New York // The Trump administration is considering toughening its stance on Pakistan – with a surge in drone strikes and reduced levels of aid – as part of an effort to protect Afghanistan from cross-border attacks, according to US officials.
The issue of what to do about militant havens in Pakistan has long exercised US policy makers desperate to end America’s longest running war.
They accuse Islamabad of destabilising Afghanistan by allowing groups like the Taliban-allied Haqqani network to operate bases in its tribal areas along the mountainous border.
US officials told Reuters that the administration was now considering expanding drone strikes, redirecting or withholding American aid to Pakistan and even downgrading the country’s status as a major non-Nato ally as it reviews its Afghanistan policy.
“We've never really fully articulated what our strategy towards Pakistan is. The strategy will more clearly say what we want from Pakistan specifically,” a US official said.
A former official familiar with the discussions confirmed the details.
With the US poised to announce it is sending another 4,000 troops to Afghanistan, the problem of Pakistan is once again exercising Washington.
Dating back to the 1970s, Pakistan has worried that any growth in Indian influence in Kabul could leave it vulnerable to attack from two flanks. As a result, successive Pakistani governments and its military have been sympathetic to militant Islamist groups which see as protecting their interests.
Critics accuse Islamabad of allowing militant groups to use Pakistani soil to plot attacks against American and Afghan forces across the border.
Suspicions linger about how much Pakistani leaders knew about the presence of Osama bin Laden in the military town of Abbotabad.
The Pakistani military points to Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in 2014 to flush out groups in North Waziristan, and to its co-operation in rounding up al-Qaeda leaders after 9/11 as evidence that it is doing its best in difficult circumstances.
That has not satisfied American commanders who believe Pakistan is undermining hopes of a stable Afghanistan.
Lt Gen Vincent Stewart, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during a recent congressional hearing: "They hold in reserve terrorist organizations so that if Afghanistan leans towards India, they will no longer be supportive of an idea of a stable and secure Afghanistan that could undermine Pakistan interests.”
The scale of the problem was highlighted at the end of last month when a tanker bomb exploded in the centre of Kabul, killing more than 80 people close to international embassies. Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security intelligence agency accused the Haqqani Network of carrying out the attack with assistance from Pakistani security services – an allegation denied by Islamabad.
Such accusations strengthen the hand of those who want Pakistan to do more to rein in the Haqqani Network and even argue that Islamabad should be declared a state sponsor of terrorism.
They say treating Pakistan as an ally and sending military aid has not worked.
Before becoming senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, Lisa Curtis co-authored a report with Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington. Its recommendations now appear to provide a blueprint to current White House thinking.
“Accordingly, the objective of the Trump administration’s policy toward Pakistan must be to make it more and more costly for Pakistani leaders to employ a strategy of supporting terrorist proxies to achieve regional strategic goals,” they wrote. “There should be no ambiguity that the US considers Pakistan’s strategy of supporting terrorist proxies to achieve regional strategic advantage as a threat to US interests.”
They argued that Pakistan should be stripped within six months of its position as a major non-Nato ally, a status that allows priority access to US surplus equipment, unless it shows it is committed to American counter-terrorism objectives.
They also recommended increasing drone strikes, help to strengthen the civilian government against the country’s powerful army generals, setting out a timeline of steps to be taken against militant groups and enforcing counter-terrorism conditions on military aid.
Last year, the Pentagon decided not to pay Pakistan $300 million (Dh1.1m) in Coalition Support Funds after then-US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter declined to sign authorisation that Pakistan was taking adequate action against the Haqqani network.
Afghan leaders have long pushed Washington to adopt a tougher stance on Pakistan.
“I believe there will be a much harder US line on Pakistan going forward than there has been in the past,” Hamdullah Mohib, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, told Reuters.
Administration officials declined to comment on the review.
“The United States and Pakistan continue to partner on a range of national security issues,” said Adam Stump, Pentagon spokesman.