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'Trump will be tougher on Pakistan'

July 21, 2017 09:47 IST

'If there's one administration that would be likely to put the squeeze on Pakistan, it's the Trump administration.'
'This is an administration that views terrorists as a black and white issue (kill them all, no questions asked), and will have little patience for Pakistan's selective policy toward terrorism.'

Prime Minister Narendra D Modi with US President Donald J Trump and First Lady Melania Trump in the Oval Office, June 26, 2017. Photograph: Reuters

On Wednesday, July 19, the United States State Department released its Country Report on Terrorism 2016, which listed Pakistan among the nations and regions providing 'safe havens' to terrorists.

The State Department report, official sources told Press Trust of India on Wednesday night, is 'vindication of India's long-standing position on the menace of cross-border terrorism in this region.'

Asked for his observations, one of India's leading Pakistan watchers told Rediff.com on Wednesday night that "They (the US) haven't declared them a terror sponsor. Even last year Pak was listed as a safe haven for terrorists...they aren't even on the watch list as yet. So perhaps we are getting ahead of the story."

One of America's leading observers on South Asia, when asked for his reaction, felt, "My immediate reaction was that there wasn't yet enough clarity from the Trump administration about which direction it intends to go on either Pakistan or Afghanistan, and that it might not be smart to read too much into this report."

"This seemed especially true since the report was released by State which is currently understaffed and not a serious power player," the South Asia expert said, adding, "That said, most signs suggest Trump is inclined to be tougher on Pakistan."

To understand the State Department report better and find out if it indicates that President Donald J Trump will be tougher with the generals and politicians in Pakistan than his predecessors George W Bush and Barack H Obama, Rediff.com's Nikhil Lakshman reached out to Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and Senior Associate for the South Asia program at the Wilson Center, the Washington, DC think-tank.

Readers will recall our interview with Michael -- an articulate and respected observer on India, Pakistan and the rest of South Asia -- after Prime Minister Narendra D Modi's visit to Washington last month when he gave the "Modi-Trump summit 10/10".

Do you think much is being made in government circles in New Delhi about the couple of words ('safe havens') used in the section on Pakistan in the State Department's Country Report on Terrorism 2016?
Does the section, in your reading, indict Pakistan enough and vindicate India's stand that it indulges in cross border terrorism?

I imagine those words and the report they come from are garnering much more attention in the Indian media than they are in the Indian government.

And that's because the words don't really say anything new or anything we didn't already know.

This isn't the first time the US government has accused Pakistan of providing terrorist safe havens, and it won't be the last.

This State Department report is an annual one, and in previous years it's mentioned the safe haven issue as well.

In separate contexts -- such as the joint statement following Narendra Modi's recent meeting with Donald Trump in Washington -- the US government has brought attention to anti-India terror groups on Pakistani soil and the need for Pakistan to eliminate them.

However, Washington has rarely if ever stated explicitly that the Pakistani State is orchestrating cross-border violence through these terrorist proxies.

What would be much more significant, in my view, is if the US government were to ratchet up the allegations and link terrorists more explicitly to the Pakistani security establishment.

We all remember when Admiral Mike Mullen famously referred to the Haqqani Network as a 'veritable arm' of the ISI.

Could we hear a similar allegation again at some point soon? Absolutely.

I doubt the Trump administration will mince many words in telegraphing its unhappiness about the Pakistani State and its ties to terror groups.

The bilateral relationship is poised to go downhill, and with that could come some sharp and increasingly tough rhetoric from the US side.

The 'safe havens' don't refer to terrorists like Jaish-e- Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayiba operating against India, but to terrorists like the Haqqani Network which attack American soldiers in Afghanistan -- is that correct?
Did you think that the section on Pakistan is mild, especially in its glossing over Islamabad/Rawalpindi's role in fomenting terrorism in India?

Generally in these types of reports there is also mention of the anti-India groups, though it's true the main focus in the new State Department report is on the anti-Afghanistan groups like the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban.

And it's easy to understand why.

It's the anti-Afghanistan groups that pose a more direct threat to Americans and US interests, given that they are waging insurgency in Afghanistan and attacking American troops.

In Washington, everyone remembers that Americans died in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, but beyond that LeT and JeM are seen as less of a direct threat to the US.

This is why much of Washington's messaging on terror in Pakistan focuses on the anti-Afghanistan groups.

