Pakistan's Double Game

President Trump rang in the New Year on his favorite medium for undignified diplomacy, tweeting: “The US has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” The tweet catalyzed a meeting of high-powered officials in Pakistan, drawing "a toxic reaction" as described by the New York Times.

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Since then, Trump has announced a cut of $900 million dollars in aid ($700 million of which was intended toward reimbursing Pakistan's counterterrorism expenses and $225 million to the Foreign Military Financing fund) and motioned the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to place Pakistan back on a global terrorism-financing watchlist from which it was removed in 2015.

Hard-lined as these policies may seem, they are not new. Past administrations in Washington have tried similarly to pressure Pakistan through sanctions, strong rhetoric, and the withholding of aid. For the past 15 years, the U.S. government has faced the same frustration with Pakistan as it helps the U.S. fight certain militant groups while offering sanctuary to the others, in particular the Afghan Taliban, that threatens the U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. In January 2018, Republican senator Bob Corker called Pakistan "one of the most duplicitous governments [he has] had any involvement with" (Reuters).

The history of this “duplicity” traces back to the Cold War, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when Pakistan joined international powers (including the U.S.) in supporting the Afghan mujahedeen forces.

The evidence of safe havens in Waziristan,a region in northwestern Pakistan,for groups like the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network seems undeniable—the U.S. has killed several key leaders living in the region with drone strikes, and the origins of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and India have been traced back to Pakistani soil. In March 2016, Sartaj Aziz, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs stated in the most up-front admission to date that, "[We told the Taliban leaders that] we have hosted [them] enough for 35 years, and we can't do it anymore because the whole world is blaming us just by [their] presence here" (Dawn). The response by Western mainstream media and governments has been, overwhelmingly, a condemnation of this "double game," blaming Pakistan for squandering U.S. aid intended for counterterrorism, for the failure of the peace process in Afghanistan, and for the continued destabilizing threat of terrorism across the region.

Yet, in this coverage and in official statements issued by the U.S. government lies a gaping hole, a question that never seems to be asked: why? Why does Pakistan maintain a policy that marginalizes them in the international community? What, for domestic leaders, is the incentive that outweighs external political and economic consequences? Certainly, Pakistan does not seek isolationism. They have a track record of hitching their wagon to powers like the U.S., briefly the Soviet Union, and now, increasingly, China. The policy it has maintained for the past 70 years is protectionist, rooted in anxieties over their geopolitical position. With India to the east, China to the north and an essentially U.S.-controlled Afghanistan to the west, Pakistan bears an existential insecurity that has, since its independence in 1947, formed a large part of its national identity.

Local papers like Dawn and The Express Tribune provide an insight into domestic interests that are utterly lost in international coverage. This insight may explain Pakistan's choices that is more plausible than the cursory criticism from the White House that says the nation is inexplicably and characteristically "duplicitous." While a few years outdated, a study conducted by scholar Salman Yousaf and published in the International Journal of Communication in October 2015 observed a pattern of negativity in the U.S. mainstream coverage of Pakistan in the first few months of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistani military's most exhaustive counterterrorism offensive. Yousaf found that "the United States was often presented as very 'concerned' about Pakistan's situation, but serious doubts were raised about Pakistan military’s 'commitment' strategy and the 'capability' of the state to overcome terrorism."

In light of such findings, it makes sense why the Pakistani government feels compelled to constantly reiterate their unacknowledged efforts to fight terror, and that no country has done or sacrificed more for the war on terror than they have. There is little to no mention of the successful counterterrorism operations Pakistan has conducted, namely the ongoing Operations Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fassad that target militant groups along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Waziristan. Pakistan’s Express Tribune referred to a statement issued by the National Security Committee’s (NSC) that these military offenses “had served as bulwark against possible expansion of scores of terrorist organizations present in Afghanistan […to] the loss of tens of thousands of lives of civilians and security personnel, and the pain of their families.”

Pakistan has borne the brunt of the fall-out from such operations, from violent retaliation by militants to the subsequent displacement of the local populations they target. The state also announced the construction of an 1,800-mile fence in an attempt to to contain the movement of militants that take advantage of the porous border.

