The South Asia Channel

Pulling U.S.-Pakistan policy out of the shadows

Pick your metaphor.  The United States has "taken off the gloves" or U.S. officials are playing "good cop-bad cop." Either way, there is no denying that relations with Pakistan are on a downward trajectory, with Washington making increasingly stronger charges of double-dealing against Pakistan’s army and intelligence agencies (although the White House has sought to ...

FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images

Pick your metaphor.  The United States has "taken off the gloves" or U.S. officials are playing "good cop-bad cop." Either way, there is no denying that relations with Pakistan are on a downward trajectory, with Washington making increasingly stronger charges of double-dealing against Pakistan’s army and intelligence agencies (although the White House has sought to walk back some of the more aggressive charges in the past several days).  Given the urgency of resolving the conflicted relationship between the two nominal allies and the implications for Afghanistan’s development, South Asian stability, counterterrorism, and the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the absence of imaginative thinking on U.S. Pakistan policy has been pretty remarkable. Which is what makes the recent back-and-forth over at FP’s Shadow Government blog so interesting.

My German Marshall Fund colleague Dan Twining kicked it off by making the case that the United States’ military aid-based relationship with Pakistan was inadequate, while a package of civilian assistance in order to redress the civil-military imbalance in the country was never designed to have a short-term impact. Both approaches, he argued, are increasingly unsustainable given the United States’ fiscal constraints and Pakistan’s conflicting objectives in Afghanistan. These realities raise the uncomfortable prospect of a de facto suspension of the alliance. If it chose to pursue that path, the United States would lose its ability to use Pakistan as a conduit for supplies to Afghanistan along with any cooperation with Pakistani intelligence. This scenario would probably necessitate greater U.S. coordination with India and China in the region, and it would risk further radicalizing and isolating Pakistan in a manner reminiscent of the 1990s.

The post elicited a response from former Bush administration official Kori Schake, who argued that the turnaround Twining described would be difficult, particularly in light of the daunting political timeframe for finding a workable solution in Afghanistan. In her view, the United States is set to leave Afghanistan as President Barack Obama has indicated, and curbing Pakistani influence in Afghanistan would require cooperating with Iran, Russia and China, "countries equally or more opposed to the outcomes we want."

Additionally, Schake wrote, building up a supply route through Central Asia would be prohibitively expensive; U.S. intelligence in Pakistan — which she surmises has not been adequately developed because of a lack of capability — would suffer; a partnership with India is a long way off; China would not resist filling the void left by the United States in Pakistan; and isolating Pakistan would send the wrong message to other potential U.S. allies.  In sum, according to Schake, the United States needs Pakistan more than the other way around, and consequently Washington will have little choice but to settle for the status quo, unsatisfactory as it is.

Former National Security Council Afghanistan director Paul Miller weighed in with another post, warning that playing hardball with Pakistan is dangerous, as it risks plunging the country deeper into a potential civil war, one between a largely secular military and a constellation of radical Islamists. The former, despite its many faults, is in Miller’s view preferable: "We need the military autocrats to win…That should be the starting point for U.S. Pakistan policy." Pakistan, he adds, is "too big to fail."  Miller suggests continuing counterinsurgency-related military aid, maintaining ties with Pakistani intelligence, cutting civilian aid, calling the Pakistanis’ bluff on China picking up the slack in U.S. support, and reevaluating the relationship once the present crisis is over.

What is somewhat striking about this conversation is that it is precisely these kinds of arguments about the status quo being the least-worst option that landed the United States in its present predicament. And on many points, the authors seem to be working off some rather questionable assumptions.

