January 16, 2018

Considering U.S. Strategic Objectives in Pakistan

Trump has once again exhibited an audacity meant to shake up the status quo in the greater Middle East.

With its announcement earlier this month that it is freezing security assistance aid worth up $1.3 billion to the government of Pakistan, the Trump administration has once again exhibited an audacity meant to shake up the status quo in the greater Middle East.

And while the long term, geopolitical ramifications of such a bold move will not be known for years, the short term consequences are already starting to reverberate. A couple of days ago, Pakistan responded to the suspension of aid by halting the sharing of intelligence with the United States, a move meant to hurt the American-led coalition’s ability to execute counter-terrorism operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

The partnership between Pakistan and the United States has always been a conundrum for occupants of the White House, especially since that part of the world has been in a constant state of upheaval following World War II. As Kevin Williamson put it, “Pakistan’s border with India has been a flashpoint since the 1940s and its border with Afghanistan has been very much on American strategic minds since 2001. But Pakistan also borders Iran and the Arabian Sea, and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir borders China. Everything Pakistan touches is of strategic interest to the United States.”

Which leads to two important questions. Are President Donald Trump and his team trying to change the behavior of the government of Pakistan in order to get our “allies” to understand that their lax efforts to combat militants within their borders is not acceptable anymore? Or are they sending a stronger signal to Prime Minister Shadid Khawan Abbasi that Pakistan is no longer going to be a partner of the United States in the fight against terrorism?

If the first question is the objective, then the Abbasi government must prove to the United States that it is taking a hardline, operational stance against terrorists. It seems as if the Pakistani government is already trying to quell U.S. anger as evidenced by yesterday’s meeting between State Department officials and a senior Pakistani envoy. The purpose of the meeting was to show U.S. diplomats that Pakistani law enforcement agencies are actively engaged in counter terrorism operations. Still, it will take more than one meeting to show the Trump administration that Pakistan has changed its stripes.

However, if the purpose of suspending aid is to radically alter the diplomatic and military landscape of the region and pursue new partners, then President Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the rest of the national security team really need to think hard about the objectives they want to achieve. More importantly, they need to consider the second and third order effects of implementing such a radical policy change.

That’s why it is important for Trump to understand that Pakistan will always do what is in the best interests of Pakistan. Pakistan developed nuclear weapons in direct contravention of U.S. law and then the father of the program worked with the governments of North Korea, Libya and Iran on their programs.

While Pakistan is a nuclear power, it is also a weak state. It’s in America’s best interests to maintain a working relationship with the Abbasi government, and to provide humanitarian aid to the Pakistan people. At the same time, the trick is holding off on giving security assistance resources to the Pakistani government until Abbasi proves he’s actively taking the fight to the terrorists in his sovereign territory.

Trump’s foreign policy gamble is a brash political move, and if played correctly, it has the potential to fundamentally change the internal policy of Pakistan. Only time will tell if his instincts prove to be correct and give him a significant foreign policy victory.

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