Pakistan is critical for the U.S. mission in land-locked Afghanistan, even as its behavior undermines U.S. objectives there. The troubled state of U.S.-Russia relations following the latter’s invasion of Ukraine resulted in Russia shutting down the so-called Northern Distribution Network that re-supplied Afghanistan through the Central Asian republics.
U.S.-Iran relations have become only more troubled since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, and appear likely to worsen further still. The United States has begun using Turkmenistan for “humanitarian cargo,” a euphemism that in this case likely means “nonlethal” supplies to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
Thus, the United States presence in Afghanistan depends — and will depend for the foreseeable future — on Pakistan, which permits U.S. ground and air lines of communication. Absent unexpected, major improvements in U.S.-Russia or U.S.-Iran relations, or a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, this dependence on Pakistan cannot be alleviated.
“No matter how great President Donald Trump makes America, he cannot win the war on geography,” observes Afghan expert and former U.S. official Barnett Rubin.
The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is primarily about preventing terrorist groups operating there, but there is some reporting that suggests elements of the U.S. government are wary of losing basing in Afghanistan that is useful to monitor Pakistani terrorist groups and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development efforts.
After the United States was evicted from Shamsi, it reportedly maintained the ability to operate drones from airbases in Jalalabad, Bagram, and Kandahar. U.S. fears over Pakistani nuclear stewardship have oscillated over time, but such concerns have repeatedly appeared “at the top” of U.S. national security worries, and Trump reemphasized them on Monday night.
Academic, former U.S. official, and War on the Rocks senior editor Stephen Tankel identifies “keeping militants from getting their hands on nuclear material” as a vital security interest in Pakistan. This interest is comingled with another, “critical interest” in “preventing Indo-Pakistani nuclear escalation,” since Tankel assesses “weapons are most likely to fall into terrorists’ hands if forward-deployed during a conflict with India.” Pakistan likely possesses more than 100 nuclear weapons today and might possess fissile material for up to 200 or 300 nuclear weapons.
These U.S. interests — collecting intelligence on potential radicals in the Pakistani diaspora in the West, operating drones over Pakistani territory to engage in targeted assassinations of dangerous terrorists, resupplying the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and preventing the loss of control of Pakistan nuclear weapons — are substantially more important than the list of U.S. grievances against Pakistan.
Pakistani support of groups that have targeted U.S. forces and its support of anti-India groups that have periodically targeted U.S. citizens may well be a moral travesty, but geopolitically it may be less costly than losing Pakistan’s cooperation in other areas.
To be sure, the pro and con columns are not neatly separated. Quietly accepting Pakistani support of terrorist groups may ultimately endanger the foremost U.S. security interest in Pakistan: preventing the loss of a nuclear weapon or other sensitive nuclear technology to radical non-state groups – a fear Trump raised in his speech. Violent extremist groups are ultimately a cancer on Pakistani society that pose a mortal danger to it.
Already, the military is hesitant to confront anti-Afghan and anti-India groups in part because it seeks to triage the threats to Pakistani society, prioritizing those militants that actively target the Pakistani state while nudging remaining radicals to focus their zealous energies elsewhere.
However, a delineation of the entirety of U.S. interests suggests escalating coercive pressures against Pakistan is just as likely to endanger U.S. goals as further them. The most prominent reason given for a punitive U.S. Pakistan strategy is Pakistan’s behavior in Afghanistan, but there, as Rubin correctly stresses, “the United States risks provoking a blockade of its own forces.” Thus, in any game of brinksmanship, Pakistan is not bluffing — it has a good hand! Moreover, the Trump administration’s hand in 2017 is not the same as the Bush administration’s hand in 2001, when the Bush administration successfully demanded Pakistani abandonment of the Taliban government after 9/11 and support for U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has alternative partners, namely China and Saudi Arabia, that can pick up some of the slack created by any U.S. funding cuts, and has been cultivating improved ties with Russia. China is expectedto invest more than $50 billion as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), though importantly the vast majority of this amount is in the form of loans rather than grant aid.
Even so, China is aware of Pakistan’s credit risks, and would not make such enormous loans were it not prepared to defer or eliminate some of the debt in the event of a future Pakistan economic crisis. The size of CPEC loans also gives China a substantial stake in preventing the emergence of any multilateral containment regime that would cause meaningful harm to Pakistan’s economy.
To date, U.S. coercion has largely entailed modestly decreasing reimbursements it has paid for Pakistani military operations and limiting the types of defense equipment it transfers to Pakistan. Periodic calls to end Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally would have modest symbolic meaning and nearly no substantive implications.
In fairness, such levers can be pulled with little risk of serious blowback and just as little risk of serious results. It may well be appropriate to “at least stop sponsoring” Pakistan’s “noxious behaviors,” but such a case is built on fiscal prudence and normative concerns, rather than any great likelihood of altering Pakistani behavior. In fact, even the most vocal advocate of a more coercive strategy against Pakistan, C. Christine Fair, concludes, “it is unlikely that the United States can offer Pakistan any incentive that would be so valuable to Pakistan and its security interests that the [Pakistan] army would abandon” its current grand strategy.