Terms of Engagement

Less Is More

Cutting U.S. military aid to Pakistan might be just what the world's most frustrating alliance needs.


I accompanied Sen. John Kerry on a trip to Pakistan two weeks after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Outrage over the revelation that bin Laden had been hiding in plain sight not far from Islamabad had prompted pundits and congressmen to call for an end to funding this supremely problematic ally. Kerry told me what he told Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders: His colleagues were "overwhelmingly negative about aspects of the relationship" and "needed to see which way Pakistan was really going to go." The Pakistanis heard him out respectfully and promised a stepped-up commitment. Kerry was followed to Islamabad by a parade of senior American officials who offered a similar mix of blandishments and threats. And then — surprise! — the Pakistanis changed their minds. Or maybe they had never meant it.

The last straw came in mid-June, when U.S. officials asked the Pakistanis to close down factories making bombs to be used against NATO forces in Afghanistan — and CIA drones then captured images of militants fleeing with their equipment. The Pakistani soldiers arrived on the scene only when the targets were long gone. Barack Obama’s administration, pushed beyond all patience, suspended $800 million in payments, both for counterterrorism operations and for training troops, which in any case had become moot because Pakistan was refusing to issue visas for the trainers, drawn from the U.S. Special Forces. And Kerry’s colleagues, as he predicted, have thrown down the gauntlet, in the form of House of Representatives legislation that would suspend virtually all civilian assistance should Pakistan fail to comply with a series of security-related demands.

Cutting off civilian aid would almost certainly do more harm than good. But so, too, does the endless drama of American demands and outraged Pakistani responses. The time has come to ask less of Pakistan, to expect less, and to offer less.

In Afghanistan, too, the United States has run up sharply against the limits of its influence, despite spending $120 billion a year, not to mention the presence of 100,000 troops. The Obama administration’s effort to bring good governance to Afghanistan — central to its counterinsurgency strategy — has failed, and the White House has largely stopped trying, and stopped lecturing Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the subject. That’s in part because the United States has concluded that Afghanistan no longer poses a grave threat to its national security. Pakistan, however, does. The bulk of the extremists allied with al Qaeda live on the Pakistani side of the border. And Pakistan is a giant, turbulent country with 180 million people — and nuclear weapons. The relationship is thus governed by the premise that the United States can’t walk away. Pakistan has a gift for making itself appear indispensable.

Until now, Obama has favored the carrot over the stick. With the fierce prodding of Richard Holbrooke, the United States’ late special representative for the region, the "transactional relationship" maintained under President George W. Bush — we pay you to let us kill bad guys on your soil — was promoted to a "special partnership" bringing senior officials from both sides together to discuss the wide range of issues shared by actual allies: economic development, regional diplomacy, energy policy, and the like.

I had always assumed that the special partnership was elaborate window dressing designed to flatter the Pakistanis into complying with American security goals. But Vali Nasr, who served as a senior advisor to Holbrooke before leaving office this year, argues persuasively that it offered the Pakistanis real benefits, which in turn induced very modest acts of compliance with American goals. The talks produced a commercial treaty with Afghanistan, plans for a Central Asian gas pipeline, and enhanced assistance during last year’s terrible floods. In return, Nasr told me, the Pakistanis offered "sufficient cooperation for us to nab bin Laden," issuing visas for CIA agents and allowing them to operate inside the country. Nasr also believes that the strategic partnership "moved the needle" of public hostility toward the United States "by 5 or 10 degrees" in the right direction, and in turn produced a measurably, if modestly, greater willingness to take on the Taliban. The relationship, he says, "made manageable what otherwise would have been unmanageable."

Let us grant the Obama administration, and the late special representative, at least some of this credit. But first the Raymond Davis affair, in which a CIA contractor shot and killed two Pakistanis, and then the raid on Abbottabad put an end to this brief era of semi-comity. Or maybe those were just accidents waiting to happen: A more plausible hypothesis is that no substantive relationship between two countries whose fundamental interests are so deeply in conflict could have survived for long. One side — the United States — believes that the enemy is violent extremists; the other side believes that the enemy is India, and the United States itself. Even Nasr concedes that "the strategic partnership has been scuttled." We are back in the grudging world of the transactional relationship; I recently heard a senior American diplomat say that Holbrooke had been far too optimistic about progress with Pakistan.

So where do we go from here? The transactional response is: The United States can still get what it needs from Pakistan — tacit permission to launch drone strikes, as well as the use of the Khyber Pass to transport supplies into Afghanistan. There will be more crises, and more emergency diplomatic interventions, and more Pakistani hyperventilation about violations of national sovereignty. We’re the grown-ups here; we can live with it. America may wish that it could do without Pakistan, but it can’t. So keep the military and civilian funds flowing.

To which I would say, "Yes, but." The U.S. role in Pakistan plays into, and amplifies, the country’s gross pathologies, and it always has. For 60 years, Pakistan’s leaders have offered themselves to the West as a bulwark against encroaching evil — first the Soviet Union, now terrorism. They have, as the scholar Stephen Cohen has put it, held a gun to their own heads. And the United States has bought the argument, with an intermission or two, underwriting a national security state in which the generals allow civilians to pretend to rule, and the civilians prove so feckless as to justify ongoing military control. And all the while, the country’s hinterland remains firmly in the grip of feudal landlords, who dominate politics as well.

The Bush administration made no effort to help Pakistan confront its underlying problems; the Obama administration, through the strategic partnership and the $1.5 billion a year made available by the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, has. But it won’t help. Pakistan’s civilian government has resisted calls for reform as effectively as the security apparatus has, despite threats by the International Monetary Fund to withhold loans if the country doesn’t begin to collect taxes from more than 2 percent of the population, as it does now. Civilian assistance won’t serve as a lever for reform, won’t make Pakistanis like America more, and won’t make them more compliant on security issues — which is why the current legislation to tie aid to progress on security is more an expression of pique than a rational strategy.

I don’t think the United States should end the civilian program, if only because doing so would empower the most anti-American elements — though I do think that, as a recent report by the Center for Global Development proposes, the United States can do Pakistan far more good by opening its markets to Pakistani products than we can by sending aid. If anything, I would take the opposite view from the transactionalists: More engagement with civilians, less with the military and intelligence apparatus. Let’s stop fighting over visas for U.S. Special Forces and intelligence agents. Let’s quietly, without pique, reduce transfer payments to the Pakistani military. Let’s put an end to the Pakistani psychodrama over sovereignty and American neocolonialism. Will the military respond by demanding an end to the drone strikes? I hope not; but it could loose that sword of Damocles whether or not the United States reduces military support. And Pakistan’s leaders may be happier to see the United States kill the Taliban by remote control than they’re prepared to publicly admit.

If we have learned anything over the last decade, it is that the United States has far less power to shape good outcomes in troubled places than we thought. On the contrary: The looming U.S. presence offers itself to autocrats and military leaders as a perfect distraction from painful home truths. The Pakistanis must save themselves, as people in the Arab world are now trying to do. If the country is ever to have its own revolutionary moment, America can help best by getting out of the way.

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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