As 2016 came to a close, a familiar but unwelcomed chapter in US-Pakistan relations opened: the US imposed sanctions on seven Pakistani entities allegedly associated with Islamabad’s missile programme. The US government deemed the seven “government, parastatal, and private entities in Pakistan” as “determined to be involved in activities that are contrary to the national security and/or foreign policy of the United States”.

While national security concerns of any country are justified and Pakistan has time and again been scrutinized over its nuclear programme, the contemporary nonproliferation calculus lacks the obvious: the prerequisite of conceiving and enabling an environment for strategic stability and regional peace to focus on sustained socioeconomic development of the region. Additionally, any champions of nonproliferation have to perceive the nuance of a possible nuclear deal with Pakistan and its meaning for the region. Any and every move, including sanctions, that steps away from accomplishing a nuclear deal is unwanted, generating political resentment and impeding diplomatic cooperation that is crucial to nonproliferation. Contrary to American objectives, unconditional aggressive acts like sanctions inadvertently encourage risk-taking and burden-shirking by allies instead of mature conduct. And for better or for worse, Washington needs to constantly remind itself that Pakistani cooperation is essential in today’s age of transnational terrorism and black-market nuclear networks. Reading the riot act to Islamabad (at least publicly) does not promise healthy dividends. It never did.

Traditionally, Washington has had three primary tools to push countries towards nonproliferation norms: sanctions, targeted incentives, and war. Compared to the Obama administration, the Bush regime had favored the use of force and strict sanctions. During Bush’s time, Iraq in particular was a singular case where American coercive efforts (sanctions) actually served as a stepping stone to war. Yet, Libya was a situation where a carrot-and-stick approach of sanctions and incentives together promoted nonproliferation successfully. However, Pakistan is no Iraq or Libya. Islamabad is still a relevant albeit mercurial US ally, both as US operations in Afghanistan and the nonproliferation regime continue to remain unfinished business. And as history has demonstrated, positive conciliatory endeavors rather than forceful actions work better to shape an ally’s behavior: South Africa’s disavowal of the nuclear bomb, Ukraine and Kazakhstan’s cession of nuclear weapons, and the agreements with Argentina and Brazil restraining nuclear activity are prime examples of constructive incentives upholding nonproliferation.

The carrot-and-stick approach towards Pakistani nonproliferation has been tried for three decades, lacking coherence and consistency of nuclear policy, both key ingredients of any nonproliferation reform. Additionally, sanctions slow down nuclear activity but do not halt it completely. In the past, the US had punished Pakistan through the 1990’s sanctions for the latter’s nuclear program. Yet, those sanctions did little to curb Islamabad’s nuclear ambitions while aggravating anti-American sentiments among Pakistanis.

As long as the Indo-Pak hostilities continue, completely ‘de-nuking’ Pakistan (or India) will remain a highly ambitious goal for any power or superpower, a fact most US administrations have realized. In Pakistan’s case, domestic emotions are strongly intertwined with external variables when shaping and framing nuclear decision-making. Discussions of India are where the center of gravity of Pakistani nuclear debates lie (and arguably vice-versa as well), in no small part due to India being and becoming increasingly hawkish towards its western neighbor. As such, the most promising alternative is continued engagement through ‘carrots’ rather than enduring hostilities by introducing fresh ‘sticks’ (like sanctions). The ‘carrot’ policy can induce and stimulate the development of social institutions that can better absorb economic and/or political shocks and consequently, crystallize Pakistan’s coherence as a state. This, in turn, will directly render Pakistan’s nuclear program going ‘rogue’ (the US’s worst fear) significantly less palatable. Accordingly, the ‘carrot’ strategy aligns positively with long-term American objectives concerning South Asia as well as nonproliferation.

An example where persistent American cordial efforts bore fruit was when Admiral Mike Mullen was working with then-Pakistani Army Chief General Kayani. Mullen’s relatively positive relationship with Kayani led a Mullen aide to state that “When he [Mullen] would bring up a concern about nuclear weapons in a meeting, the Pakistanis would usually deal with it.” Ultimately, the nuclear issue was not the only thorn between the Pakistani and American counterparts and Mullen had been left disillusioned to some extent. Yet, before he retired, he still urged the US Senate Armed Services Committee that the US should emphasize an honest working relationship with Pakistan: “Now is not the time to disengage from Pakistan; we must, instead, reframe our relationship…A flawed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement.”

Even against India, US sanctions were not successful and have left a marked legacy. Despite the landmark 2008 US-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement and India participating in nuclear summits and occasional nuclear security workshops with the US, nuclear security cooperation between Washington and New Delhi still has significant ground to cover.

