The United States has a repertoire of coercive tools beyond just the cessation of foreign aid or restrictions on defense sales, including targeted sanctions of individuals in Pakistan’s government associated with terror groups or working to cease World Bank and International Monetary Fund financing.
Each step along this escalatory path, though, encourages Pakistan to counter with coercion of its own: (1) restricting U.S. use of ground and air lines of communication through Pakistan, (2) preventing the operation of (non-stealthy) U.S. drones over Pakistani territory, (3) ignoring U.S. requests for intelligence regarding suspected terrorists in the West, and (4) permitting even greater freedom of maneuver to anti-Afghan groups.
In the deeper recesses of Pakistan’s coercive toolkit, Pakistan can give China access to U.S.-origin defense hardware, offer extended deterrence guarantees to Saudi Arabia or resume the transfer of ballistic missile or nuclear weapons technology, an illicit commerce it last engaged in during the previous era of U.S. sanctions in the 1990s.
Any brinksmanship initiated now by the United States would occur during a period of profound political weakness in Islamabad following the judicial dismissal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
This state of affairs is not exogenous: It likely conforms to the Pakistan Army’s preferences. But until the next national elections in 2018, and quite likely even after them, civilian and military leaders will be jockeying for domestic authority, creating strong disincentives for international concessions.
All of these factors conspire against U.S. pressure resulting in real change in Pakistan’s national security policy.
Lisa Curtis, the White House senior director for South Asia, recently told a New Delhi audience that there was no interest in the Trump administration to accept the status quo with Pakistan.
But the reality is there are profound dangers in clumsy attempts to force Pakistan to alter its current policy, however unpalatable.
Those advocating such a course of action are obligated to delineate what risks they are willing to take. Otherwise, they are in danger of replicating the inept rhetoric of the Trump administration’s Qatar, North Korea, and Iran policies or, even worse, transforming Pakistan into a true rogue state.