In his speech outlining US strategy in Afghanistan and the wider region, President Donald Trump called out Pakistan for harboring and supporting terrorist groups that target and kill US citizens, and said there would be a radical change in policy toward the South Asian nation.
Trump’s public acknowledgement of Pakistan’s ties to terrorist groups, including the Taliban, was unprecedented for a US Commander in Chief. While lower level US officials, such as Chairman of the Joint Chief of State Admiral Mullen, have previously pointed out Pakistan’s support of the Taliban and its powerful subgroup, the Haqqani Network, Presidents Bush and Obama have taken a softer line in the hopes that Pakistan would moderate its support for terrorist organizations in the region.
Trump said the US will work to increase ties with India, Pakistan’s neighbor and greatest enemy, as part of the “change in approach in how to deal with Pakistan.”
Trump noted “20 US-designated foreign terrorist organizations” are currently active in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and said Pakistan “often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.”
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said.
While acknowledging that the US and Pakistan “have worked together against common enemies” and that the “Pakistani people have suffered greatly from terrorism and extremism,” Trump said Pakistan has repaid the US by supporting terrorist groups that kill Americans.
We recognize those contributions and those sacrifices [of Pakistanis who have been killed in terrorist attack], but Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars, at the same time they are housing the same terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change. And that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.
In what must have sent shockwaves all the way to Islamabad and Rawalpindi – the home of Pakistan’s military and intelligence service – Trump followed up his harsh words for Pakistan with a call for greater American cooperation with India.
Trump said the US will seek to “develop its strategic partnership with India” and described the country as “a key security and economic harbor of the United States.” He called for India to play a greater role in Afghanistan “especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”
A US shift from Pakistan to India as a key ally in South Asia is sure to both enrage as well as frighten Pakistani elites. But an attempt to change Pakistan’s behavior and end its support for jihadist groups will be exceedingly difficult and may test the resolve of the US to see just how serious it is.
Previous US administrations have incentivized the Pakistani government to continue its policies that have allowed the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other jihadist groups to survive and thrive in the region. Instead of making Pakistan pay for its policy, the US has transferred billions of dollars to Pakistan in a failed attempt to influence its behavior. Pakistan will likely have to pay a heavy price to stop supporting jihadists and end its policy of relying on the Taliban for “strategic depth.”
Since its founding in 1947, Pakistan has been unable to achieve victory on conventional battlefields against India, which has remained an enemy since the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947 in which Pakistan attempted to gain control of the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir.
To compensate for this, Pakistan implemented its own version of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. Pakistan has supported groups in Afghanistan in order to deny India influence in its backyard, as well as to allow the nation to serve as a fallback in case of an Indian invasion. Over time, Pakistan began raising and supporting terrorist groups to wage a guerrilla war against Indian forces in the state.
Pakistan capitalized on the chaos in post-Soviet Afghanistan and hunted for a group that would serve its purposes. With the rise of Mullah Omar’s Taliban faction in the early 1990s, Pakistan military and intelligence officers assigned to implement strategic depth saw the perfect partner: a powerful jihadist political movement that was gaining popularity throughout the country and was capable of sustaining military advances. Pakistan provided military and financial support to Omar’s faction, which successfully established the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban in 1996 and controlled upwards of 90 percent of the country until the US invasion in 2001.
In addition to securing a friendly government in Afghanistan, Pakistan has used the country as both a training and a recruiting ground for a host of jihadist groups that fight in Kashmir.
A US-Indian alliance could provide India with advanced weaponry that could give it a qualitative edge over Pakistan’s military. Additionally, closer US and Indian ties could further erode US and Pakistani ties, which has benefited Pakistan during previous wars with India.