The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir: A grand bargain?

With U.S. relations in Pakistan at a low point and the two countries’ strategic disagreement over priorities in Afghanistan on full display, it is time to review U.S. strategic options. One that deserves a close look is a grand bargain: give Pakistan what it wants in Afghanistan – but on two conditions: Pakistan assumes responsibility ...


With U.S. relations in Pakistan at a low point and the two countries’ strategic disagreement over priorities in Afghanistan on full display, it is time to review U.S. strategic options. One that deserves a close look is a grand bargain: give Pakistan what it wants in Afghanistan – but on two conditions: Pakistan assumes responsibility for preventing terrorism out of Afghanistan, and Pakistan agrees to settle Kashmir along the present geographic lines. This is not a panacea, nor would it be easy to execute. But it addresses the principal stumbling block to the current U.S. strategy, and provides an incentive to settle the region’s longest-running dispute.

For the past decade, U.S. policy has been based on the assumption that the United States and Pakistan shared the strategic goal of extirpating from the leadership of Afghanistan the Taliban and allied terrorist forces. This objective was at the heart of the partnership struck after 9/11. As with the two previous major U.S.-Pakistan partnerships, in the 1950s/60s and in the 1980s, the assumption of strategic agreement was at best only half true, and the differences between the two countries’ goals have become increasingly difficult to paper over. This time, Pakistan’s desire to ensure what its army chief has referred to as "a friendly government" in Kabul – meaning a government deferential to Pakistan and impervious to Indian influence – has intensified, especially since the beginning of 2011. During that time, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was devastated by the aftereffects of the shooting of two Pakistanis by CIA contractor Raymond Davis and his subsequent arrest, by the raid that killed Osama bin Ladin, and by the harsh public criticism of Pakistan by retiring U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen.

The two governments have been trying to salvage some working elements of partnership. However, their ability to work together toward a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, badly strained by conflicting goals, was for practical purposes ended by the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Karzai government’s designated representative for peace initiatives toward the Afghan Taliban. This was not the first time Pakistan’s insistence on controlling negotiations inside Afghanistan had trumped its stated policy of supporting the Afghan government’s negotiating role, but this incident has brought tentative peace feelers, already rickety, to a virtual halt.

Washington’s response to this situation has been to seek a stronger basis for working with Pakistan. This reflects U.S. recognition of Pakistan’s critical importance to peace in the region and to Afghanistan’s future – as well as the major U.S. stake in nuclear-armed Pakistan’s own political and economic health. These are indeed important considerations – but it does not follow that the U.S. should continue on essentially the same path that has repeatedly come up short.

There are two other strategic options: treat Pakistan as a hostile power, and try to impose an acceptable solution in Afghanistan in the teeth of Pakistani efforts to control the process; or build a strategy that allows Pakistan to have the major say in Afghanistan, but on conditions that protect U.S. strategic interests and give Pakistan a strong incentive to respect them. We believe that forcing an acceptable solution is almost certain to fail. It would depend, unrealistically, on the effectiveness of an intra-Afghan negotiating process and of the government that would follow. It would also presuppose, equally implausibly, that Afghanistan would remain able to withstand the Pakistani effort to upset the settlement that would surely follow.  

The strategic alternative that remains is a grand bargain, initially between Pakistan and the United States, but eventually involving India. The major elements would be:

  • Concede Pakistani primacy in Afghanistan: The United States would tell Pakistan’s leaders that it is up to them to work with the various Afghan leaders – the government and whatever elements of the Taliban – toward a postwar accommodation that can keep Afghanistan free of terrorism and at peace. Pakistan would insist on eliminating or minimizing India’s involvement in Afghanistan (a modest economic relationship, for example), and would assume the major place in Afghanistan’s external environment.
  • Hold Pakistan responsible for terrorism from Afghanistan: At the same time, the U.S. would warn Pakistan that we would hold it responsible for any act of terrorism originating in Afghanistan or Pakistan. This does not mean a policy of automatic retaliation – such decisions need to be made case by case – but it would put Pakistan on notice that winking at the forces in both countries that have spread terrorism within the region and beyond carries a tremendous risk.
  • Settle Kashmir along the Line of Control: The United States would tell Pakistan that as part of this settlement, it will publicly call for negotiations to settle the Kashmir dispute by turning the existing Line of Control between the Indian and Pakistani-held portions into an international border. It would give India advance notice of this announcement. U.S. support for a settlement along the Line of Control would in all likelihood pull additional international support in that direction.

    The actual negotiations would be carried out by the two countries. These would cover not just the border but a whole host of other issues, including the ground rules for ensuring both countries’ security, prevention of terrorism, encouragement of economic ties, and the rights of Kashmiris on both sides of the line to robust self-government. Many of these elements were included in the proposals Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, set forth before he fell from power, and a good number were at the heart of the proposals discussed in back channel negotiations between India and Pakistan in the last years of Musharraf’s presidency. Whether the United States would have a role in the negotiating process would depend on the desires of India and Pakistan.

  • Maintain a robust civilian and military partnership with Pakistan, including support as appropriate for its work toward a settlement in Afghanistan and generous funding for such Pakistani priorities as electric power generation. In the context of Kashmir negotiations, the U.S. could look at an updated security relationship. All this would of course be contingent on Pakistan holding to the overall bargain.

A deal along these lines would hand Pakistan one of its primary strategic objectives, but at a price Pakistanis would find very hard to swallow. Kashmir has a much tighter hold on the national heartstrings than Afghanistan. However, in practice Pakistan has lost its chance of gaining Kashmir, and many Pakistanis privately acknowledge this. They are well aware that for years, Pakistan’s efforts have done nothing to remove India’s hold on the state, and have succeeded only in deepening hostility and making the region less secure for everyone, including Pakistan.

Securing Pakistan against its military leaders’ nightmare of an Indian threat from both east and west provides a strategic gain, especially when coupled with a possible Kashmir agreement that could lay the groundwork for transforming the hostile relationship with India into one that was merely chilly but improving. The bigger problem may be how to ensure that these gains are maintained. Afghanistan has never had sustained good relations with Pakistan, and may once again look to India as a balancer – an all too willing one – when it tires of being guided by Pakistan. And on the Kashmir side, even if the Pakistan government and its army agree to negotiate peace with India – by no means a sure bet – the militant movement in Pakistan includes many spoilers who will try to stir up trouble in Kashmir or elsewhere in India, providing acute temptation to the army to join in.

These difficulties make the grand bargain described here a long shot. Using military and economic aid as leverage might increase Pakistan’s motivation to keep the bargain, though this is a tactic that has only worked for short periods in the past, and has never succeeded in dissuading Pakistan from following major strategic interests. To improve the odds, the United States would need to seek other international support, appealing to the desire of Pakistan’s international friends to improve Pakistan’s long term economic and security prospects. Bringing China at least tacitly on board would be the ideal. Other players would be the European aid donors, and some of Pakistan’s Arab benefactors. The United States would also have to expend some diplomatic capital to dissuade India from trying to upset the balance in Afghanistan, noting that the U.S. had promoted a Kashmir settlement on terms quite favorable to India, and that reducing India’s profile in Afghanistan had to be seen in that context.

But considering the results of ten years of engagement, and the tremendous risks flowing from a "hostile Pakistan" strategy, the long shot starts to look like the best available strategic bet.

Teresita Schaffer is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; Howard Schaffer is Senior Counselor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University. Both are retired U.S. ambassadors with long experience in South Asia. They are co-directors of  

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