EXCLUSIVE-Trump seen hardening line toward Pakistan after Afghan war review


Reuters

By Phil Stewart and Idrees AliWASHINGTON, June 20 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump's
administration appears ready to harden its approach toward
Pakistan to crack down on Pakistan-based militants launching
attacks in neighboring Afghanistan, U.S. officials tell Reuters.
    Potential Trump administration responses being discussed
include expanding U.S. drone strikes, redirecting or withholding
some aid to Pakistan and perhaps eventually downgrading
Pakistan's status as a major non-NATO ally, the officials said,
speaking on condition of anonymity.
    Some U.S. officials, however, are skeptical of the prospects
for success, arguing that years of previous U.S. efforts to curb
Pakistan's support for militant groups have failed, and that
already strengthening U.S. ties to India, Pakistan's arch-enemy,
undermine chances of a breakthrough with Islamabad.
    U.S. officials say they seek greater cooperation with
Pakistan, not a rupture in ties, once the administration
finishes a regional review of the strategy guiding the
16-year-old war in Afghanistan.
    Precise actions have yet to be decided.
    The White House and Pentagon declined to comment on the
review before its completion. Pakistan's embassy in Washington
did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    "The United States and Pakistan continue to partner on a
range of national security issues," Pentagon spokesman Adam
Stump said.
    But the discussions alone suggest a shift toward a more
assertive approach to address safe havens in Pakistan that have
been blamed for in part helping turn Afghanistan's war into an
intractable conflict.
    Experts on America's longest war argue that militant safe
havens in Pakistan have allowed Taliban-linked insurgents a
place to plot deadly strikes in Afghanistan and regroup after
ground offensives.
    Although long mindful of Pakistan, the Trump administration
in recent weeks has put more emphasis on the relationship with
Islamabad in discussions as it hammers out a the regional
strategy to be presented to Trump by mid-July, nearly six months
after he took office, one official said.
    "We've never really fully articulated what our strategy
towards Pakistan is. The strategy will more clearly say what we
want from Pakistan specifically," the U.S. official said,
speaking on condition of anonymity.
    Other U.S. officials warn of divisions within the government
about the right approach and question whether any mix of carrots
and sticks can get Islamabad to change its behavior. At the end
of the day, Washington needs a partner, even if an imperfect
one, in nuclear-armed Pakistan, they say.
    The United States is again poised to deploy thousands more
troops in Afghanistan, an acknowledgment that U.S.-backed forces
are not winning and Taliban militants are resurgent.
    Without more pressure on militants within Pakistan who
target Afghanistan, experts say additional U.S. troop
deployments will fail to meet their ultimate objective: to
pressure the Taliban to eventually negotiate peace.
    "I believe there will be a much harder U.S. line on Pakistan
going forward than there has been in the past," Hamdullah Mohib,
the Afghan ambassador to the United States, told Reuters,
without citing specific measures under review.
    Kabul has long been critical of Pakistan's role in
Afghanistan.
    Pakistan fiercely denies allowing any militants safe haven
on its territory. It bristles at U.S. claims that Pakistan's spy
agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, has
ties to Haqqani network militants blamed for some of the
deadliest attacks in Afghanistan.
    "What Pakistan says is that we are already doing a lot and
that our plate is already full," a senior Pakistani government
source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
    The source doubted the Trump administration would press too
hard, saying: "They don't want to push Pakistan to abandon their
war against terrorism."
    Pakistani officials point towards the toll militancy has
taken on the country. Since 2003, almost 22,000 civilians and
nearly 7,000 Pakistani security forces have been killed as a
result of militancy, according to the South Asia Terrorism
Portal, which tracks violence.
    Experts say Pakistan's policy towards Afghanistan is also
driven in part by fears that India will gain influence in
Afghanistan.

