Michael Krepon“One Last Chance” for Pakistan

Quotes of the week:

“Pakistan is now hoist on its own petard. Calling off cross-border terrorism in Kashmir would insure that militancy within Pakistan intensifies, while continuing to support cross-border terrorism would alienate Pakistan even further internationally.”
—P.R. Chari, “Nuclear Restraint, Risk Reduction, and the Security-Insecurity Paradox in South Asia,” 2004

“Each country, as a result of history, has found itself in the unfortunate position of functioning as an objective constraint on the hopes, visions, and ambitions of the other.”
—Ashley Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 2001

The Trump administration has joined its predecessors in warning leaders in Islamabad and Rawalpindi of dire consequences by continuing to harbor groups that are active in Afghanistan, Jammu and Kashmir and occasionally, with spectacular destructive effect, in major Indian cities. U.S. threats have been articulated for so long that Pakistan’s national security community might be forgiven for not taking Team Trump’s “one last chance” warning seriously. After all, Washington still needs Pakistan’s help to arrive at a political settlement in Afghanistan and to provide logistical support for U.S. troops stationed there. And besides, nothing in diplomacy is forever.

Even so, this particular fork in the road matters: it’s an opportunity for Pakistan to improve its fortunes. Pakistan’s national security establishment, which is far from monolithic, has to recognize that it has less running room for policies toward India and Afghanistan that haven’t served national interests. But asking for fundamental change is asking for quite a lot, as U.S. policy makers have themselves discovered in Afghanistan. How often do nations fundamentally change badly mistaken policies, rather than re-tooling them?

Pakistan’s national security managers have yet to turn against the leadership of groups like the Lashkar e-Toiba and Jaish e-Muhammad (or whatever they are calling themselves now) because they have perceived utility in dealing with India. Despite their baggage, these outfits are cost-effective offsets to India’s conventional military power. And besides, they haven’t carried out spectacular strikes against India for almost ten years, their leaders can always be placed under periodic house arrest, and they might even be tamed by entering mainstream Pakistani politics. Hope springs eternal.

This line of reasoning can only be inferred by outsiders because the argument used for foreign consumption is threadbare. Ever since 2002, we’ve heard that taming these wild men will happen but will take time. Everyone knows that the Pakistan Army has the resolve and capability to deal with outfits that are perceived enemies of the state, like the Pakistan Taliban. The surest indicator that anti-India groups, along with the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban, aren’t viewed as enemies of the state is that they haven’t been treated as such.

The first impulse of Pakistan’s national security managers will be try to finesse Washington’s latest “test.” Pervez Musharraf successfully managed maximal U.S. pressure applied by the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks by agreeing to terms, only to parse them later.

Successive U.S. administrations have offered carrots to help Pakistan to choose wisely, feeding into the transactional nature of bilateral relations. U.S. generosity toward Pakistan – something that is strongly contested there — has been discredited in Washington. Long gone is the ambitious Kerry-Lugar-Berman approach during the Obama administration. The idea back then was to shore up civilian authority and to induce shifts in military practices. The Obama administration didn’t make much of a dent on either account. Congress has now seen fit to reduce large sums from Coalition Support Funding and denied Pakistan preferential terms for big-ticket military purchases.

U.S.-Pakistan relations now seem to be in a post-transactional phase. The Trump administration is calling on Pakistani leaders to do the right thing for their national wellbeing. This is exactly the right message, but it still entails doing what Washington wants. Those who remain wedded to Pakistan’s failed policies toward India and Afghanistan can deflect this message and avoid substantive debate by arguing that Pakistan must continue to resist dictation. The extent to which they resort to form will reflect the absence of change in Pakistan’s national security policies. If, however, this argument is muted, something interesting may be afoot.

