Updated May 24, 2018

How Haspel’s CIA could improve U.S.–Pakistan relations

Gina Haspel is sworn in as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency alongside President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Langley, Virginia, on May 21, 2018. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, Gina Haspel was sworn in as the director of the CIA. When asked about Pakistan during her confirmation hearing, she discussed the CIA’s concerns about the link between extremist groups and Pakistan’s nuclear scientists, and stated that the CIA has been monitoring these contacts closely.

Why it matters: In March, the U.S. Department of Commerce sanctioned seven Pakistani companies for engaging in nuclear trade in ways that undermine U.S. peace interests. Pakistan responded by defending its nonproliferation record and promising to work with the U.S. to investigate the accused companies. With her answer, Haspel may have offered Pakistan an opening to get its currently tumultuous relationship with the U.S. back on track.

For the past decade, Pakistan has accused the U.S. of looking at their bilateral relationship exclusively through the prism of the War in Afghanistan, where the U.S. has accused Pakistan of sponsoring militant groups that attack U.S. and allied troops. (Interestingly, Haspel did not mention Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network as a threat during her hearing.)

But Pakistan is also desperate to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an international consortium dedicated to nonproliferation. Given that the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is of paramount importance to both Pakistan and the U.S., nonproliferation could serve as a point of cooperation, shifting the balance of the bilateral relationship in a more positive direction.

The big picture: It is hard to predict whether nonproliferation could entice Pakistan to halt military sponsorship in Afghanistan. But in spite of that, if both countries' intelligence agencies can work together to ensure the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, Pakistan and the U.S. may be able to develop some goodwill.

Sahar Khan is a visiting research fellow in the Cato Institute's Defense and Foreign Policy Department.

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