US-Pakistan relations: A broken record

Defense Secretary James Mattis is welcomed at the tarmac as he arrives in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Dec. 4, 2017.

Story highlights

  • In Islamabad, Mattis pushes for more hardline efforts to control domestic terrorism in Pakistan
  • Kugelman says something will have to give in fragile US-Pakistan relationship

Michael Kugelman is deputy director and senior associate for South Asia with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The views expressed here are his own.

(CNN)Congratulations, Secretary Mattis. You've become the latest US official to serve as lead vocalist on a hopelessly broken record.

On a visit to Pakistan on Monday, US Defense Secretary James Mattis sang from what's now a very familiar songsheet. "Pakistan must redouble its efforts to confront militants and terrorists operating within the country," he said, according to a Pentagon statement.
For nearly two decades, Washington has implored Islamabad to shut down sanctuaries for militants -- mainly the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network -- that target Americans in Afghanistan. And each time, Washington has been rebuffed.
    There's a fundamental reason why consistently strident American demands are met with consistently stubborn Pakistani inaction: A misalignment of interests.
    Washington views the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network as direct threats to Americans -- and to the Afghanistan that it's desperately trying to help stabilize.
    U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (third left) meets with Pakistani officials in Islamabad on December 04, including Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (fourth right).
    Pakistan, conversely, views these groups as useful assets to push back against Indian influence in Afghanistan, and as a helpful hedge against the possibility of an eventual American exit from that country.
    From Pakistan's perspective, it would be sheer folly to sever ties with the most powerful non-state actors operating in Afghanistan -- actors whose influence would increase even more if Afghanistan descends into unrest and civil war.
    Predictably, each side perceives the counter-terrorism issue through the lens of its own interests. Pakistan says it's done a great job cracking down on terrorists. Indeed, the Pakistani military has staged counter-terrorism operations in the North Waziristan tribal area that have badly degraded the Pakistani Taliban -- the group responsible for most of the terror attacks in Pakistan over the last decade.
    For Washington, while these operations are commendable, they're not good enough because they don't address the heart of the matter -- the terrorists that target Americans in Afghanistan.
    Domestic politics in Pakistan also ensure Islamabad won't change course and comply with US demands anytime soon. Elections are next year. As the country enters campaign season, no politician worth his or her salt -- including those leading the current government -- would remotely consider calling for accommodating American demands.
    This is particularly the case given the recent establishment of several hardline religious parties -- one of them linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group -- planning to contest elections. Pakistani politics are rife with retrograde ideologies. In such an environment, overtly caving to American demands could destroy your electoral prospects -- not to mention your political career.
    Interestingly, when I was in Islamabad last month, the Pakistani political class, both in public messaging and in private conversations, was strikingly more sanguine about US-Pakistan relations than were the Americans with whom I spoke there. It's almost as if the Pakistanis were putting a happy face on a worrisome situation, well aware of the plunge that the relationship could take in the coming months.
    We've seen this plotline before: Incessant American demands coupled with a lack of Pakistani compliance trigger a crisis, before the two sides -- like an unhappily married couple -- come back from the brink and grudgingly agree to muddle through.
    Except this time the movie may have a new twist: The Trump administration has threatened to use unprecedented punitive measures if the Pakistanis don't act sufficiently against terror.
    With Washington unlikely to be satisfied with Pakistani efforts, something will have to give in this fragile relationship during the initial months of 2018.
    America's most likely move will be to expand its drone war and target leaders of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. Several days before Mattis touched down in Islamabad, CIA director Mike Pompeo effectively warned at a security forum that if Pakistan doesn't smash the sanctuaries on its soil, then the United States will do so itself.
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    To be sure, such a move would risk Pakistani retaliations -- such as closing down NATO supply routes and suspending intelligence sharing with Washington -- that could imperil US interests.
    For this reason, it's unlikely any expansion of the drone war would be accompanied by other muscular measures proposed by analysts, and in some cases hinted at by the administration itself -- at least initially. Those measures range from sanctioning Pakistani officials with ties to terror to revoking Pakistan's non-NATO ally status and designating it as a state sponsor of terror.
    Refraining from more draconian policies may preempt dangerous Pakistani retaliations and threats to US interests. But it would also guarantee that Pakistan continues to patronize the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network -- a relationship that poses longstanding threats to US interests.
    Ultimately, for Washington, there are no easy options. Except to cue that broken record.