Support for Pakistan on Capitol Hill, think tanks and the U.S. media has cratered. Pakistan blames the India lobby for this state of affairs, but this is far too facile an explanation. For sure, the India lobby is now very powerful, but so, too, is the Israeli lobby – and Egypt continues to receive help from the U.S. Treasury and the Pentagon. The key difference is the policies adopted by Egypt and Pakistan toward a friend of the United States. Egypt signed a “cold” peace treaty with Israel, while Pakistan’s national security establishment has been committed to the dead end policy of enduring enmity with India.

If Pakistan’s national security leaders were to seek a genuine peace with India, Washington would do an about face. But as long as Pakistan’s national security establishment resists change, Pakistan bashers in Washington will set the tone of debate. Their agenda is clear: they seek Pakistan’s isolation and punishment. Without changes in Pakistan’s national security policies, bashers will continue to hold the high ground.

Noted U.S. analyst Ashley Tellis now goes so far as to argue that it is worthless to call for talks between India and Pakistan because reconciliation is futile until there is a sea change in the Pakistani establishment’s hostility toward India. Ashley would even extend this argument to the utility of talks to reduce nuclear dangers that are now growing along several fronts.

Shall we also apply this standard – to reject diplomacy until there is a sea change in the national security policy of problem states – elsewhere? Shall we object to negotiations with North Korea because U.S. and DPRK national security objectives are so far apart? Shall we also demand fundamental change in Russian and Chinese national security policies as the price for the resumption of negotiations? In circumstances where nuclear dangers are growing, the rejection of diplomacy between states that are one incident away from a serious crisis is a senseless invitation to ugly headlines. The avoidance of conflict and uncontrolled escalation are, in and of themselves, sufficient reasons to engage in diplomacy.

I take Ashley’s point: Talks are unlikely to result in breakthroughs until Pakistan’s national security establishment changes course. And absent fundamental change, talks become intermittent activities broken off by provocations. Ashley is also correct in noting that whenever New Delhi has sought to turn the page, it has been rebuffed by irreconcilables in Pakistan who aid and abet strikes against Indian diplomatic or military outposts. This has already happened on three occasions during Prime Minister Modi’s tenure.

Nonetheless, breakthroughs aren’t the only reason for diplomacy – they are the culmination of patient diplomacy. When nuclear dangers are growing on the subcontinent, Washington’s rejection of diplomacy can’t be a serious policy option. Instead, it makes sense to link Washington’s standard talking point calling for the resumption of dialogue with the public message that Pakistan’s national security establishment will be held responsible for the actions of groups operating on its soil that seek to foil diplomacy.

This is a tough spot for Pakistan’s national security leaders. Donald Trump is advised by distinguished military officers who know a great deal about Afghanistan and about the particulars of Pakistan’s behavior there. I wouldn’t bet on Team Trump to be as forgiving as the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Nor would I bet on sea changes in Pakistan’s national security policies. But the tide is clearly turning. It’s up to Pakistan’s national security establishment to recognize this, and to begin to act on this recognition.


  1. Michael Krepon (History)

    Point of clarification: The tide is always out in Afghanistan. The tide is turning with respect to India-Pakistan relations.

  2. Faisal Ali (History)

    A valid argument for continuing diplomacy in and with South Asia.

    Also another important observation that none of the much demonized group sourced to Pak have caused a catastrophic attack for over a decade. Perhaps a graduated erosion of their social space along with freedom of action is already in effect. If the trajectory continues- they would be even weaker a decade later.

    But during this decade, evidence has continued to emerge – periodically – that India’s hands are not clean either.

    The number LET – JEM related Indian casualties are in hundreds – even by a stretch. The number of Pakistani casualties sourced to groups with Indian backing is in multiple of tens of thousands.

    There is no comparison in who has run the blood bath more efficiently.