    IS PAKISTAN AN ALLY?
    Nuclear-armed Pakistan won the status as a major non-NATO
ally in 2004 from the George Bush administration, in what was at
the time seen in part as recognition of its importance in the
U.S. battle against al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents.
    The status is mainly symbolic, allowing limited benefits
such as giving Pakistan faster access to surplus U.S. military
hardware.
    Some U.S. officials and experts on the region scoff at the
title.
    "Pakistan is not an ally. It's not North Korea or Iran. But
it's not an ally," said Bruce Riedel, a Pakistan expert at the
Brookings Institution.
    But yanking the title would be seen by Pakistan as a major
blow.
    "The Pakistanis would take that very seriously because it
would be a slap at their honor," said a former U.S. official,
speaking on condition of anonymity.
    Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at
the National Security Council, co-authored a report with Husain
Haqqani, Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington, in which
they recommended the Trump administration warn Pakistan the
status could be revoked in six months.
    "Thinking of Pakistan as an ally will continue to create
problems for the next administration as it did for the last
one," said the February report.
    It was unclear how seriously the Trump administration was
considering the proposal.
    The growing danger to Afghanistan from suspected
Pakistan-based militants was underscored by a devastating May 31
truck bomb that killed more than 80 people and wounded 460 in
Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.
    Afghanistan's main intelligence agency said the attack - one
of the deadliest in memory in Kabul - had been carried out by
the Haqqani network with assistance from Pakistan, a charge
Islamabad denies.
    Washington believes the strikes appeared to be the work of
the Haqqani network, U.S. officials told Reuters.
    U.S. frustration over the Haqqani's presence in Pakistan has
been building for years. The United States designated the
Haqqani network as a terrorist organization in 2012. U.S. Navy
Admiral Mike Mullen, then the top U.S. military officer, told
Congress in 2011 that the Haqqani network was a "veritable arm"
of the ISI.
    The potential U.S. pivot to a more assertive approach would
be sharply different than the approach taken at the start of the
Obama administration, when U.S. officials sought to court
Pakistani leaders, including Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani.
    David Sedney, who served as Obama's deputy assistant
secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia
from 2009 to 2013, said the attempt to turn Islamabad into a
strategic partner was a "disaster."
    "It didn't affect Pakistan's behavior one bit. In fact, I
would argue it made Pakistan's behavior worse," Sedney said.

    MORE DRONES, CASH CUT-OFF
    Pakistan has received more than $33 billion in U.S.
assistance since 2002, including more than $14 billion in
so-called Coalition Support Funds (CSF), a U.S. Defense
Department program to reimburse allies that have incurred costs
in supporting counter-insurgency operations.
    It is an important form of foreign currency for the
nuclear-armed country and one that is getting particularly close
scrutiny during the Trump administration review.
    Last year, the Pentagon decided not to pay Pakistan$300
million in CSF funding after then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash
Carter declined to sign authorization that Pakistan was taking
adequate action against the Haqqani network.
    U.S. officials said the Trump administration was discussing
withholding at least some assistance to Pakistan.
    Curtis' report also singled out the aid as a target.
    But U.S. aid cuts could cede even more influence to China,
which already has committed nearly $60 billion in investments in
Pakistan.
    Another option under review is broadening a drone campaign
to penetrate deeper into Pakistan to target Haqqani fighters and
other militants blamed for attacks in Afghanistan, U.S.
officials and a Pakistan expert said.
    "Now the Americans (will be) saying, you aren't taking out
our enemies, so therefore we are taking them out ourselves," the
Pakistan expert, who declined to be identified, said.
    Pakistan's army chief of staff last week criticized
"unilateral actions" such as drone strikes as "counterproductive
and against (the) spirit of ongoing cooperation and intelligence
sharing being diligently undertaken by Pakistan".

 (Additional reporting by Josh Smith in Kabul, Drazen Jorgic in
Islamabad and John Walcott in Washington; Editing by Yara
Bayoumy and Howard Goller)
 ((phillip.stewart@thomsonreuters.com; 1-202-898-8398; Reuters
Messaging: phillip.stewart.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

Keywords: USA PAKISTAN/ (EXCLUSIVE)



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