Jason Criss Howk has spent his career as a soldier-diplomat, educator, and advisor focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan. He writes a column for Clearance Jobs News and is an interfaith leader and Islamic studies professor. Find him on twitter @Jason_c_howk. Sabir Ibrahimi is a Non-resident Fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation and hosts the Afghan Affairs Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @saberibrahimi. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: With the U.S. Global War on Terrorism and mission in Afghanistan winding down, the U.S. requires new foreign policy towards Pakistan.
Date Originally Written: December, 28, 2020.
Date Originally Published: February 8, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: This article is written from the point of view the of the U.S. towards Pakistan.
Background: Since the Cold War, Pakistan-U.S. relations have been oft-based on militant support. Pakistan assisted the U.S. in removing the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan by aiding so-called mujahedeen Islamist militants fighting the Red Army and Afghan government. Post-Soviet-withdrawal, the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan and Pakistan; and Pakistan supported another round of militancy creating the Afghan Taliban to remove the “mujahedeen” government from Kabul. Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, the U.S. called upon Pakistan to help remove al Qaeda from the region. Pakistan joined the U.S. in the so-called war on terror but prevented another abandonment by the U.S. through a third round of militancy support, this time by rebuilding and supplying the Afghan Taliban remnants to weaken the newly formed Afghan government. Pakistan does not trust America or Afghanistan to be helpful to Pakistan’s policies and the U.S. does not trust Pakistan.
Significance: Pakistan impacts U.S. counterterrorism activities and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a key leverage-point Pakistan holds against the U.S., while the U.S. holds several forms of economic and diplomatic leverage against Pakistan. Numerous terrorist groups operate in Pakistan; some of them aid the Pakistani military to destabilize India and Afghanistan, while some threaten Pakistan itself. The U.S. State Department has designated Pakistan as the Country of Particular Concern (CPC). Pakistan’s economy is struggling, causing Islamabad to heavily rely on China. In 2020 a Pakistani General told an audience at U.S. Central Command conference that “China is Pakistan’s friend, despite the Uyghur treatment, because we can overlook anything right now for our economic wellbeing—our ailing economy is an existential threat.”
This Options Paper looks at the possible future relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Where the administration of U.S. President Joseph Biden takes U.S. foreign policy towards Pakistan is unknown; but a question policy-makers will need to answer is: does being close to Pakistan help America?
Option #1: The U.S. adopts an aggressive approach towards Pakistan.
Many U.S. objectives related to Pakistan remain unmet. A more aggressive approach could ensure Pakistan is not harboring, leading, or financially assisting terrorists; or ideologically brainwashing new recruits for terrorist/militant groups. The major U.S. goal of building peace in Afghanistan hinges on Pakistan policy.
In this option the U.S. would designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, upgrading it from CPC and, as a consequence of this cease all development and military aid to Pakistan. The U.S. would pressure its allies and partners to freeze all assets of Pakistan military and civilian officials related to terrorists. Targeted officials would have their visa revoked, to include their families, so they cannot study, vacation, or live outside of Pakistan. The U.S. would increase its counterterrorism programs in South Asia and follow any intelligence generated into Pakistan via proxies or clandestine forces. The U.S. government would deliver more focused efforts to identify and close radical-militant-owned businesses and non-profit organizations worldwide. U.S. drone and human intelligence programs would be increased to identify and track terrorists, militants, and Pakistan government terrorism-supporters; especially when entering Afghanistan. Armed-drone operations would NOT be included in this approach because the inevitable civilian casualties will increase militant/terrorist recruiting and responses.
Risk: This option would increase suffering among Pakistani citizens due to decreases in U.S. development funding which could lead to more violence and radicalism. Lack of U.S. aid may lead to the U.S. losing its remaining allies in the civilian and military establishment in Pakistan. Pakistan would end its support of the Afghan peace process. Pakistan fully aligns with China. Pakistan’s military will sell the news of further U.S. abandonment of Pakistan to their citizens, and enact stronger military controls over the civilian government. Lack of U.S. aid could decrease nuclear security thereby increasing the likelihood of loose nuclear material or sales of nuclear science.
