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Trump's Tool Kit: U.S. Options For Pressuring Pakistan

Pakistanis read newspapers with a front page headline about U.S. President Donald Trump at a stall in Islamabad on August 23.

U.S. President Donald Trump has many tools at his disposal to turn up the pressure on Pakistan to shut down alleged Afghan Taliban sanctuaries and arrest extremist leaders on its soil, analysts say, as Washington looks to turn the tide in America’s longest-ever war.

In unveiling his new Afghanistan strategy on August 21, Trump chastised Pakistan for harboring "agents of chaos" and providing safe havens to militant groups waging an insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, saying Islamabad must promptly change tack or suffer the consequences.

Analysts say Trump's options range from cutting off billions in annual military aid to downgrading Pakistan's status as a major non-NATO ally in order to force Islamabad’s hand if it does not does not get behind a renewed U.S. effort to help Kabul repel the Taliban and force the fundamentalist militant group to negotiate a political settlement.

How to get nuclear-armed Pakistan to crack down on militant sanctuaries on its soil has long been a point of contention. Former President Barack Obama tried and seemingly failed to persuade Pakistan to change course with billions of dollars in military aid and the sale of subsidized weapons. But analysts say Trump is likely to use more stick and less carrot in his own dealings with Islamabad.

“This would be an extremely bold move on the part of the United States but completely feasible if it was willing to deal with the consequences..."
-- Shamila Chaudhary, New America Foundation

Trump upped the ante further by seeking greater Indian engagement in Afghanistan, an overture that has set off alarm bells in Pakistan. The nuclear-armed archrivals have vied for influence in Kabul for years, with New Delhi backing civilian governments with millions in aid while Islamabad has attempted to establish friendly governments in Afghanistan through proxies like the Taliban and the mujahedin.

“The Trump administration appears to be determined to increase pressure on Pakistan to eliminate terrorist safe havens on its soil or bring the Taliban to the negotiation table,” says Ahmad K. Majidyar, a South Asia expert.

Analysts expect Washington to first pursue an aggressive diplomatic effort to convince Pakistan to change its approach and will only resort to military and financial measures if Islamabad fails to deliver.

Slashing Ally Status

"We have some leverage," U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on August 22 in response to a question about the new Trump strategy, "in terms of aid, their status as a non-NATO alliance partner -- all of that can be put on the table."

Pakistan is among 16 countries that have status as a major non-NATO U.S. ally. The status is not a mutual defense treaty like the Western alliance, but allows close military cooperation.

Trucks carrying supplies for NATO's Resolute Support mission wait for clearance on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan in June.
Trucks carrying supplies for NATO's Resolute Support mission wait for clearance on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan in June.

Mohammad Taqi, a U.S.-based Pakistan political analyst, says downgrading Islamabad’s ally status would have implications for military funding to Pakistan.

“It means the preferential military-to-military contact ends,” says Taqi. “If that status is changed, Pakistan would no longer get preferential access to military technology, hardware, planning, and training.”

A number of analysts suggested that of all the options available to Trump, cutting Pakistan’s status would be the easiest to pursue with the fewest consequences.

Terrorism Designation

Trump can also designate Pakistan a "state sponsor of terrorism," a designation that would trigger harsh U.S. sanctions, including a ban on arms sales and an end to U.S. economic assistance for Pakistan.

Iran, Syria, and Sudan are currently the only three countries with that U.S. designation.

We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change."
-- U.S. President Donald Trump

The U.S. State Department says on its official website that the designation carries four main categories of sanctions, including “restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance; a ban on defense exports and sales; certain controls over exports of dual-use items; and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions."

“Designation under the above-referenced authorities also implicates other sanctions laws that penalize persons and countries engaging in certain trade with state sponsors,” it says.

Expanding Drone Campaign

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the United States has conducted hundreds of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas against Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, and the Pakistan Taliban. Despite its public protestations, Islamabad is believed to have cooperated behind the scenes with the CIA’s drone campaign, although it was adamant that it should be limited to the country’s tribal northwest.

That purported tacit agreement was said to have been broken when a U.S. drone strike killed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansur near the Afghan-Pakistani border in May 2016. It was reportedly a unilateral move without consulting Pakistan. At the time, the strike was seen as a shift in U.S. policy, but it proved to be an isolated measure.

Now, 15 months later under a new administration, Tillerson warned on August 22, "The president has been clear that we are going to attack terrorists wherever they live."

Analysts say the United States could now to look to pursue similar unilateral strikes in Pakistan, although it should be prepared for likely fallout.

“This would be an extremely bold move on the part of the United States but completely feasible if it was willing to deal with the consequences, which could include Pakistan cutting off its transit routes for NATO supplies into Afghanistan,” says Shamila Chaudhary, a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.

With more U.S. troops headed to Afghanistan, keeping those transit routes open will be important for the United States, Chaudhary says, noting that the only other option would involve costlier routes through Central Asia -- an alternative that is complicated because it requires cooperation with Russia.

Sanctions, Aid Cuts

Washington could sanction the powerful Pakistani military, which has an oversized role in domestic and foreign affairs. The Pakistani Army and Pakistan’s notorious spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have been accused by U.S. and Afghan officials of supporting the Afghan Taliban and other extremists.

“Blacklisting Pakistani individuals and entities associated with supporting terrorist networks may be on the agenda,” says Majidyar.

Taqi says that “financial sanctions on the army should be applied urgently if they fail to deliver the goods” and after that a “broader range of economic sanctions should be applied.”

Analysts say part of that move could be to significantly cut or even end military aid and subsidized weapons sales to Islamabad.

Since 2001, Congress has approved about $30 billion for Pakistan in direct U.S. aid and military reimbursements, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The Obama administration began slashing military aid to Pakistan. Last year, the Pentagon withheld over $300 million in pledged military funding, and Congress blocked the subsidized sale of F-16 jets to Pakistan.

That trend is expected to continue and could possibly accelerate, say analysts, given Trump’s strong words.

“We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” Trump said on August 21. “But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.”

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.