavior. Moreover, Pakistan can seek aid from others: Russia is always looking for opportunities to undercut the United States, and although direct military cooperation with Pakistan risks alienating India—a significant cost for Russia—Russia no longer considers the Afghan Taliban a prime enemy in Afghanistan. (The Islamic State is, so much so that Russia has courted the Afghan Taliban with intelligence and military aid to secure its cooperation against the Islamic State.) Pakistan can also seek military assistance from China, long its steadfast ally. Although China does not want to see a further destabilization of Afghanistan and an outward leakage of terrorism, it has not been willing to take punitive action against Pakistan’s support for the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban. Finally, Pakistan can court Saudi aid, which Saudi Arabia may grant, including as an anti-Iran hedge. Thus, Pakistan can easily believe that it can ride out tensions with the United States.

Other forms of U.S. pressure could entail increased military strikes against Taliban and Haqqani network leaders in Pakistan who are not in major urban centers, where civilian casualties would be high. Washington could also end Pakistan’s designation as a non-NATO strategic partner and/or designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. It could also further encourage Indian activity in Afghanistan.

Limits on U.S. pressure and countermoves

But there are limits to U.S. coercive power vis-à-vis Pakistan. The United States has many interests in Pakistan, beyond the Afghan conflict: ensuring the stable control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, getting Pakistan to dispense with the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons (which could fall into terrorists’ hands), dissuading Pakistan from resurrecting its past nuclear proliferation activities, and preventing a major Pakistan-India war, as well as Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attacks in India.

Moreover, the United States wants to encourage democratization, pluralization, and stronger civilian and technocratic governance in Pakistan. Just as there is a young, educated, well-meaning technocratic segment of the population battling it out against the warlords and parochial powerbrokers in Afghanistan, there are such reformist elements in Pakistan.

Thus, in response to U.S. pressure, Pakistan could threaten any of these interests. For example, it can discontinue cooperation on nuclear safety issues or suspend Pakistan-India nuclear confidence-building measures. It could also provoking border instability in the Punjab. Most immediately, Pakistan can again shut down the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for U.S. military logistics—not just the ground lines of transportation, as in 2011, but also air routes—as well as for Afghan trade—as it has done before. That would significantly hamper U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. Despite President Ashraf Ghani’s goals to the contrary, Pakistan will remain a crucial market for Afghan goods and logistical access.

Thus, it is highly unlikely that even major U.S. pressure would motivate Pakistan to fully sever its support for and desire to control the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban, even though it could produce a temporary decrease in support for these groups. Most likely, Pakistan will claim it is not supporting Afghanistan-oriented militant and terrorist groups and temporarily reduce its level of support for them—but it won’t sever the relationship fully, and will wait to increase it again.

Any happy scenario?

There are three possible, and to some extent interlinked, scenarios under which Pakistan could become motivated to dramatically reduce or altogether cut support for the Taliban and the Haqqani networks, and perhaps even start targeting their networks in Pakistan:

  • Pakistan-India relations significantly improve;
  • The military-intelligence apparatus loses its predominant power in the Pakistani government and becomes subordinated to an enlightened, capable, and accountable civilian leadership. That means that both the Pakistani military and the country’s civilian politicians would have to undergo a radical transformation; and
  • Pakistan develops the political and physical resources, and wherewithal, to tackle its own internally-oriented and metastasizing terrorist groups, such as various Punjab Taliban groups: Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba, and the Islamic State in Pakistan. If those threats become mitigated, Pakistan may have more stomach to go after the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis.

To some extent, the United States can help induce at least the last scenario by helping Pakistan develop politically-informed, sequential targeting counterterrorism strategies, focused on anti-Pakistani groups of regional and global concern. Former U.S. national security advisor Stephen Hadley has called for this as part of a larger strategy.

But the U.S. ability to encourage the first two scenarios is highly limited. U.S. efforts at facilitating a Pakistan-India rapprochement, while critically defusing acute crises, have produced little lasting effect, with India systematically rejecting such a U.S. role and Pakistan systematically failing to meet expectations. Whenever some progress has been achieved, a terrorist spoiler or an institutional spoiler has effectively undermined the efforts.

The U.S. capacity to promote a systematic change of political and power arrangements in Pakistan is highly limited as well, though Washington can and should provide sustained and patient support to the development of civil society, a technocratic class, and rule-of-law institutions. In addition, Washington can provide support by encouraging the growth and engagement of new economic interests in Pakistan that benefit from more peaceful relations with India and Afghanistan. However, any such positive developments will likely take decades to fundamentally alter Pakistan’s internal power distribution and strategic calculus.