Bringing Pakistan into the Counterterrorism, not Nuclear, Mainstream

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Bringing Pakistan into the Counterterrorism, not Nuclear, Mainstream

October 20, 2015 5 min read Download Report
Lisa Curtis
Lisa Curtis
Former Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center
Lisa focused on U.S. national security interests and regional geopolitics as senior research fellow on South Asia.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will pay a visit to Washington this week, which will include a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday. President Obama must focus the meeting on gaining full Pakistani cooperation with the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, rather than on striking a civil nuclear deal—the terms of which Pakistan would be unlikely to honor in any case.

Discussing civil nuclear cooperation with the Pakistani government before it has begun to crack down on terrorist groups that are undermining the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and that fuel Indo–Pakistani tensions would compromise vital U.S. national security interests in the region. Rewarding a country that is responsible for the most significant nuclear proliferation disaster in history (the A. Q. Khan affair) and which has continually rebuffed U.S. appeals to crack down on terrorists (such as the Haqqani network) would undermine U.S. credibility and contribute to regional instability.

Long-Shot Nuclear Deal: Putting the Cart before the Horse

The New York Times reported on Thursday that the Obama Administration is considering a deal with Pakistan that would put limits on its nuclear weapons program in exchange for lifting controls on Pakistani access to civilian nuclear technology and material. The Times further notes, however, that Pakistan already has access to the civilian nuclear technology it requires through a close nuclear relationship with China, which has built several civil nuclear reactors in Pakistan. The benefits of a nuclear deal for Pakistan would thus be more symbolic in that it would lend international legitimacy to Pakistan’s nuclear program, putting it on par with India, which received a civil nuclear waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008. Neither Pakistan nor India has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

It would be a mistake for the Obama Administration to separate the nuclear and counterterrorism issues in its discussions with Pakistan. Compartmentalizing Pakistan’s approach to terrorism from its handling of its nuclear assets is not sound policy when considering fundamental U.S. national security interests in South Asia, including preventing an Indo–Pakistani military conflict that could potentially go nuclear, and ensuring that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stay safe and secure and out of the hands of terrorists.

Many argue that Pakistan continues to support terrorist proxies in the region under the protection of its “nuclear umbrella” in order to keep both Afghanistan and India off balance. Those same terrorist proxies are responsible for killing U.S. citizens (several U.S. soldiers have been killed by the Haqqani network in Afghanistan, and six U.S. citizens were killed by Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks).

Moreover, there is concern that Islamist extremist groups with links to the Pakistan security establishment could exploit those links to gain access to nuclear weapons technology, facilities, or materials. The realization that Osama bin Laden lived for six years within a half-mile of Pakistan’s premiere defense academy has fueled concern that al-Qaeda can operate relatively freely in parts of Pakistan and will eventually gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. A Harvard University Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs study noted in 2010 that Pakistan’s stockpile “face[s] a greater threat from Islamic extremists seeking nuclear weapons than any other stockpile on earth.”[1]

Given these inherent risks associated with Pakistan’s nuclear program, it makes little sense to bring Pakistan into the “nuclear mainstream” before it has entered the “counterterrorism mainstream.” Before the U.S. considers conferring a degree of legitimacy on Pakistan’s nuclear program, it must insist that Pakistan make a strategic shift regarding its reliance on terrorist proxies to achieve its regional ambitions. According to credible media reports,[2] the Obama Administration is set to withhold $300 million in Coalition Support Funds (CSF–reimbursement payments for Pakistani military deployments and operations along the border with Afghanistan) because of Pakistan’s failure to meet legislative conditions on U.S. military aid, which include cracking down on Haqqani network bases within Pakistani territory.

Pakistan has some 150,000 troops stationed in regions bordering Afghanistan, and recently conducted military operations against Pakistani Taliban militants in North Waziristan. However, Pakistan’s military campaign spared the bases of the Haqqani network, which has been responsible for some of the fiercest attacks against Afghan and coalition soldiers in Afghanistan and was, in 2011, labeled by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen as a “veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence.[3]

Focus on Afghanistan

President Obama announced on Thursday that he would extend the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan to support the Afghans in their fight against the Taliban, which has resurged in recent months. The President further acknowledged that Pakistan has a role to play in cracking down on Taliban sanctuaries on its soil. While Pakistan played a helpful role in encouraging peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan authorities this summer, those talks have collapsed and the Taliban has gone on the offensive in Afghanistan. President Obama must stress to Prime Minister Sharif the importance of Islamabad reasserting its influence over the Taliban so that peace negotiations can resume. Pakistan has means to influence Taliban leaders on its territory; for starters, it can arrest them or shut down their freedom of movement and communication.

Set Clear Priorities

If President Obama focuses his meeting with Prime Minister Sharif on reaching a nuclear accommodation with Pakistan, rather than addressing Pakistan’s problematic terrorism policies, he will send the wrong signal that the counterterrorism status quo in Pakistan is acceptable to the U.S. Instead, President Obama should prioritize counterterrorism issues and seek to convince Pakistan to:

  • Use its influence to bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table. Pakistan almost certainly continues to have influence with new Taliban leader Mullah Mansour Akhtar, as well as with new Taliban number two leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani. Now that President Obama has extended the U.S. troop presence in the country and signaled that the U.S. will keep troops there for the foreseeable future, he can credibly argue to Pakistani leaders that supporting the Taliban will keep them on the losing side.
  • Crack down on Haqqani network sanctuaries. The U.S. has taken a step in the right direction by setting the prospect of withholding $300 million in CSF funding for the Pakistan military until it cracks down on Haqqani bases. The U.S. must not back down from this condition, especially after it has extended the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, further putting U.S. soldiers’ lives on the line.
  • Re-arrest Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the LeT mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. In April, Pakistan released Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, who had been in Pakistani custody for the past six years, despite repeated calls by the U.S. for his prosecution. Not only has his release fueled Indo–Pakistani tensions, it is a slap in the face of the families of the 166 victims of those attacks, including six Americans.

Set Aside the Nuclear Deal

Pakistan deserves U.S. support in its fights against terrorists who have brought enormous death and destruction to the Pakistani state. However, the U.S. cannot turn a blind eye to Islamabad’s failure to crack down on terrorists that threaten U.S. national security interests and regional stability. Elevating discussions about a nuclear deal without linking it to U.S. counterterrorism concerns in Pakistan would be, at best, a waste of time. At worst, it would facilitate Pakistan’s risky regional strategy of harboring terrorists under a nuclear shield.

—Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Matthew Bunn, Eben Harrell, and Martin B. Malin, “Progress on Securing Nuclear Weapons and Materials: The Four-Year Effort and Beyond,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, March 2012, (accessed October 19, 2015).

[2] Tim Craig and Karen DeYoung, “Pakistan Fears that U.S. Will Slash Military Aid Over Counterterror Efforts,” The Washington Post, August 20, 2015, (accessed October 19, 2015), and Saeed Shah, Adam Entous, and Gordon Lubold, “U.S. Threatens to Withhold Pakistan Aid,” The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2015, (accessed October 19, 2015).

[3] M Ilyas Khan, “US Frustrations Over Pakistan Boil Over,” BBC News, September 22, 2011, (accessed October 19, 2015).


Lisa Curtis
Lisa Curtis

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center