For this reason, I think the Trump administration will focus its counterterrorism policies in Pakistan much more on the Haqqanis and Taliban than on the anti-India outfits.

At the end of the day, the Trump administration is all about 'America First' and tackling global threats that imperil Americans the most.

I imagine this could entail, perhaps, expanding the drone war into Baluchistan to go after Taliban and Haqqani leaders.

Yet with LeT and JeM and its ilk, the Trump administration's efforts will revolve mostly around sharing intelligence with India and, in due course, perhaps selling India weaponry that will enhance New Delhi's capacity to go after these Pakistan-based terrorists.

I don't think we should overstate how much Washington will do to combat these anti-India groups.

Is the Country Report a significant document? Or is it a routine report issued by the State Department, compiled by American diplomats in the countries they are based and their counterparts in Washington, DC?
Does it have any value at all in determining American policy on terrorism?

Ultimately it's a relatively inconsequential document.

The US government is always churning out reports, and this is just one fish in a very big sea of documents and information overload.

Certainly it's notable for some folks, particularly those that study terrorism and South Asia more broadly.

But in terms of its impact on US policy, there's not much there.

Another reason we shouldn't read too much into this document is that it was issued by a US government agency that has been heavily marginalised by the Trump White House.

Let's be clear: The State Department is not and will not be the lead authority when it comes to Pakistan policy during the Trump era.

And so really this report is just the latest document of many to be produced by a defanged agency -- not exactly something ticketed for the president's desk.

So Pakistan is not a State Sponsor of Terrorism, as Iran is, in Foggy Bottom's eyes?
No matter, the carnage its proxies inflict in India and Afghanistan?
Pakistan is, in fact, the only country in the Central Asia and South Asia section of the report to be bestowed the accolade of 'Counterterrorism Partner'!
How do you account for Washington's unwillingness to censure Pakistan for encouraging terrorism in India?

This is a conundrum that has puzzled many analysts of Pakistan.

I think there are three main reasons why the US gives Pakistan the kid gloves treatment.

One is fear.

Many in Washington fear that taking a harder line toward Pakistan could backfire in dangerous ways.

In effect, according to this line of reasoning, taking a tougher position on Pakistan could lead it to tighten, not loosen, its ties to terrorists.

If the US were to really ramp up its hardline policy by declaring Pakistan a State sponsor of terror and cutting ties to the Pakistani military, then the result could be downright stabilising: Emboldened militants, heightened anti-Americanism among the masses, and so forth.

Not to mention, Pakistan would likely retaliate by closing down the crucial roads used by NATO forces to transport materiel to Afghanistan.

This is the epitome of the 'too big to fail' dynamic: The risks of cracking down on Pakistan outweigh the costs of sticking with what you have in Pakistan, warts and all.

A second reason why the US hasn't come out stronger in its condemnation of Pakistan could be recognition of the fact that Pakistan has actually, at times, been a helpful friend.

Most recently, after the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan let the US use its military bases and house security personnel on these bases, it allowed Pakistani roads to be used to transport NATO military supplies to Afghanistan, and it gave Washington permission to use drone strikes.

Pakistan may be perfidious and work against US interests, but it has actually helped Washington achieve some of its goals in the region.

And that's something that US officials haven’t forgotten, despite how unhelpful Pakistan has been otherwise.

A third reason why Washington hasn't censured Pakistan for its role in encouraging terror in India could be that it doesn't feel it has sufficient proof.

There's no doubt that anti-India terror groups enjoy safe havens in Pakistan, but evidence that the ISI is directly orchestrating efforts by terrorists to cross the border and stage attacks -- as they were several decades back -- may not be as strong.

And so the US may prefer to hold back.

The State Department does not detect the fingerprints of Jaish and Lashkar on the Pathankot and Uri terror attacks, both of which occurred in 2016, but has no such hesitation in blaming the Haqqani Network for attacking US troops in Afghanistan.
How do you explain these double standards?

I think it goes back to the evidence issue.

There are all kinds of smoking guns pointing to how the Haqqani Network has used Pakistan as a staging ground to carry out attacks on Americans in Afghanistan.

When it comes to Pathankot and Uri, it's not quite as easy to connect the dots.

There's certainly good reason to think LeT and JeM had a hand in the Pathankot and Uri attacks, but then again there are plenty of local, unaffiliated militants in Kashmir aggrieved by Indian security measures who would have an incentive to attack Indian troops.

