By Zalmay Khalilzad
08 June, 2016
In foreign policy, there are key moments—“golden hours”—when events create a finite window in which to achieve important things. Sometimes they are obvious, like in the aftermath of a successful military operation. More often golden hours are fleeting and apparent only in retrospect, when policy makers realize that they missed an opportunity.
Based on my discussions with President Ashraf Ghani and other senior Afghan officials in Kabul in recent days, I believe that the killing over the May 21 weekend of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a U.S. drone strike has created a golden hour in which to finally secure Pakistan’s cooperation in stopping support for the Haqqani network terrorists and for the extremist Taliban.
To have such a decisive effect on Pakistani policy, however, the U.S. and Afghanistan must follow up on Mansour’s death with additional steps that escalate pressure on Islamabad. Otherwise the opportunity will dissipate.
Opportunities have come and gone before. The last golden hour that could have secured a verifiable Pakistani break with the Taliban was after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. From the moment the U.S.-led coalition overthrew the Taliban in 2001, through 2004, when Afghans voted in a landslide for the election of President Hamid Karzai, U.S. credibility was sky high.
Washington then squandered this opening. When initial indications emerged that Pakistan was offering sanctuary to the Taliban on its soil, Washington was reluctant to take decisive steps. As a senior official in the George W. Bush administration, I participated in countless circular debates on whether such sanctuaries even existed, whether they had been authorized by Pakistan’s then-president, Pervez Musharraf, and whether the issue was important enough to risk rocking the boat with Islamabad.
My view was that Pakistan was playing a perfidious and dangerous double game and needed to be called on it. But because of factors such as the (actual or supposed) important Pakistani contribution to the fight against al Qaeda, Pakistan’s role as transit route for supplies to our troops in Afghanistan, and its own (however half-hearted) campaign against Pakistani Islamist extremists—senior U.S. officials either ignored evidence of Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban or treated it as a cost worth tolerating. One result: Senior Taliban leaders were soon living openly in Pakistani cities like Peshawar, Karachi and Quetta.
Since 2005, the Taliban and the al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network based in Pakistan have regrouped and waged a devastating insurgency against U.S. and Afghan forces. Poor governance by the Afghan government is certainly a factor in its inability to defeat the insurgents. But the Taliban’s resilience is primarily due to the strategic decision of the Pakistani military and intelligence services to provide sanctuary and support to these groups.
Pakistan views the Taliban as an effective proxy to ensure Pakistani dominance over Afghanistan, and to limit Afghan relations with India. Islamabad also doesn’t believe that the current pro-U.S. government in Kabul can survive the continuing drawdown of American forces. Last year, Pakistani officials delivered a paper to their Afghan counterparts proposing terms for a new bilateral relationship in the coming years. The terms amounted to a demand that Afghanistan subordinate its sovereignty to Pakistan.
While the Obama administration is continuing the withdrawal of U.S. forces—expected to drop to below 5,000 by the end of this year, from 10,000 now—in recent weeks Washington has adopted a harder line against Pakistan. Congress has imposed tighter restrictions on military aid to Pakistan, citing its failure to target the Haqqani network. Congress also prohibited Pakistan from using U.S. aid to purchase F-16 jet fighters.
It also appears that President Obama has elevated the problem of Pakistani support for the Haqqani network and Islamabad’s broader obstruction of the Afghan peace process to a priority in determining U.S. relations with Pakistan.
The manner in which Mansour was killed is a telling manifestation of the change in U.S.-Pakistan relations. The U.S. has been waging drone attacks on Pakistani territory since 2004, but the strike against Mansour crossed a threshold in the sense that it was the first in Pakistan’s far southwest Baluchistan province. Unlike previous strikes, it was the U.S. military and not the CIA that orchestrated the Mansour attack. By conducting the attack openly, Washington sent a clear signal that, unless Pakistan changes its policy of support for the Taliban, additional coercive measures could be on the way.
Pakistan is likely waiting to see whether the Mansour attack was a one-off event or is a harbinger of a fundamental shift in U.S. policy. If Islamabad is to break with the Haqqani network and the Taliban, the Pakistani leadership needs to see that continued support for the insurgency will come at a high price.
Escalated U.S. military pressure through expanded drone strikes is one way to deliver that message, but it should be backed by corresponding political and financial pressure.
On the financial side, Pakistan has been an enormous beneficiary of international support, including from the coalition of nations aiding Afghanistan and from organizations including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. In addition to limiting this assistance, the U.S. can oppose the renewal of the IMF support program when it runs out this summer.
Washington should warn Pakistan that it will face escalating financial sanctions unless it ends its military support for terrorists and extremists, and facilitates reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. An initial step could involve imposing financial and travel restrictions on senior Pakistani officials known to be complicit in the insurgency, and freezing funds in U.S. banks belonging to Pakistani entities—military and corporate—involved in financing the insurgency.
The U.S. currently designates Pakistan as a “major non-NATO ally”—a status wholly inappropriate given that its current policy and conduct would better merit its inclusion on the State Department’s list of state-sponsors of terrorism.
The U.N. Security Council is an appropriate venue in which to raise Pakistan’s aggression against Afghanistan. To help secure international support for a U.S.-Afghan-sponsored resolution condemning Pakistan, the U.S. should declassify and broadcast information indicating Pakistani support for the Taliban and other insurgents, as well as Pakistani complicity in the insurgency’s narcotics trafficking.
Finally, to signal U.S. seriousness, President Obama should reverse his decision and keep the current level of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, letting his successor decide on future force levels. That, and allowing U.S. field commanders more flexibility in the use of their troops in support of Afghans in the current fighting season, would demonstrate a level of American determination to rattle the insurgents—and Islamabad.