Pakistan, facing growing pressure internally and from the United States about the relationship between the two countries, is weighing how to respond to U.S. demands that it do more to help stop the fighting in Afghanistan.
U.S. envoys have renewed calls on Pakistan to crack down on the Haqqani militant network that has attacked U.S. forces in Afghanistan, pressure Taliban insurgents to begin peace talks and hand over a doctor jailed for helping the CIA track Osama bin Laden at his hideaway outside the Pakistani capital.
The longstanding U.S. demands have taken on fresh urgency since President Trump declared last month that Pakistan must “change immediately” its policy of harboring the Taliban and other militant groups challenging the U.S.-backed government in neighboring Afghanistan.
Trump’s comments, along with his support for Pakistan’s rival India to play a greater role in Afghanistan, have spooked Pakistani officials. Some are wondering whether their years-long, multibillion-dollar alliance with the United States will survive the new U.S. administration.
Pakistani officials have lashed out publicly at the U.S., saying Trump’s plan to bolster the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will fail and that they are “reassessing” ties with Washington. Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan said Pakistan would explain its position to U.S. officials but that “it’s not for us to satisfy them.”
Privately, however, officials in Pakistan’s powerful army acknowledged in a series of interviews that they risk being isolated in the region unless they find ways to placate the United States.
“A U.S.-India-Afghan nexus is dangerous for Pakistan,” said one senior official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “We don’t want to be competing against the U.S. in Afghanistan and we want a normal working relationship with the U.S.”
Pakistani officials have also watched with concern as ally China has offered less than full-throated support. While Beijing initially defended Pakistan from Trump’s criticism, it later signed a declaration condemning Pakistan-based militant groups such as the Haqqani network, a move seen as putting pressure on Pakistan’s security establishment, which maintains ties to such groups.
China is investing tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in Pakistan, but lacks the close ties to top Pakistani military officials that the United States has built over nearly two decades. The U.S. supplies Pakistan with hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance every year and conducts training programs with senior Pakistani army officials.
“America needs Pakistan, and they know without Pakistan there is no way forward in Afghanistan,” said Hamayoun Khan, a professor of strategic studies at National Defense University in Islamabad.
“On the other hand, Pakistan knows the U.S. is the most important factor to bring stability in Afghanistan…. It is imperative that they will cooperate. They cannot afford discontinuing engagement.”
Trump is preparing to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan, to add to the 11,000 already deployed there in the 17th year of the U.S. war effort. Many analysts said he recognized that peace could not be achieved without getting tougher on Pakistan, which has long nurtured militant groups to defend its strategic interests in India and Afghanistan.
Leaders of both the Taliban and Haqqani network are believed to be based in Pakistan, but the government has shown little ability to control or influence the groups.
Pakistan has been unable, for example, to goad Taliban commanders into engaging in peace talks with the Afghan government. That prospect seems ever more distant now that Kabul controls only 60% of the country’s 407 districts, according to the latest U.S. assessment.
In meetings this month in Pakistan and Afghanistan, U.S. officials have emphasized they want to maintain the close relationship but urged Pakistan to resolve a series of old problems.
The U.S. wants to see more progress toward peace talks in Afghanistan and an end to the Haqqani network’s haven in Pakistan, the officials said. They also asked that Pakistan release Shakil Afridi, a doctor who has been jailed for six years for his role in helping the CIA track Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader who was in hiding at a safe house in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad.
During his presidential campaign, Trump boasted that he could free Afridi “in two minutes… because we give a lot of aid to Pakistan.”
But U.S. officials have long hesitated to enact punitive measures against the Pakistani army, which guards the country’s nuclear arsenal and also controls access to Afghanistan via land routes used by NATO supply vehicles.
Pakistani news media have reported that if the U.S. enacts sanctions, Islamabad would respond with the “toughest” diplomatic policies, including reducing cooperation in Afghanistan and banning NATO vehicles from entering Afghanistan via Pakistan.
Frustration is high in both capitals, with some in Washington saying Trump’s speech wasn’t tough enough, and Islamabad furious that he encouraged a greater role for India.
Officials from the two sides are expected to meet again this week at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Although unlikely, for the first time in years some experts say they can envision a U.S.-Pakistani breakup.
“I’ve almost felt a sense of relief among Pakistani officials, that they’ve been in a bad marriage for too long, and they were never going to ask for a divorce, but now the other side has said, ‘I’m going to leave you,’ so you don’t look bad in front of the kids,” said Moeed Yusuf, an expert on U.S.-Pakistan relations at the United States Institute of Peace.
“In private moments, both sides say they don’t want a rupture, and they understand they need each other,” Yusuf said. “But these extreme positions make it impossible to engage, and the naysayers on both sides, their hands get strengthened.”
Special correspondent Sahi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.