President Trump's prime time address on Monday did more than simply chart a new course for America's military engagement in Afghanistan. It also marked a fresh approach to one of the most intractable problems that has confronted the United States since the start of the "war on terror": the duplicitous and dangerous role played by the nation of Pakistan.
In the wake of the September 2001 attacks on Washington and New York, and in response to Islamabad's extensive links to al-Qaeda and its Afghan hosts, the Taliban, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage famously threatened to bomb Pakistan "back to the Stone Age" unless it became a constructive counterterrorism partner. Pakistan's president at the time, General Pervez Musharraf, grudgingly agreed to do so. But, very quickly, the Pakistani government succeeded in parlaying this arrangement to its advantage.
It did so by effectively holding America's counterterrorism campaign hostage. Musharraf's regime, and then its successors, held out the promise of continued – even enhanced – cooperation with Washington in Afghanistan and elsewhere, if only America supplied it with extensive military and foreign aid. At the same time, Pakistani policymakers argued compellingly that, without such support, the U.S. was setting the stage for a weakening of their government – and the potential empowerment of far more radical alternatives to it.
That ploy proved remarkably successful over the years. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan's military establishment is estimated to have received some $30 billion in aid from successive American administrations to guarantee its good behavior.
The return on that investment, however, has been meager indeed. While Pakistan has indeed waged a concerted campaign against extremist groups that pose a direct threat to its own security, it has also continued to actively foment Islamic extremism abroad, using it as a strategic tool to shape events in neighboring Afghanistan and to pressure regional rival India.
Thus, as the South Asia Terrorism Portal, India's most authoritative terrorism research institute, noted in its most recent assessment, "the Pakistani establishment has, for long, provided open support to terrorist formations which has served its purported strategic interests." These include the radical Taliban movement in Afghanistan and jihadi groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar e-Taiba and Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, all of which are actively backed by Pakistan's notorious Inter-Services Intelligence.
In his address, Trump clearly signaled that Washington is no longer willing to tolerate this state of affairs. "We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars, at the same time they are housing the same terrorists that we are fighting," he noted. "That will have to change."
At stake is more than simply a cessation of American aid. In his address, the president highlighted that the United States "can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond." This characterization unmistakably suggests that the Trump White House sees Islamabad as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, in the struggle against Islamic extremism. That, in turn, has the potential to put Washington and Islamabad on opposite sides of the "war on terror," with all that this implies.
What might that augur for U.S.-Pakistani ties? "Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan," Trump asserted – not least because, as he noted, Pakistan itself has become a major target of the extremism that it has abetted. But the president also warned that Islamabad "has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists" – including, presumably, the friendship and support of the United States.
"It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order and to peace," Trump concluded. Whether it will do so is ultimately Islamabad's choice, but the ball is now very clearly in Pakistan's court.