The top US commander in Afghanistan told Congress this week that coalition forces have reached a stalemate in their efforts to curb Taliban control of the country and stated that Pakistan is one of the biggest hindrances to that effort. “It’s very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven,” General John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee. There is a growing chorus of voices in the US taking this position. Influential senator, John McCain, typically asserted “our mission in Afghanistan is immeasurably more difficult, if not impossible, while our enemies possess a safe haven in Pakistan”. A recent report authored by a coalition of think-tanks and universities called President Donald Trump’s administration to “make it more and more costly for Pakistani leaders to employ a strategy of supporting terrorist proxies to achieve regional strategic goals”.
No one knows if Trump will take that counsel, but the numbers that are feeding these frustrations aren’t a secret. This past year, Afghan forces suffered over 6,785 dead in combat, and 11,000 wounded — numbers that are staggering. Though Pakistan has repeatedly promised to act against the Taliban, or to push them into peace negotiations, it has continued to facilitate their military operations against US troops. In practical terms, this means the US will likely have to pump in more troops into Afghanistan — an expensive, and unpopular, call. The problem, it is also true, is one of the US’s own creation. Fearful of losing influence to China, and of weakening the institutional power of the military in a country it sees as dangerously fragile, the US has been loath to punish Pakistan’s perfidy.
Having said that, the Trump administration must consider its choices carefully. Economic aid to Pakistan supports many desirable ends — among them, building up the education sector, primary health and rural development, all of which have contributed to the toxic mix of religious obscurantism and authoritarianism which shape the country’s political culture. The need is to use aid intelligently, to diminish the power of Pakistan’s military, and enhance the strength of its democratic institutions. In the short term, this may indeed diminish the influence the United States has enjoyed with Pakistan’s generals. But then, the influence Washington’s dollars bought over the decades, history has demonstrated, has turned out to be dross.