Expert Commentary

Pakistan and U.S. Don’t See Same Urgency in Terror Fight

Kevin Hulbert
Former CIA Chief of Station

The U.S. is calling on Pakistan to eradicate its safe havens for terrorists or else the U.S. will stop providing security assistance and other support to the country. U.S. President Donald Trump made this clear in his address on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia on Monday night, saying the U.S. will not tolerate Pakistan’s “safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson echoed that in a press briefing at the State Department on Tuesday. “Pakistan must adopt a different approach, and we are ready to work with them to help them protect themselves against these terrorist organizations … We are going to be conditioning our support for Pakistan and our relationship with them on them delivering results in this area,” he said. This comes at a time when the U.S. is increasing its presence in Afghanistan in the war against terrorists – although Trump failed to outline the specifics of a U.S. troop increase. The U.S. relies on using Pakistani territory to supply forces in Afghanistan.  

The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel spoke with Kevin Hulbert, a former CIA chief of station who spent many years on the ground in Pakistan, about the Trump Administration’s approach to Pakistan and what it could mean for stability in the region.

TCB: How might President Trump specifically change the United States’ approach with respect to dealing with Pakistan?

Kevin Hulbert: Pakistan has always presented real challenges to U.S. policymakers, and I have always found vexing the fact that Pakistan has historically been both one of our best partners on counterterrorism, as well as one of our worst— both at the same time. On the good side, Pakistan has worked closely with us to capture and to turn over such al Qaeda luminaries as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed (now in Guantanamo) and his replacement as number three in al Qaeda, Abu Faraj al Libi (also in Guantanamo). On the other hand, we have also often found them acting in ways that are very unhelpful to our interests.

Despite the enormous challenges they face from terrorism within their own country, the Pakistanis don’t seem to share the same sense of urgency that we do on terrorism. The “get tough on Pakistan” talking point from the president’s speech Monday is unfortunately the same idea every president and senior U.S. policymaker has used in his talking points with senior Pakistan officials for about 16 years now. The one difference might be that in previous years, we might have talked tough, but we still showered the Pakistanis with billions of dollars a year in aid, coalition support funds, military support, and other largesse while not really demanding the quid pro quo of good behavior in return. Oh, we asked for it, but we were reluctant to go the next step, the “good behavior or else” step, and cut off funding to punish boorish behavior. Perhaps the Trump administration will follow through on their threats in an attempt to encourage more cooperative behavior from the Pakistanis.

All that said, it is always a challenging balancing act with the Pakistanis. We really want and need them to be part of the community of nations and a force for good in the region and in the world. If we isolate them rather than engage them, if our bilateral relationship becomes defined more by negative reinforcement than positive reinforcement, then we run the risk of losing any levers we might otherwise have to shape their behavior. At the end of the day, Afghanistan is a small little country with about 33 million people. Pakistan is over 200 million people and with one of the fastest growing nuclear arsenals in the world, teetering on the brink of being a failed state. It is imperative we stay engaged with Pakistan.

TCB: What steps can the U.S. take to more effectively pressure Pakistan into cutting off its ties to extremist groups?

Hulbert: For years, Pakistan has been double dealing and trying to keep separate the “good” radical Muslim extremist groups (like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) that they use in their proxy war against India in Kashmir and elsewhere, and the “bad” radical Muslim groups like al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and the Islamic State. Pakistan needs to be convinced that such a strategy is counterproductive to their own peace and prosperity. The U.S. should use all the levers they can to encourage good behavior and certainly one of those levers should be money.

TCB: How realistic is it to expect that Pakistan will eventually sever its ties to extremist groups? Could such a move further endanger the country as terrorist groups would instead focus their efforts against Pakistan itself? 

Hulbert: Terrorist groups are already focusing their efforts against Pakistan itself. According to Pakistan figures, approximately 30,000 Pakistanis have died in terrorist incidents in Pakistan over the last ten years. That’s about one 9/11 every year in Pakistan for ten years. The TTP (the Pakistan Taliban) is working to overthrow the freely elected government in Pakistan, so that is clearly one extremist group the Pakistan government would like to confront.

