The U.S.-Pakistan Relationship Needs a Rethink
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Joe Biden’s administration says it will judge the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan by its actions. The same standard should apply to the group’s main backer: Pakistan.
Taliban leaders would not hold power in Kabul today if not for Pakistani support. The haven that Taliban commanders, their families and their fighters received within Pakistan allowed the insurgents — devastated and scattered by the initial U.S. invasion in 2001 — to rebuild their ranks. For nearly two decades, elements within the Pakistani military provided money, training and logistical support to the Taliban, even as Pakistan pocketed more than $33 billion in American aid. Pakistani leaders have hardly bothered to disguise their satisfaction at the Taliban victory.
The reasons why should be obvious. Pakistan sees the installation of a friendly government in Kabul — however medieval its policies and dangerous its ties to terrorist groups — as a strategic victory over its main rival, India. That has been its unswerving goal throughout the war. While U.S. interests in Afghanistan may occasionally have overlapped with Pakistan’s, mostly in suppressing particular terrorist groups that targeted both countries, they were never one and the same.
Now that U.S. forces have withdrawn, Washington should rethink this toxic relationship. It remains true that ignoring or isolating Pakistan would be unwise; continued cooperation on intelligence and overflight rights could greatly help in keeping tabs on terrorist groups in Afghanistan. But hopes of a broader partnership should finally be suspended. Policy toward Pakistan should be narrowly targeted, largely transactional and focused resolutely on U.S. interests.
Those interests include, primarily, limiting the twin threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Some cooperation on the first should still be possible. Pakistan doesn’t want to see a resurgence of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State offshoot in Afghanistan, while the U.S. should be open to helping Islamabad counter the so-called Pakistani Taliban. Still, the U.S. would be wise to pursue possible basing arrangements in the Central Asian states, where it would be freer to target groups with closer links to the Pakistani spy services.
Rather than struggling to incentivize better behavior in other areas, the U.S. should use sticks as necessary. Sanctions should be levied against Pakistani generals and spies conclusively linked to extremist groups. Any proliferation of nuclear technology or weapons should prompt far more extensive penalties. The Biden administration should also block efforts to remove Pakistan from the Financial Action Task Force “gray list” until the country demonstrates that it’s truly cracking down on terrorist financing and the flow of jihadists into Afghanistan. And the U.S. should exert economic leverage by insisting that Pakistan fully meet International Monetary Fund conditions to resume its bailout package.
Similarly, while Pakistan will only go so far to moderate the Taliban’s behavior, pressure is more likely to get results than pleas. If Pakistani leaders truly want the U.S. to ease its financial stranglehold over the Taliban and prevent the Afghan economy from collapsing, for instance, they should use their influence to ensure the Taliban allow vulnerable Afghans to emigrate, humanitarian aid to flow, and women to study and work.
More generally, the U.S. should stop granting Pakistan special treatment. The fiction that Pakistan is a “major non-NATO ally” should finally be abandoned. This rebalancing should be dispassionate, not spiteful — indeed, the U.S. should continue to support Pakistani civil society, including by funding health, education and climate initiatives, and should lead global efforts to cushion the blow of any refugee exodus from Afghanistan. In the long run, both countries will benefit from a more honest, clear-eyed approach. Meanwhile, the U.S. would be better off investing less in a relationship whose fruits have been so bitter.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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