Next U.S. President will have to review Pakistan policy

As India signals end to restraint, the next U.S. President will have to review and restructure its relations with the old ally

India’s new strategic posture of ‘offensive defence’ may have been an outcome of exasperation with Pakistan, but the fact that the U.S. shares that exasperation with its long-time ally could bolster New Delhi. In its last year, the Obama administration has made that displeasure with Pakistan clear by cutting aid, which also led to the scrapping of the sale of eight F16 fighter planes as scheduled.

The U.S. Congress cornered the Obama administration into these decisions, but the next President — whether it is Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton — will have to review and restructure the country’s relations with Pakistan.

The U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan has put the burden of restraint on India so far, but with India signalling an end to that restraint, the new U.S policy will have to factor in the new Indian policy rather than dictate it, altering the correlation between the two.

“The next American President, whether it is Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, will have to review the U.S. policy towards Pakistan, particularly with regards to its support for terrorist and extremist groups,” said Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, and an Afghan-origin man himself. “After evaluating the Obama administration’s track record on Pakistan, either Clinton or Trump will almost certainly conclude that a new approach is necessary — one that includes steps aimed at containing negative Pakistani behaviour, without ruling out some degree of continued engagement,” said Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. Both agree that this will mean sympathy for the Indian position. “They may differ in details but not on broad strategy. The difference may be in degree of sympathy and support,” said Mr. Khalilzad, on how the new administration might view the new Indian position.

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America’s approach towards India’s Pakistan policy has been hinged on its own policy in Af-Pak and the Middle East. Stabilising Afghanistan and avoiding the launch of another 9/11 type terrorist attack from the region is the core objective. The danger of Islamist groups getting their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is America’s worst nightmare at this moment. “The Obama administration has tried to use engagement and large amounts of U.S. aid to coax changes in Pakistan’s counter-terrorism policies,” points out Ms. Curtis. Some advisers to Mr. Obama also floated the idea of a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan, so that its nuclear weapons could be secured.

Pak’s nuclear arsenal

Securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is an agenda even Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump can agree on. “We will help Pakistan stabilise its polity and build an effective relationship with the predominantly young population of this strategically located, nuclear-armed country,” the Democratic Platform said. The Republican document makes only a cryptic reference to “securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal” but the people who worked on the formulation said the specifics were not discussed.

By casually using the nuclear threats, Pakistan has touched a raw nerve in the U.S. U.S. officials have responded furiously and for the same reason, the next President unlikely to “isolate” Pakistan, because that may be counterproductive. “The U.S. does not want to cut ties with Pakistan and turn the country into the next North Korea or Iran,” said Ms. Curtis. “The U.S. policy since 9/11 towards Pakistan —engagement, and economic and military assistance — has not worked. Pakistani support for a terrorist group is a serious challenge. To cause Pakistan to change its behaviour, the next President needs to consider sharpening the incentives and also consider available options,” said Mr. Khalilzad.

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No risk-free options

India’s proactive move against terrorism could actually help — or could be used by the new president in his or her attempts to combat global terror.

“Pakistan tolerates and supports terrorist groups on its territory. These groups, using Pakistan as a base, attack Afghanistan, US personnel and interests in the region and India. The victims of Pakistan-based terror have the right of self-defence. Responding proactively by attacking terror targets in Pakistan, as the US did against Taliban leader Mullah Mansur and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, has the risk of escalation but it has the potential benefit of increasing Pakistani incentive to reconsider its support for terrorist groups. But not escalating pressure on Pakistan by striking terrorist targets in Pakistan is not without risk. The risk in such a case is continued terror. Afghanistan, India and the U.S. do not have risk-free options in confronting Pakistan sponsored terror,” said Mr. Khalilzad.

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Ms. Curtis said: “Putting pressure on Pakistan-based terrorist groups that target India will facilitate the global fight against terrorism. As it stands, Pakistan’s support for groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad provide an overall conducive environment for global terrorists to operate inside Pakistan. Pakistan must finally recognise that its failure to crack down on these groups has contributed to the global terrorism problem. It is wishful thinking to believe that you can fan the flames of Islamist extremist ideology without contaminating the rest of society and fuelling global terrorist movements.” Mr. Trump has said little about his plans to fight terrorism and in fact has declared that he wants to keep it all secret and take the enemy by surprise.

But he has declared that “radical Islam” is his enemy number one, and India’s posture will only be too pleasing for him.

For Ms. Clinton, who sees the world from a more nuanced perspective, the new Indian position will be a catalyst in the formation her South Asia policy and could give her greater leverage with Pakistan.