It is certainly counterintuitive that the Pakistani state, military, or intelligence would then covertly protect, aid, or turn a blind eye to Afghan militants. This flip-flop of policy is rooted in their insecurity as a nation; they are unwilling to allow American interests to dictate their domestic and foreign policy. Instead, they play to their own interests, appeasing the international community when it benefits them. In Pakistan, the thankless tone of U.S. media and Trump's hostile tactics are understood as bullying, a lack of appreciation for the country's sacrifices and efforts, and an attempt to strong-arm them into acting for American policy goals instead of their own. A statement by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan articulated these very sentiments, saying, “You cannot insult a country of 200 million people by blaming, scapegoating them for the disaster in Afghanistan. [Trump] has treated Pakistan like a doormat.”                                                           

Internally, Pakistan faces difficulty, as their democracy struggles with the strain of competing factions in the military and among the various political parties. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted last July for corruption allegations connected to the Panama Papers leak, and was recently banned by the Supreme Court from leading his party. Last November, a 21-day sit-in on the Faizabad Interchange forced the government to concede to demands by Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) that included the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid. The New York Times described the event as "the cynical use of Islamist extremism by the country’s security establishment to hold democracy hostage and to foment the insecurity it needs to maintain its grip on power.”

The Pakistani government sees themselves as being made a scapegoat, a catch-all reason and justification for the monumental U.S. failures in Afghanistan.This is crucial to contextualize the Afghan conflict, and is yet a neglected topic whenever the U.S. government discuss the conflict. 

In addition, the White House's increasing intimacy with India has made Pakistan feel their standing in the international political arena diminish as India’s star rises. This vulnerability has only been compounded in the last few years as the U.S. has conducted drone attacks within Pakistan, sometimes without consulting or even giving notice to the government—a huge breach in national sovereignty and a large embarrassment for the state. Furthermore, these drone attacks have killed militant leaders as well as civilians. Groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have used these attacks as ammunition against the government, accusing them of being puppets for the Americans.

There are a several possible explanations for why Pakistan has refused to take every measure to placate the Americans. One is that the state may be concerned about retaliatory attacks on civilians in the Federally Administered Tribal Regions (FATA) where these militant groups are primarily based. Another is their anxiety over India's role in Trump's designs for Afghanistan, which only heightens their sense of geopolitical peril. A final possibility is that Pakistan fears that a stable Afghanistan dooms their political relevance. Once a solution for peace is attained, Pakistan may lose all of its leverage with the United States in facilitating the influx of NATO supplies across their border and pressuring the Afghan Taliban to participate in the peace process.

The common thread among these theories is simply put—Pakistan does not see it as being in their national interest to expel the groups that threaten their neighbors. The Pakistani state desperately seeks international standing and the opportunity to articulate their power as part of the global system that comes with it. Bullying and strong-arming Pakistan through sanctions and harsh rhetoric will not accomplish anything, yet it has been the White House’s policy for the last 15 years. Instead, Washington needs to understand the nuances of the Pakistani situation—its geopolitics, its nationalism, and its domestic affairs. Just as Trump parrots an "America First" ideology, so too does Pakistan put itself first.

It is true that Pakistan needs to stop playing a "double game" of fighting the groups that pose an internal threat while simultaneously offering sanctuary to Islamist groups that target their neighboring countries. The state needs to understand that their existence is not under imminent threat, and that a stable Afghanistan truly does benefit them. At the same time, the U.S. must stop breaching Pakistani state's jurisdiction if it wants their cooperation. Trump must stop using the same bullying tactics of his predecessors if he wants a different outcome. And, unlikely as it may be, the U.S. needs to be as critical of itself just as it is of Pakistan. They must accept that other nations have as much of a right as they do to prioritize national interests, and face the fact that their policies have often been incorrect, unjustified, and counterintuitive to the peace process.

If the White House respects Pakistan's own policy goals, including  respect for their sovereignty and a seat at the table of the international political forum, they may find that their goals can align to find peace in Afghanistan.