Is the US as dependent on Pakistan for counterterrorism these days as it was in the early years of the War on Terror?
How has the equation changed in your perception?
What kind of assistance, in your understanding, does Pakistan still offer the US in counterterrorism?

US-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation has decreased ever since US combat forces left Afghanistan.

With the US no longer fighting a combat war in Afghanistan, there's not as much need to secure Pakistani CT cooperation -- cooperation, let it be said, that was lacking when Washington needed it the most during the height of the American troop surge in Afghanistan.

At any rate, the height of US-Pakistan CT partnership took place in the immediate years after 9/11, when Pakistan was essentially opening up its military bases for American use.

I do think the US will still look to Pakistan to provide some counterterrorism assistance.

It's only natural to assume so, given that the US is likely to maintain, if not increase, troops in Afghanistan over the coming years.

Washington's asks will be modest, but in many ways consistent with expectations of the past: Permission to use drone strikes, provision of intelligence about the location of anti-Pakistan terrorists, and access to NATO supply routes in Pakistan.

Why were the Bush and Obama administrations reluctant to punish Pakistan for harboring terrorists that attacked American and ISF soldiers in Afghanistan, undermined US nation-reinforcement initiatives in that country?

It all goes back to the reasons why Washington doesn't take a harder line toward Pakistan overall -- a combination of fear of the consequences and recognition of the fact that Pakistan has actually been helpful to the US at times.

Given rising levels of anti-Pakistan hostility in Washington these days, I imagine it's the fear factor -- fear of the consequences of taking punitive measures -- that will be more likely to hold America back in the coming months.

Here, the supply line issue looms large.

If Washington were to declare Pakistan a State sponsor of terror at the very moment when it plans to send more troops to Afghanistan, then a Pakistani decision to retaliate by closing the supply routes could be disastrous for US policy.

Do you think the Trump administration will be tougher with Islamabad, given the President's declared hostility to Islamic terrorism?
What kind of action can we expect from President Trump vis-a-vis Pakistan?
Traditionally, American generals have had a good relationship with their counterparts in Rawalpindi.
Since both the American NSA and secretary of defence are both generals, will they advocate cutting some slack where the Pakistanis are concerned?

Despite Washington's hesitation to take the gloves off, I do think we could see a tougher policy toward Pakistan.

If there's one administration that would be likely to put the squeeze on Pakistan, it's the Trump administration.

This is an administration that views terrorists as a black and white issue (kill them all, no questions asked), and will have little patience for Pakistan's selective policy toward terrorism.

I think that one major Trump administration difference we could see from the Obama administration is an expansion of the drone war into Baluchistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

We may have gotten a preview a few weeks back when a drone strike reportedly killed a Haqqani Network leader in KP (Khyber PakhtunkhwaKhyber Pakhtunkhwa.

So far as we know, the ISI has never given the US permission to send drones into these regions -- this is why most drone strikes have been in the tribal areas, where they are permitted by the ISI.

So if the US does take its drone war away from the tribal areas, then there could be devastating effects for US-Pakistan relations.

Washington would probably want to work with Islamabad in advance of a drone war expansion to try to get some type of buy-in, so as to reduce the chances of Islamabad retaliating by closing the NATO supply routes or even encouraging militants to ramp up their attacks on Americans in Afghanistan.

It's tough to figure what the retired generals in the Trump administration think about Pakistan.

On the one hand, they do indeed enjoy warm ties with the Pakistani military. But then again, they saw their soldiers in Afghanistan get killed or maimed by Pakistan-allied terrorists.

My sense is the Trump administration will want it both ways -- it will seek to reduce aid and perhaps expand the drone war, but at the same time aim to maintain a workable relationship with Islamabad.

Were the CIA and other American intelligence and military agencies aware that the Pakistanis were 'playing' them constantly, but still opted for an intelligence-sharing and security relationship, simply because it was better to have the Pakistanis on their side rather than being adversaries? For that matter, were the Pakistanis ever truly on the Americans' side?

It's a complicated story.

I'm sure that the US intel and military community was well aware of Pakistan's double game.

After all, it was a top US official, Mike Mullen, who made perhaps the most damaging U.S. allegation about Pakistan's ties to militants.

But I do think that the CIA and military sought to focus on the positives -- witness how CT cooperation was built around terrorist groups that threatened both the US and Pakistan, like Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and more recently ISIS.

Taking a glass-half-full approach was an effort in part to be pragmatic (The US had to find a way to justify partnering with Pakistan) but it was likely also an expression of the too-big-to-fail idea: Better to be on Pakistan's good side than its bad side.