What no one debates is that there is a lot of terrorist activity in and around Pakistan. What is less well known is how much of this terrorist activity in and around Pakistan is actually “directed” by Pakistan intelligence? Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, raised some eyebrows when in a September 2011 Congressional testimony he declared that, “The Haqqani network acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) Agency…”  But, the reality is a bit more complex. Do the Pakistani’s have some contact with the group? Certainly. But, do they actually run it like an arm of the ISI? Certainly not, and as the Director of ISI once told me sadly, “We don’t control them… They kill my guys, too…”

It is important to remember that we (the U.S.) also used to have a lot of contact with the Haqqani network all throughout the 1980s when we considered them friends and allies. When he was helping us fight to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan, Congressman Charlie Wilson referred to the Haqqani patriarch Jalaluddin Haqqani as “Goodness personified.”

The harsh and frequent criticisms of Pakistan’s inability to control their border, which is then used for cross border attacks on U.S. and coalition forces by terrorist groups who receive safe haven in Pakistan, is another subject that is open to different interpretations. It’s not that the Pakistanis have made the conscious decision to not control their borders, it’s simply that they can’t. This is much the same as our porous border with Mexico where, try as we might, literally millions of Mexicans have crossed the border illegally over the years.

My point is that while sometimes Pakistan deserves the scorn they get, other times they are the victim of a very remote and difficult operating environment.  No one really controls the Federally Administration Tribal Area (FATA) bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.

TCB: How could President Trump’s call for India’s increased involvement in Afghanistan affect Pakistan’s regional strategy?

Hulbert: This was the one part of the president’s speech that was probably greeted with gasps in the Pakistan establishment and especially in the military and intelligence establishment. India is Pakistan’s mortal enemy, and the two countries have been on war footing since partition in 1947. Pakistan sees Afghanistan as a buffer to India, and they are against increased Indian involvement in Afghanistan as they feel this would open another front for them—almost encircling them. Pakistan knows they are less then one-fifth the size of India and out gunned militarily, financially, and in many other ways, and so they compensate by using terrorist proxy groups against India. The Pakistanis will be vehemently against the idea of increased Indian involvement in any Afghanistan future, and such a plan, if forced by the U.S., may well destabilize the region, rather than the opposite.

TCB: Despite President Trump’s rhetoric, will the U.S. actually increase pressure on Pakistan, especially since the U.S. might risk losing critical intelligence and access provided by Pakistan?

Hulbert: To be honest, Pakistan doesn’t really provide us “critical intelligence.” That’s one of the problems with the relationship. We think they should be able to provide us critical intelligence on the Taliban and the Haqqani network, al Qaeda, the Islamic State, etc. — but, they don’t. Then the question has always been, “Do they know and they’re not telling us?  Or, do they just not know anything?” Vast experience in Pakistan leads me to believe it is the latter, but this is in itself a problem.

Right after the May 2011 Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a reporter asked then-Director of the CIA Leon Panetta if the Pakistanis knew that bin Laden was hiding there in Abbottabad, some 50 miles from the capital of Pakistan. Panetta paused for a moment and then said thoughtfully that it was a big problem if they did know, and it was a big problem if they didn’t know, too. Having spent years of my life in Pakistan over the last 14 years, I’m more inclined to fault them for not knowing things they really should know, rather than not telling.

As to losing access, this is the more challenging question. The use of Pakistani territory is a key to supplying U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, and as those forces are set to increase, the role of Pakistan in that supply chain will be even more important. That is one of the plot flaws in the President’s “get tough on Pakistan” talking points. At the same time, you are scolding them and withholding funding, you are going to be simultaneously asking for their support to use Pakistan air space and overland trucking routes to supply our troops— and that might be a tough sell for even the best negotiator.

The Author is Kevin Hulbert

Kevin Hulbert is a former senior intelligence officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations who retired in June 2014.  He is currently the President of XK Group.  Kevin served multiple overseas tours as CIA Chief of Station and Deputy Chief of Station.

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