Another aspect for Washington to consider is if not us, then who to safeguard Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. This is the case where the US needs to protect itself from over-meditating on its own worst fears. Over time, the White House has recognized the nuclear security assurance role belongs to the Pakistan army and SPD, which have done a commendable job to maintain the security of Islamabad’s nuclear weapons. This recognition has been followed by American assistance to facilitate the SPD in building better and more secure nuclear facilities.

The Pakistan of the 21st century is vastly different from the Pakistan of the 1990s. That previous Pakistan was alleged to pose a global security threat due to its nuclear weapons and a conventional engagement with India, risking nuclear conflict. The knee-jerk reaction to that Pakistan had been American sanctions. Yet, these sanctions in the 1990s created a massive aid vacuum in a developing nation that had just engaged with the Soviets in Afghanistan. The result was Saudi-Wahhabi exploitation of the lack of positive American engagement with Islamabad, resulting in the metastasis of Wahhabi radical ideology across Pakistan in exchange for Saudi aid. Additionally, with the increasing American pivot towards India and the hypersensitive geopolitical history between New Delhi and Islamabad, Washington’s actions towards Pakistan tend to be experienced against the backdrop of the Indo-Pak conflict. The 1990s sanctions were viewed by Islamabad as supplementary to Washington’s rising strategic cooperation with India. Consequently, the Saudis’ two billion dollars of donated oil to Pakistan were seen as filling the financial void left by the US, one which could have left Islamabad vulnerable to New Delhi.

Today, this is no longer the case. The 21st century Pakistan is gradually deflecting Wahhabi doctrines, appears unwilling to let Riyadh dictate terms, wants to act as an independent mediator in the Saudi-Iran conflict, and is pursuing revolutionary economic ties with China. However, one thing in common between the 1990’s Pakistan and that of today is the energy deficit that continues to threaten Pakistan’s internal stability. Given all this, Washington must not echo the 1990s sanctions scenario with Pakistan. Disengagement is not the answer. The US cannot afford another Iran. Rather, the US must seize the opportunity to work closely with Pakistan in nonproliferation efforts. South Asia is such a rewarding part of the world that any void left by the US will eagerly be filled by Moscow or Beijing. Nonproliferation aside, this is not a scenario that will bolster the American pivot towards Asia.

Prominent US strategists including Stephen Cohen continue to stress three simple reasons for continued US engagement with a nuclear Pakistan:
1) An unstable and isolated state is always likely to take a more radical and uncompromising stance towards its opponents (think North Korea). A disenfranchised Pakistan may pose India (also a US ally) more threat than a Pakistan on good terms with Washington.
2) If indeed the worst happens and a nuclear warhead goes missing, the US will be in a better position to nullify the potential dangers.
3) The Pakistani state and economy (critical to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal) will both be more stable with American rapprochement than US hostility.

Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder underscore what Washington needs to recognize: “There is very little that agitates Pakistani leaders more than the feeling that the United States is being disrespectful to their country”, a fact that conceivably applies to any country. Especially as the nuclear security discussion moves from a focus on American-funded equipment and facilities to convincing and assisting countries to do more themselves, high-level give-and-take, mutual respect, and compromises in related areas are likely to be essential to make progress towards nuclear security.

Arguably, American nuclear wariness vis-à-vis Pakistan is natural and prudent yet active antagonism (such as through sanctions) does little for dispute resolution and more to suspend it. The lasting solution to this issue has to come from within South Asia rather than Washington. Amicable to US long-term objectives, regional stability calls for the less-powerful country’s prosperity and self-defense capability to be supplemented, not supplanted, by the US. The same principle applies to China’s dealings with Pakistan as well, particularly as Beijing takes CPEC to the next level. Avoiding conspicuous confrontations and pursuing parallel common interests need to define US-Pakistan relations, for typically, not the ones speaking the same language but the ones sharing mutual goals who understand each other. The singular American historical experiences occasionally drive the US approach to Washington’s disadvantage. A former US Ambassador once stated, “In our Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, we demonized the enemy and sought his unconditional surrender, followed by his repentance, reconstruction, and ideological remolding”. Instead, the 21st century demands an approach favoring compromise and versatility against the exaggerated belief that reconciling the opposition is irrational and self-defeating. Diplomacy rather than muscle flexing must work the front lines of any nuclear negotiation and conduct. Stern US action cannot be the primary facet of American leadership with Pakistan. As the outgoing US President Obama once said, “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” And the nuclear issue is the last problem one would want to treat with a hammer.

Muhammad Omar Afzaal

Muhammad Omar Afzaal

is pursuing his doctoral studies from Brown University.

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