In Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, we wrote that the United States would continue to pressure Pakistan in the hopes of finding an end to the long-running war in Afghanistan. Pakistan, for its part, would be reluctant to persuade Taliban leaders to join the negotiating table, despite U.S. ultimatums. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has traveled to Islamabad to apply pressure, but Pakistan is unlikely to budge for the same reasons that have prevented progress in the past.
As President Donald Trump's administration searches for an exit from the war in Afghanistan after over 16 years of U.S. involvement, the United States is making another high-level diplomatic outreach to Pakistan. On Dec. 4, Defense Secretary James Mattis arrived in Islamabad for meetings with Pakistan's top military and civilian leaders, including Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. In these meetings, Mattis' mission is to convince Pakistani leadership to do more to attack militant safe havens and, in the long term, facilitate peace talks with the Taliban to end America's longest-running war. But Pakistan's leaders won't be easy to convince.
In the discussions, Mattis adopted a conciliatory approach by acknowledging Pakistan's sacrifices in the fight against terrorism, but he also reiterated Washington's demands. The United States has called for Pakistan to take more action against the militants that find refuge on its soil. Among them, crucially, is the leadership of the Taliban operating in Afghanistan.
Diplomatic outreach is just one of the ways the United States is trying to compel a change in Pakistan's behavior. Military aid is another. Last week, the latest report from the U.S. Congressional Research Service showed that the United States would further trim its annual aid package to Pakistan. In 2017, Washington doled out $526 million to Islamabad in exchange for its cooperation, which includes providing overland NATO supply route access through Pakistani territory. In 2018, that number is projected to drop to $345 million.
The United States has gradually trimmed the amount of aid it provides to Pakistan over the last several years. In 2014, for example, U.S. aid to Pakistan amounted to nearly $2.2 billion. For now, it appears that the U.S. strategy is to pursue incremental punitive measures against Pakistan, rather than pursue harsher tactics such as revoking Pakistan's non-NATO major ally status or cutting aid altogether. The United States isn't fully ready to bring out the stick, but the carrot is slowly being drawn back.
Pakistan wants to maintain its relationship with the United States, but it's willing to suffer the cost of deteriorating ties. From Islamabad's perspective, supporting the Taliban follows a rational calculation to ensure post-conflict Afghanistan is friendly to Pakistani interests. Support for Taliban leaders is aimed at denying Pakistan's rival, India, a foothold in Afghanistan. Because of this, Mattis' visit probably won't convince Pakistan to change its behavior, especially considering the Trump administration's calls for India to play a greater economic role in Afghanistan.