Expert Commentary

Pakistan’s Proxy Strategy Principal Cause of Mistrust for U.S.

Daniel Markey
Academic Director, Global Policy Program, Johns Hopkins SAIS

Despite Pakistani claims to have taken action against all terrorist groups on its soil, U.S. government officials have continued to signal that neither anti-Afghan Taliban groups like the Haqqani Network or anti-Indian groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have been specifically targeted in any of the Pakistani military’s security operations. To the contrary, media reports suggest that Haqqani members have been warned of impending operations beforehand. Top LeT leaders still speak before large gatherings in Pakistan’s major cities. The Obama Administration was unable to certify to Congress that Pakistan had taken steps against the Haqqanis, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s joint statement with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week reflects Washington’s continuing dissatisfaction with Pakistan on the problem of cross-border terrorism. 

Pakistan’s inadequate action against the Haqqani network and other groups is routinely portrayed by its own leadership as a matter of prioritizing threats. Naturally, they explain, Pakistan is itself a victim of terrorism and is devoting its greatest resources to fighting anti-state groups at home like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). In time, they claim, Pakistan will tackle other groups that threaten their neighbors. 

Years ago, these claims were somewhat more convincing than they are today. The notion that Pakistan had to first get its own house in order before taking on more ambitious agendas was at least logical, if not terribly satisfying. But over time, U.S. officials have lost patience. They continue to see evidence of official Pakistani collusion with these groups without countervailing indications of any real crackdown. 

American analysts have been left to conclude that Pakistan perceives strategic utility from its ties with the Haqqanis, a favored proxy force in Afghanistan. In this respect, Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan has not wavered significantly since the early post-9/11 period. Fearing that unfriendly forces, perhaps even a pro-Indian government, would control Afghanistan, and assuming that the United States would eventually depart the scene, Pakistan has stuck by its traditional allies, and now, 16 years later, these same groups continue to provide Pakistan significant influence over Afghanistan’s future, albeit only as a spoiler. 

Pakistan’s commitment to this proxy strategy is the principal cause of mistrust and tension with the United States. It is not the only reason for instability in Afghanistan, but it is a main one, and it is the primary threat to peace with India, where the next terrorist outrage could always escalate into war. 

Strictly speaking, Pakistan’s leaders are not lying when they claim to prefer stability in Afghanistan, not least because Pakistan is now battling its own insurgents, the TTP, who find safe haven inside Afghanistan. Pakistan is a big loser from Afghanistan’s instability, as it has been for decades. 

That said, Pakistan is simply not convinced that turning against its Afghan proxies would end instability inside Afghanistan. Pakistanis tend to perceive that the Afghan state is very weak and not capable of controlling its territory without massive external assistance. They suspect that U.S./NATO support for Kabul is likely to dry up before Afghanistan becomes self-sufficient. Moreover, Pakistanis anticipate that any serious move against the Haqqanis would come at a steep cost; the Haqqanis would turn their guns on Pakistan and, perhaps worst of all, Pakistan would sacrifice its most effective tools against Indian influence in Afghanistan. 

As a consequence, Pakistan has not deviated from its basic commitment to supporting its favored proxies in Afghanistan. Pakistani leaders would prefer that Washington accept their concerns as legitimate and lend support to a brokered peace process for Afghanistan that would deliver a significant share of national power to pro-Pakistan groups and demonstrate Islamabad’s dominant regional role. 

To date, however, even when Washington has participated in the Afghan “reconciliation” process, it has refused to adopt Pakistan’s position. For the United States, the diplomatic goal is to secure peace for an independent Afghan state that would no longer spawn international terrorists, not to hand Islamabad a victory against India and Pashtun nationalists. The irreconcilable differences between U.S. and Pakistani positions, along with skepticism shared by Kabul and the Afghan Taliban about the value of diplomacy, explain why talks have yielded so little progress in recent years. 

Washington has, on multiple occasions, succeeded in getting Pakistan to bring Taliban negotiators to the table. The trouble is that these negotiators –  and their Pakistani patrons –  have not shown themselves to be serious when it comes to seeking a negotiated settlement. To the contrary, U.S. officials perceive that the Taliban have used talks as a stalling tactic and a pretext for other diplomatic games intended to confer greater international legitimacy on the insurgency and to call into question that of the Afghan government in Kabul. 

With the U.S. expected to send an additional 4,000 troops to Afghanistan in the near future, the Trump Administration appears to believe that reversing former President Barack Obama’s effort to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan could lead the Taliban and their Pakistani backers to recalculate the utility of peace talks. Moreover, Obama’s critics are right to cite his artificially short surge timelines as one reason for the failure of his Afghanistan strategy. A credible commitment is a necessary part of wearing down any adversary, especially an insurgency. 

Then again, the Afghan Taliban are still equally likely to believe they can escalate the violence and wear down the patience of this new White House as they did the last one. The incremental addition of U.S. and NATO troops may temporarily slow or stall Taliban advances, but is not likely reverse them. 

As for placing greater pressure on Pakistan to change course, the United States needs to demonstrate that Pakistan’s longstanding strategy of using terrorist proxies is both costly and ineffective. Sadly, that message was never delivered convincingly by the George W. Bush or Obama administrations. 

Costs can be raised –  for instance, by conditioning or ending U.S. aid, and even threatening to name Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism and imposing sanctions. Of course, these steps could also risk U.S. interests in other aspects of the relationship with Pakistan and should not be taken lightly. 

Even these coercive steps are not likely to work unless Pakistan’s leaders also believe that changing course will make them more able to advance their core interests in Afghanistan. Short of the U.S.-led coalition actually “winning” the war on the battlefield – a task that proved beyond the means of over 100,000 U.S./NATO forces –  such a reversal of Pakistan’s perspective is most likely to happen if U.S. forces get significantly better at targeting Haqqani and Taliban leadership. Pakistan might then finally question the effectiveness of its Afghan proxies and conclude that a peace settlement, even one mainly on Kabul’s terms, represents the best available option. 

In short, an escalation of U.S. military action directed at Taliban leadership with the principal aim of compelling negotiations is now probably Washington’s best hope for anything other than a very long Afghan stalemate, or worse, another escalation of violence that could collapse the Kabul government and prompt a humiliating American withdrawal. 

The Author is Daniel Markey

Daniel Markey is a Senior Research Professor and Academic Director of the Global Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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