Consider Schake’s warnings. Whatever the president’s statements about withdrawal, the United States will not be abandoning the region any time soon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials have made this clear now on a few occasions. Although U.S. relations with Russian and Iran are frosty, in Afghanistan at least their interests converge, and there has occasionally been tactical — and tacit — cooperation between Tehran and Washington, despite recent indications that Iran may be carving out its own arrangement with the Taliban. The Northern Distribution Network in Central Asia is now responsible for trucking in an increasing amount of non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan, which has slashed the United States’ reliance on the Karachi-to-Khyber route to 30-35 percent of supplies, according to figures provided by senior officers at both U.S. Central Command and U.S. Transportation Command. Following the withdrawal of American "surge" forces in Afghanistan, this figure can be expected to fall even lower, and with it Pakistani leverage.

In terms of intelligence, the U.S. has adequately demonstrated its ability to collect intelligence in Pakistan unilaterally, as during the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Moreover, the outsourcing of intelligence-gathering to Pakistan — rather than simply U.S. inadequacies — may in fact be the primary reason for the intelligence community’s continuing dependence on the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI).

As for Schake’s points related to other actors, India sees its interests in Afghanistan closely aligned with Washington. New Delhi has been a major booster of a continued U.S. presence in the country and has offered to assist U.S. efforts in the country in several areas.  For its own reasons, China may not want the burden of underwriting Pakistani stability, and will be reluctant to fill the supportive role assumed by Washington. In any case, China is already receiving ample credit for being a strong, steadfast ally of Pakistan at the United States’ expense without contributing nearly as much to Pakistan’s stability. And Pakistan’s reputation as an epicenter of global terror means that U.S. displeasure is unlikely to impact other countries’ perceptions of Washington’s reliability as an ally. In sum, many of Schake’s reasons for continuing caution in U.S. Pakistan policy appear largely unfounded.

Much the same can be said about Miller’s fears of imminent chaos within Pakistan in the event of a break with the United States. Clearly, violence has been growing, and large swathes of the country — including major cities — are inadequately governed or suffer from a stark absence of law and order. But the Pakistani establishment has also frequently exaggerated the risk of failure in the country in order to ensure continued aid and support, in a manner not dissimilar to Hosni Mubarak and other après-moi-le-déluge authoritarian leaders.

There are also moral hazards aplenty in continuing to provide carte blanche support for a weak government that has failed to undertake necessary economic and governance reforms. In many respects, despite its gaping governance deficit, Pakistan is not terribly under-resourced by the standards of fragile states, with a 600,000-man army and a potent central bureaucracy. Pakistan may in fact be better placed to turn the tide against extremism at home if its civilian and military leaders were held accountable to the public, instead of being able to exploit external actors as scapegoats for their failings.  Miller is also guilty of presenting a false choice between a secular military and radical insurgency: the Pakistan military is no longer the bastion of secularism it once was. Exposing the extent of this inconvenient truth may recently have cost one journalist his life

Finally, even Twining may be understating his case. The big difference between the 1990s and today is the presence and role of the United States in South Asia. In the 90s, Washington was completely disengaged from the region, turning a blind eye to the rise of the Taliban and even indicating an interest in doing business with them, all of which resulted in the unfortunate consequences he details. But 9/11 permanently changed all that: the United States can no longer afford to completely disengage from the region. Actively containing Pakistan is an entirely different prospect from ignoring and sanctioning the country. As such, Washington cannot presume that a tougher line on Pakistan today will have the same consequences that it did in the years before 9/11.  

On balance, Washington probably underestimates its leverage with Pakistan. The United States has an unparalleled range of military, diplomatic, economic and socio-cultural tools at its disposal, and enjoys global reach and influence. Given the new realities that will mark the relationship by the end of next year — a diminished U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, continuing unilateral strikes against terrorist targets, and a credible alternate supply route to Afghanistan — Washington can probably afford to be more bold in employing them. However, the tendency to err on the side of caution, as Schake and Miller argue, may yet prevent Washington from fully exploring viable alternatives to its current dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan. It would be a tragedy if U.S. policymakers were still engaged in similar discussions five years from now.

Dhruva Jaishankar is Program Officer with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Washington. The views presented here are his own and not necessarily those of GMF.

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