“Old Habits Die Hard: Can Pakistan Stop Using Militant Groups?”

Pakistan, vital to the United States’ strategic interests in Afghanistan and the region, underwent rounds of scathing condemnation during a joint Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing by senior lawmakers and several high profile witnesses this Tuesday. A crucial tenet of Pakistan’s foreign policy in the region, the use and differentiation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militant groups, continues to strain its relations with its neighbors and the United States. The continuation of this policy by Islamabad and the current Obama administrations request to Congress to release additional funding, angered and flustered lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Senior lawmakers, intelligence officials, and US commentators have repeatedly insisted that the military apparatus within Pakistan, through its intelligence arm the ISI, continues to play a duplicitous game with the United States and that further military aid to the country must be stemmed. Committee members voiced these concerns by citing the possible use of American hardware against American interests. The recent vote to deny the sale of F-16’s to Pakistan is seen as a close call to those who are wary of Pakistan and its role within the ‘War on Terror’. Yet, the United States is not the only victim of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Pakistani’s themselves have suffered at the hand of violent extremists, with conservative estimates stating that around 50,000 Pakistani’s have been killed since 2001. Yet, the state is claimed to continue its support for proxies and terrorist groups that may allow it leverage within Afghanistan and act as a counter against an ever-stronger India. It is truly troubling that there is no terrorist attack large enough that will force the state to reconsider their stance. This policy continues to receive the ire of senior US lawmakers who want an end to the war in Afghanistan.  

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia & the Pacific, Matt Salmon, stated that, “the United States tolerates Pakistan... Pakistan claims to be fighting terrorists but they refuse to fight some groups who we know to be terrorists.” Such a policy clearly undermines both US and Afghan efforts to defeat the Taliban, stabilize Afghanistan, and allow for it to be self-sufficient. These indictments were also echoed by ranking member Brad Sherman, who insisted that any further aid for Pakistan that the administration requested, amounting to 740 million for civilian projects and 265 million for military purposes, come with multiple conditions attached. Conditions that should be attached before the disbursement of these funds would be the release of Dr. Shakil Afridi (who played an instrumental role in the capture of Osama Bin Ladin); the elimination of state ties with the Haqqani network, Lakshar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the Afghan -Taliban; and the elimination of safe havens in Pakistan for terrorists.

            The sliver of trust that Pakistan once held within the halls of Rayburn and Longworth has been repeatedly eroded through broken promises and intangible results. Extra measures would now have to be taken to align Pakistan with American interests. Former US Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, testified before the committee, insisting that withholding aid or making it conditional would not be sufficient. One possible recommendation given to the committee was to escalate pressure on Islamabad through several means. Options given were placing pointed sanctions against senior government officials, increasing drone strikes against the Taliban and Haqqani militants, and restricting future loan disbursements from the current IMF loan program that Pakistan is currently engaged in. If these efforts failed, the ambassador recommended that Pakistan should be placed on the list of state sponsors of terror, be stripped of its major non-NATO ally status, and to be treated as North Korea.

These recommendations were widely agreed upon by members of the subcommittees and those testifying due to the expectation that they would crush the resolve of the military apparatus and prevent them from thinking that they could continue ‘to get away with it’ or ‘charm their way out of it’. Chairman Salmon commented that “simply cutting off funding would not be enough” and could not understand the rationale behind such continued support by the administration.  He stated that, “they’re treating us [the United States] like chumps”.

            However, it must be noted that if these actions were to be taken they may create unintended internal problems for Pakistan, possibly destabilizing the nation further. Bill Roggio, senior editor of the Long War Journal, testified that the civilian government of Pakistan acts simply as a front for the army and wields no real influence over the activities of the military apparatus. Furthermore, state institutions in Pakistan are continuing to grow but lack the influence and capabilities to truly stifle the scourge of terrorism both within and outside of the nation. This leaves the task to the military that faces a catch-22 scenario. If Pakistan were to adhere to the policy platform desired by the US, it may suffer a backlash. Tricia Bacon, an assistant professor at American University, echoed similar sentiments and testified before the committee saying that:

The security establishment recognizes that a break in relations with these groups would dramatically increase the terrorist threat in Pakistan beyond the Army’s and the civilian government’s limited capacity to manage it.... dangerously compounding the terrorist threat in Pakistan.

Pakistan is resting in between a rock and a hard place and must find an alternative. The window for Pakistan to find an alternative foreign policy platform is closing fast. Groups that Pakistan is friendly to such as the Haqqani Network are strong enough to pose a sizable threat to Pakistan if a change in policy is made. Pakistan must dispense with these groups now before they get stronger and pose a more credible threat to the nation and the region.