Gain: The U.S. may push the Pakistani civilian and military officials into recalibrating their alliances with militant groups and terrorists if economic, diplomatic, military pressure is deep enough. A robust public information campaign ensuring the Pakistani people know how to restart economic assistance may lead the people to pressure their government to stop supporting violent movement networks. The U.S. will save foreign relations funding. The U.S. can improve its image with Pakistani civilians and stop being blamed for bombing deaths by ceasing all armed drone operations in Pakistan.
Option #2: The U.S. Partners with Pakistan more closely to lift them economically.
The United States could direct its energy to address what Pakistan calls an existential threat by increasing U.S.-Pakistan economic partnerships and diplomacy. The U.S. would encourage economic cooperation between Afghanistan, Central Asia and Pakistan; and massively increase economic relations between India and Pakistan. This option would increase U.S. aid to development projects and ensure all military aid is conditions-based in exchange for counter-terrorism assistance, increasing civilian oversight of the military, and more elected leadership power in government. Publicly, the U.S. would be outspoken about human and minority rights, freedom of speech, and religious freedom. U.S. armed drone operations would cease and be replaced by quietly targeted sanctions at military officials recruiting militant groups and aiding violent missions in the region. Measures under this option would include freezing individual assets globally, and multi-nation travel restrictions. The U.S. would warn Pakistan privately of retaliations if they fail to meet U.S. security goals and give deadlines for decreases in terrorism/militant activity.
Risk: Under this option Pakistan could continue the status quo, a double game with the U.S. whereby Pakistan extracts as much funding as possible before the U.S. stops the flow. Intelligence partnerships would remain unreliable; allowing terrorists/militants reside openly in Pakistan. Pakistan could see the U.S. funds as a way to pay their debt to China, which is not the purpose of the U.S. aid. While Pakistan could openly target extremist groups the U.S. names, it could clandestinely support other extremist groups unknown to the U.S. in order to keep the U.S. engaged and keep Afghanistan weakened. This option could set the conditions for Pakistan better hiding its terrorism support, and the U.S. inadvertently funding it meaning regional militancy continues as do Pakistan human rights violations and military rule.
Gain: This option may improve economic and diplomatic activities. Increased economic partnerships could lead to increased military partnerships to rebuild trust between leaders. The funds Pakistan received could increase education, development, and humanitarian partnerships and improve the U.S. image in Pakistan. This option could contribute to more Pakistan support to get the Afghan Taliban to act seriously in the Afghan Peace Negotiations. The funds could also be used as leverage to improve counterterrorism partnerships across both governments and human rights.
Other Comments: None.
 Khan, S. (2018, October 28). Double Game: Why Pakistan Supports Militants and Resists U.S. Pressure to Stop. CATO. https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/double-game-why-pakistan-supports-militants-resists-us-pressure-stop
 Mazzetti, M. (2018, January 28). How Pakistan has Perpetuated the Afghan Conflict. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/the-pakistan-trap/550895
 Tankel, S. (2011, September 1). Restoring Trust: U.S.-Pakistan Relations. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. https://carnegieendowment.org/2011/09/01/restoring-trust-u.s.-pakistan-relations-pub-45465
 U.S. Relations With Pakistan. (2020, December 1). United States Department of State. https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-pakistan/
 Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: Pakistan. (2020, December 1). United States Department of State. https://www.state.gov/reports/country-reports-on-terrorism-2019/pakistan
 Jason Howk was a guest speaker at the 2020 U.S. Central Command Central and South Asia Conference and led a public discussion with Inter-Services Intelligence Officers attending the event on Pakistan’s further role in the Afghan peace process. This discussion was a heated and brutally honest moment in the conference. See readouts of the event here: https://news.clearancejobs.com/2020/02/22/a-regional-perspective-on-the-war-in-afghanistan and https://dispatchesfrompinehurst.com/2020/02/23/briefing-on-pakistans-campaigns-against-afghanistan-and-why-they-have-failed-repeatedly