Of course, this is somewhat of a flawed argument.

For the US, being on Pakistan's good side hasn't prevented American troops from getting killed by Pakistan-aligned terrorists.

I don't think Pakistan was ever truly on America's side, just as America was never truly on Pakistan's side.

These are two countries that have starkly divergent interests when it comes to matters of stability and counterterrorism, and even their best efforts at partnership haven't changed the basic calculus: When push comes to shove, each country pursues its own interests without regard for what the other wants.

How would you assess the India-US counterterrorism relationship?
In your assessment, is it the only genuinely successful such a partnership in Central and South Asia?
In what way, if you agree?
Would it be one of the success stories of the India-US relationship?
Do you believe there is real time sharing of information between the two sides?
I can understand what Washington brings to the table, but India? What intelligence, in your understanding, could India offer the Americans?

Overall, it's a very solid relationship with a lot of momentum and a whole lot of room to grow.

In effect, the sky's the limit for US-India relations -- and the very successful visit of Modi to Washington last month amplified the goodwill and trust and shared interests that undergird the partnership.

Certainly, for Washington, it's the deepest partnership it has in South Asia, by far.

Counterterrorism cooperation is one of the strongest elements of a very warm and strong overall relationship.

Modi and Trump see eye to eye on terror (just as Obama and Modi did), and they both feel very similarly about terrorism in Pakistan -- it needs to be dealt with, and right away.

That said, it is true that the counterterrorism partnership is not trouble-free.

There are things that one side could ask for that the other isn't willing to give.

For instance, Trump may want India to formally join the anti-ISIS coalition, which New Delhi is unlikely to do.

And India may want the US to go further than the US is willing to go in targeting anti-India terrorists in Pakistan.

Still, the counterterrorism partnership is a strong one, and this was underscored in the joint statement after the Modi-Trump meeting.

We can expect the two countries to ramp up their intelligence cooperation, and for the US to provide India with weaponry -- like drones -- that better allow India to surveil the movements of cross-border terrorists.

I can also envision them working together to try to freeze the financial assets of various anti-India militants in Pakistan.

Would you know of any instances where this counterterrorism partnership worked to avert or eliminate terror threats?
Was this counterterrorism relationship a consequence of 26/11 or predates that?
Does this partnership involve other American allies as well like Britain, Israel, Saudi Arabia?

It's been building for quite some time, though I do think it began to really pick up steam after the Mumbai attacks.

It was after the Mumbai attacks when the CIA presence in Pakistan began to increase in a big way.

One of the major reasons for this increased presence was to track the movements of Lashkar-e-Tayiba.

Raymond Davis, perhaps the best embodiment of the extended and often ugly CIA presence in Pakistan back then, was in Lahore trying to gain info about LeT.

I also think we could look to the Obama years as a time when CT cooperation really took off, simply because it was during the Obama years -- and particularly the second Obama administration -- when the relationship on the whole really took off.

Obama himself took a strong interest in CT cooperation, but you also had a huge fan of India -- Ashton Carter -- heading the Pentagon, and that entailed a deepening of the security relationship with the natural consequence of a more expansive CT partnership.

The State Department report does not allude to the elephant currently lurking in the room -- the Pakistani establishment's assertions that India is instigating terrorism in Balochistan.
Does America not believe the Pakistani charges?
Or does it not find a place in the report for the same reason as India's assertion that Pakistan is behind the Pathankot/Uri attacks?
For lack of evidence? Or for Washington's unwillingness to upset either side?

I have yet to meet a US official, past or present, who believes these Pakistani allegations about Indian terrorism in Baluchistan. And that is not an exaggeration.

As I understand it, the 'dossiers' that Pakistan has reportedly supplied to American officials (and UN officials too) purportedly detailing the extent of India's transgressions are in fact filled with vague and unconvincing material.

So this one is simple: The State Department report doesn't allude to the elephant in the room because it doesn't believe in the elephant to start with.

Pakistanis often say that Washington's silence about 'Indian terrorism' in Pakistan is an indication of Washington's clear pro-India tilt.

In fact, I'd argue it's more an indication of a desire not to make proclamations about something it doesn't believe to be true.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi with US President Donald J Trump and First Lady Melania Trump in the Oval Office, June 26, 2017. Photograph: Reuters

Nikhil Lakshman / Rediff.com