Afpak policy: How America should cut Pakistan to size

For all their bluster and bravado, the Pakistanis don’t really have a stomach for eating grass.

 |  5-minute read |   01-09-2017
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Pakistan’s response to the Afpak policy announced by US President Donald Trump has played to a very predictable script. The template of this script rests on four pillars — denial, defiance, deception, delusion. In the past, whenever the Americans tried to get tough with Pakistan, the Pakistanis would trot out these four Ds, and convince the US to back off.

The way this works is as follows: Pakistanis start by going blue in the face denying having any truck with terrorists. When accused of playing a double-game, the standard Pakistani response is “Oh, but that was until such and such year, after which we stopped”! But back in that year, the Pakistanis used to say the same thing, ie they were in bed in terrorists until some previous year, after which they stopped, and so on and so forth.


If denials fail to convince, there is defiance — ISI-sponsored political fronts of terrorist groups agitate the streets, politicians fulminate against the US, diplomatic engagements are suspended, threats (some veiled: "we are a nuclear state"; others brazen: "we will cut US supply lines") are hurled, "independent" journalists and TV anchors breathe fire against the Americans, the military makes a show of standing up to the "Great Satan". This public show of defiance is used as a negotiating tool to scare and soften the Americans.

The Pakistanis then silently side up to the Americans and promise action. In return, they seek more time, money and weapons, and of course some support on things like Kashmir, Indian presence in Afghanistan and Pakistani terrorists operating from Afghan soil. Normally, the Americans bite the bait, which then allows Pakistanis to continue with their game of deception and double-dealing. They make a big show of moving against some terrorists, but on the side keep providing support, sustenance, and sanctuaries to the terrorists. By the time the Americans realise they have been had, the game is ready to be played all over again.

Propelling the denial, defiance, and deception is the fourth D: delusion. This is that Pakistan is not only too dangerous (nuclear weapons, jihadis taking over, etc) but also too important to be forsaken — it is the emerging centre of the world. And if the Americans still don’t get it, and push comes to shove, then the Chinese, Saudis, and now increasingly Russians, Turks, and perhaps even the Iranians, will have Pakistan’s back.

With the Trump administration now breathing down Pakistan’s neck, the Pakistanis are once again falling back on their tried and tested playbook. The only problem is that given the mood in Washington, this time Pakistan’s bluff might just be called, provided the Americans can hold their nerve. The Pakistanis, however, are betting on the US having neither the will nor the wherewithal to walk Trump’s tough talk.

They are convinced that the US will eventually stop well short of pushing things with Pakistan over the edge. The way the Pakistanis see it, as long as the Americans are not ready or willing to risk a total breakdown in relations, Pakistan can play the Americans without having to pay an unbearable and unsustainable cost. But what the Pakistanis haven’t quite gamed is what will happen if the Americans do the unthinkable in order to force compellence on Pakistan.



Over the years, a diffident US, because of its pusillanimous policy, has degraded its immense power and influence over Pakistan. Not surprisingly, the Pakistanis calculate that, on balance, they hold enough cards to trump Trump’s Afpak policy. Pakistan’s assessment of US has to an extent been vindicated by many American analysts, who insist that the US has very limited coercive options against Pakistan, not because these don’t exist but more because the US isn’t quite ready to risk a complete break with Pakistan.

If indeed this is the case, then Trump will fare no better than his predecessors, because merely cutting economic and military assistance to Pakistan, clamping down on defence sales and generally downgrading relations with Pakistan — all of which has been tried in the past but had little impact — will be akin to water off a duck’s back.

The US economic aid, though important, is something that Pakistan can live without, especially with Chinese money pouring into Pakistan under the CPEC project. The Americans could obstruct multilateral funding to Pakistan, but this too can be tided over with Chinese assistance. The weapons embargo will hurt, but since Pakistan’s armed forces now source most of the stuff from China, they can manage without US weapons and spares.


The Chinese are also expected to counter-balance any punitive diplomacy by the US. Many American analysts, who naively argue against harsh measures as this would push Pakistan in the Chinese camp, just don’t seem to get the simple fact that Pakistan is already a client state of China. Alongside the Chinese, the Pakistanis believe that the Russians, Iranians, and Turks will also back Pakistan and prevent its diplomatic isolation and help it tide over any economic crunch.

Therefore, if the Trump administration is really serious about Afghanistan then it needs to do two things: one, figure out a way to counter Pakistan’s trump card of severing US ground and air lines of communication to Afghanistan; two, be clear that merely cutting aid or ratcheting up diplomatic pressure won’t cut much ice with Pakistan. This means that the Americans, along with their Western allies, have to be prepared to go to the next level, ie impose political, financial, and trade sanctions on Pakistan, including designating Pakistan a terror-sponsoring state.

For all their bluster and bravado, the Pakistanis don’t really have a stomach for eating grass, which is what will happen in the event of sweeping sanctions because even the grand CPEC plan will then be in jeopardy. And if even this fails, there are kinetic means to force compellence. Remember, the only achievement of the Pakistan army has been the repeated conquest of its own people and territory.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

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Sushant Sareen Sushant Sareen @sushantsareen

The writer is a strategic affairs analyst and a Pakistan expert

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