    Egypt is not a good example. First because India is not Israel ( unless American evangelical Christians have some belief in Hindutva). Second , Egypt -US relations ,just like Pak-US relations have perhaps seen their best and are under stress of changing moods and philosophy in Washington. Like Pakistan, Egypt is diversifying because US support is declining and is politically unpredictable. Most critically , Like Pakistan , Egypt sits next to a big crises in the Syria & Iraq and worries that the US neither has a strategy nor a clear commitment. Egypt will face the fall out of post IS conflict.

    Coming to South Asia- the US is viewing Pakistan from an Afghan , lately an Indian and now increasingly China prism. That’s too many layers to have a clear eyed view of any object.

    The only Pakistan prism is for nuclear and there too the US policy is creating a conventional imbalance but asking Pakistan to consider whatever it has as sufficiently credible. It doesn’t work that way .

    The question is how to bring Pakistan in harmony with a changing dynamic in South Asia ( i.e from US perspective) . But then US is neither the only nor the lasting dynamic at play in South Asia . China is another, expanding ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan and strengthening Taliban is yet another. The most critical one is probably that in China, Pakistan and India , three of the workd’s five fastest growing economies are neighbors- connectivity of large middke class markets is at play with US taking only a strategic-security instead of a geo-economic view.

    The US could consider this multiplicity of challanges that Pakistan faces and accept Pakistan’s good offer to cooperate where it can. The US is too big a power to let its strategic interests in a region get drowned by a handful of unpleasant actions of a country that is otherwise willing to be a friend. Small steps taken together her will hold the little common ground until turn of event may throw wider convergences because as Michael Krepon just said ,” nothing in diplomacy is forever”

  3. thegreathoax (History)

    maybe all those concerned are living in the past. I think it is unavoidable that the emerging present and future will fundamentally change the equation and that the role of a hubristic China will be the determining factor, not residual post-colonial and Cold War calculations

  4. Bradley Laing (History)
  5. Rabia (History)

    They live side-by-side. They started off their journey together. They share history and in some instances much the same culture. They know it and the world knows all the good that they can do so simply by standing together.

    Still, it appears that India would much rather fight and end up killing scores of civilians rather than join hands in progress.Once a wise man said ”I know what is right and what is wrong. I also know what I have to do and what I have to avoid. But I am not always able to choose the right path.” Probably we humans are all like that.

  6. Mark Hibbs (History)

    Michael, great post. Comment/question: The current shift in U.S. policy, toward punishing Pakistan by denying military aid, has been used before. It has been argued that, in the past, the U.S. doing that helped push Islamabad over the edge to accellerate production of fissile material and then weaponize its HEU. So looking forward now, what happens if the Pakistan military establishment, assuming that the U.S. and others respond as you propose by putting the establishment on notice, reacts by escalation? What are the risks that it will do that? What are the likely escalatory actions it might take?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Hope you are well.
      My sense is that this is a period of considerable anxiety in military and intelligence circles. Every policy review in Washington generates anxiety. And besides, who knows what to make of Trump and his ‘one last chance’? Trump’s advisers know the score in Afghanistan, and the US-India relationship goes from strength to strength. Rawalpindi will go to China to get the military equipment the US won’t sell, and the conventional balance tips further away. It is still deeply unsettling that the US has stopped being a “friend” and even an ‘honest broker.’ Thugs with ties to the intelligence services are being up journalists in plain daylight, and social media activists disappear. What’s curious to me is that this is happening when military primacy is pretty much uncontested. So why now?
      On the military side, they’ve convinced themselves that Modi represents a clear and present danger. What they worry about most is Modi turning the tables by doing to Pakistan what Pakistan has done to India. Destabilize soft spots, etc. They claim this is going on full bore — another indicator of unsettledness. They also worry about the US doing OBL-type raids, including against their strategic assets.
      Given these hyper-sensitives, I see the Pakistan military upping their nuclear requirements. They can’t believe they’re winning this competition. I also foresee more provocative behavior and upping the violence along and beyond contested borders — to which Modi will respond.
      It wouldn’t surprise me if there were another crisis in 2018.
      Best wishes,