Terms of Engagement

Khyber Impasse

How long can the United States and Pakistan keep pretending that they actually have any interests in common?

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past week, while all eyes were focused on Libya and the Middle East, America’s most frustrating, most turbulent, and least predictable bilateral relationship took a serious turn for the worse. I speak, of course, of Pakistan.

On April 11, the New York Times disclosed that Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of Pakistan’s Army, had grown so angry over the growing reach of U.S. counterterrorism efforts that he was seeking to close down the drone flights that have targeted terrorists on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan and to expel a large fraction of the CIA and special operations officers and contractors currently in the country. The same day, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan’s spy service, had made an emergency trip to Washington to deliver at least some of those demands in person. But on Wednesday, the United States launched more drone strikes, prompting Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry to lodge a "strong protest" with the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. It was, in short, a really bad week.

Of course, the relationship has had a lot of bad weeks. These melodramas have, in fact, become so ritualized that the rending of garments was quickly and inevitably followed by bland reassurances that all would be well, as well as by the cynical — though reassuring — interpretation that the Pakistani leadership was performing yet another pantomime designed to soothe public anger. Both a senior U.S. and a senior Pakistani official told me that Pasha had not demanded any specific reductions of the U.S. presence on the ground in Pakistan. On the other hand, both agreed that Pasha had asked for restrictions on the drones.

There’s something special about a relationship that only gets worse, but never actually falls apart. Pakistan has been selling itself to the United States as a national security bulwark since the earliest days of the Cold War, and Washington has been an eager and often uncritical buyer, subcontracting to Pakistani military and intelligence operatives much of the effort to arm and train the mujahideen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Only in the 1990s, with the Soviet menace gone, did Washington allow the bonds to fray altogether, over Pakistan’s nuclear program. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, however, gave Pakistan a new purchase on its self-appointed role. And the country’s unique combination of a nuclear arsenal and a thriving population of Islamic extremists has made it not so much indispensable to Washington as terrifying to it. The United States can’t walk away, and Pakistan knows it can’t, and the United States knows Pakistan knows. Etc. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of Tolstoy’s dictum that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own special way.

Weary veterans of the relationship are thus inclined to file the latest hullabaloo under more of the same. The case of Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who shot and killed two men in the provincial capital of Lahore, enraged not only the broad Pakistani public but elites as well, who realized that American spies were carrying out operations hidden from their country’s own security services — as if Pakistan were an enemy rather than an ally. Clearly there would be some price to pay. But so long as "the grown-ups"– figures like Kayani and Pasha, rather than their hotheaded subordinates or political leaders — set that price, the United States should be able to live with the fallout.

But it could be more serious than that. The Pakistani official I spoke with said that the message from both Kayani and Pasha is that the drone strikes "have to be very, very limited" — for example, in case of an "imminent threat" — and cannot be conducted nearly as deep in Pakistani territory as they have been in recent years. But the drone strikes have eliminated dozens of leading Taliban figures and disrupted their capacity to train, plan, and communicate; no significant restriction would be acceptable to the United States. A senior U.S. official pointedly noted that CIA director Leon Panetta "has been clear with his Pakistani counterparts that his fundamental responsibility is to protect the American people, and he will not halt operations that support that objective."

It has been convenient for both sides to frame the issue as one of Pakistani sensitivity over national sovereignty. And even a country with a less brittle sense of identity than Pakistan would bridle at serving as a battleground for someone else’s war. But in the past Pakistan’s national security elite have been willing to ignore public sentiment in order to allow the United States to conduct operations that are also in the Pakistani interest. This is the crux of the new dilemma: The fundamental incompatibility of Pakistani and American national security interests can no longer be avoided. And it can’t be cured; it can’t even be admitted.

The Davis case infuriated the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s spy agency, not only because Davis was operating on his own but because he was targeting Lashkar-i-Taiba, a terrorist group that the ISI has used to carry out attacks on India. And Kayani first raised the idea of restricting drone strikes in reaction not to the Davis case but to a strike against another tribal ally, the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group of the Tehrik-e-Taliban. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has ramped up the drone strikes because the Pakistan Army has refused to go after Taliban groups that are intent on attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan; the Army hasn’t taken the fight to those militants because they don’t threaten Pakistan and because they are useful in the perpetual effort to establish "strategic depth" against India, the enemy Pakistan is really worried about.

This is, at bottom, what’s so uniquely strange about the U.S.-Pakistan relationship: It consists largely of efforts to finesse the fundamental and apparently unalterable fact that the enemy of one side is the ally of the other. This leads the United States to conduct unilateral operations such as the one Davis was carrying out, and it leads Pakistan’s leaders to gin up public opinion against an American presence that it cannot really do without. For the U.S. side, the stakes are only getting higher because Pakistan’s repeated intransigence has given the Afghan Taliban a sanctuary that virtually ensures the failure of the current massive counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. What we may be seeing, in other words, is not simply another episode in a stale drama, but the growing difficulty of finessing the underlying problem.

A divorce would be satisfying; but Pakistan needs U.S. aid, equipment, and training, and Washington is too afraid of what Pakistan might become to let it go. Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University, is convinced that Islamabad has the upper hand in the confrontation and thus notes that U.S. officials will swallow their ire and make real concessions on drones and perhaps also on the presence of special operations forces. "We’re in it for the kids," as she puts it waggishly.

But in Pakistan, as in Afghanistan, the time has come to lower expectations. The United States will have a significant presence in both countries, civilian as well as military, for a long time to come, and over the long run may help foster stability and decent governance in both places. But things will not get better in the short term. Last week, the White House released a report that included the startlingly blunt, if unarguable, assertion that Pakistan’s complete failure to follow up its military efforts against the Taliban with even a semblance of efforts to "hold" or "build" cleared areas — the civilian side of any counterinsurgency program — meant that "there remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency in Pakistan." That is, even in those places that Pakistan deems crucial to its own security, a feckless state has undermined an ambitious and often courageous military effort. The stark language may have been intended to shock the Pakistanis into action, but the only effect it seems to have produced is Kayani’s edict on the drones.

As a recent government audit of U.S. aid efforts shows, the billions of dollars the United States has poured into economic development and governance in Pakistan haven’t made much of a dent yet. As in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has set out to change the habits and policies of a deeply refractory place — a prescription for frustration and failure.

I’m not saying the United States should stop sending aid to Pakistan; it may eventually do some good and earn at least a little bit of goodwill. But Obama would be wise to bring the war in Afghanistan to a quicker end than he now plans, to expect less and demand less of Pakistan, and to turn his attentions toward the kind of problems the United States can actually do something about, at home and abroad.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.