Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson stopped in Islamabad on his way to New Delhi on Tuesday to deliver what he hoped would be a sobering message to Pakistan: Stop funding or providing shelter to terrorist groups. Now.
It is a message the United States has been giving the Pakistanis in various forms since the Sept. 11 attacks, and it is one the Pakistanis have by turns harkened to, bristled at and shrugged off — sometimes in the same meeting — for years.
In tackling the deeply dysfunctional relationship between the United States and Pakistan, the Trump administration is finding that it is not unlike some difficult marriages: all but impossible to fix, but also impossible to end.
There were few signs on Tuesday that this 16-year-old dynamic had changed.
Mr. Tillerson met with three of Pakistan’s top leaders at the elegant prime minister’s residence in Islamabad: Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi; the foreign minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif; and, most important, the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa.
At a formal greeting before a portrait of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who is considered the father of Pakistan, Mr. Tillerson began with reassurances. “Pakistan is important, as you know, regionally to the U.S. security relationships and so important regionally to our joint goals of providing peace and security to the region and providing opportunity for a greater economic relationship as well,” he said.
Mr. Abbasi, wearing a traditional white kurta next to Mr. Tillerson’s dark suit, responded cheerfully but pointedly. “The U.S. can rest assured that we are strategic partners in the war against terror and that today Pakistan is fighting the largest war in the world against terror,” he said.
The United States believes that Pakistan has for years supported terrorist groups, like the Haqqani network, that attack American troops in Afghanistan, undermining the 16-year effort to defeat the Taliban. But for just as long, the United States has relied on Pakistani air and land routes to supply both American and Afghan forces.
Without Pakistan, the United States would not be able to keep troops in Afghanistan — but it also might not need to, some American observers suggest.
“What do you do when your allies are part of the problem?” asked Daniel L. Byman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University. “The desire to turn our backs on these people is there, but then you worry that terrorists will have more operational freedom and it will cost you more in the long run.”
In public, the Pakistanis say they have killed more terrorists at greater cost in lives lost than any other nation. In private, they say they must hedge their bets against the inevitable day when American troops leave Afghanistan.
In the days leading up to Mr. Tillerson’s visit, the United States conducted a flurry of airstrikes along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, fulfilling President Trump’s promise in August to intensify attacks against the Taliban and Haqqani network, which has run a virtual factory in Pakistan since 2005 to supply suicide bombers in Afghanistan.
Local news media outlets reported more than a dozen missile strikes that killed scores of Haqqani fighters. The strikes, many of them in Pakistani territory, are deeply irritating to Pakistan, which considers them a threat to its sovereignty.
Along with the attacks, the Trump administration has toughened its rhetoric. In a speech last week that offered effusive praise for India, Mr. Tillerson warned, “We expect Pakistan to take decisive action against terrorist groups based there that threaten its own people and the broader region.”
Senior Pakistani army and intelligence officials expressed confidence in background interviews in recent days that the Trump administration cannot sustain a hostile stance for too long. The Pakistanis are keenly aware that the United States relies on them not only for supplies of material, but also for intelligence.
The Obama administration worked to reduce its reliance on Pakistan in part by reaching a reconciliation with Iran, the only other viable option for supplying troops in Afghanistan. India is building a port in the Iranian city of Chabahar, where supplies could be landed and shipped to Afghanistan.
Christine Fair, an associate professor at Georgetown University, argues that Pakistan represents a far greater threat to American interests than Iran does. It was Pakistan that provided nuclear technology to North Korea and Libya, and Pakistan’s proxies have killed more American troops than Iran’s, she said.
But the Trump administration’s hostility toward Iran — Mr. Trump has threatened to tear up the Iran nuclear accord — has closed off such a strategy, so the United States must rely on Pakistan.
“It’s like a woman trying to leave an abusive marriage when she has no money,” Ms. Fair said. “How do you do that?”
Will tougher rhetoric change Pakistani behavior? Experts are skeptical.
“Getting tough on Pakistan, which we’ve tried before, never works,” said Ryan C. Crocker, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. “In fact, it has the opposite effect. They just dig in deeper.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times on October 26, 2017. Original link.