The South Asia Channel

Resetting the U.S.-Pakistan relationship

2011 was a catastrophic year for U.S.-Pakistan relations. Starting with CIA contractor Raymond Davis‘s arrest for shooting two Pakistanis dead in January, going on through the raid on Abbottabad in early May that killed Osama bin Laden, and culminating in the NATO forces lethal attack on a Pakistani border post in November 2011, a series ...

Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images
Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

2011 was a catastrophic year for U.S.-Pakistan relations. Starting with CIA contractor Raymond Davis‘s arrest for shooting two Pakistanis dead in January, going on through the raid on Abbottabad in early May that killed Osama bin Laden, and culminating in the NATO forces lethal attack on a Pakistani border post in November 2011, a series of shocks shook this important partnership to its core. Both countries expect their future relationship to be more modest, but neither has defined this concept. As they grapple with this change, U.S. policymakers need to recognize that Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the big issue, and to develop building blocks for a post-2014 relationship that meets the needs of both countries.

A recent visit to Pakistan provided a sobering view of where the United States now stands. Hostility toward the U.S. government among politicians, elites and the general public are a familiar problem, but two other aspects of today’s problem are worth underlining. First, within the government, the biggest problem is with the Pakistan army, traditionally the privileged party when ties with Washington are robust. The army is now going out of its way to showcase an angry response to these humiliating events.  The Pakistan government’s continuing refusal of visas for many U.S. official visitors, including military officers working on military procurement or aid projects is happening at the army’s request (notable exceptions are visitors dealing with F-16 supply or maintenance). Almost all the senior military officers who would normally have attended ceremonial events like the U.S. July 4th reception stayed away in 2011 – clearly on instructions.

Echoes of this resentment can be found on the U.S. side as well. Pakistanis are often quite unaware of the deep anger in the United States over Osama bin Laden’s long sojourn in Pakistan. Pakistanis have complained for decades about being taken for granted by the United States; that complaint is now coming from some of the Americans closest to the relationship. Pakistanis wonder why the United States is starting to build a towering and expensive new embassy complex in Islamabad. Americans are now privately asking the same question, and noting that the major defense office in the embassy has shrunk to a third of its former size since the visa freeze.

Against this background, everyone we spoke to in Pakistan believes the broad strategic bond both countries have talked of for the past decade is dead. Few, however, have given much thought to the ingredients of downsized ties. Some, such as Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, reject U.S. economic aid. Others see aid – civilian and in some cases military – as a key element in the future, just as it has been in the past.

The most frequently mentioned theme in our discussions of the likely new look was the need for agreement on the end game in Afghanistan. This end game will indeed drive U.S.-Pakistan relations in the short run, but the United States is likely to achieve little beyond resumption of logistical support.

The hope of a common strategy in Afghanistan is completely unrealistic. The two countries’ goals diverge in ways that are too important to sweep under the rug; indeed, that is a major reason why a big strategic partnership is now out of reach. In principle, both want a stable, governable Afghanistan with no continuing ties to al-Qaeda. For Pakistan, however, this remains a secondary priority. The key objective is freezing out Indian influence in Kabul. Pakistanis do not believe President Karzai will be disposed to protect their interests – or strong enough to do so even if he wishes to.

Strategic disagreement also impedes a common U.S.-Pakistan front on negotiations with the Taliban. Pakistanis view U.S.-Taliban discussions with skepticism and cynicism, both feelings now heightened by the fallout from the Koran-burning disaster in Afghanistan and, more recently, the shooting spree of an American soldier near Kandahar. The United States wants Pakistan’s cooperation in talking to the Taliban; Pakistan wants to sit in the driver’s seat. Even if the talks continue after their current interruption, Pakistan will focus chiefly on maximizing its own influence in Kabul, even if that means a dominant role for Taliban elements that have been at war with the United States. In short, seeking a common strategy for the Afghan end game is likely to leave the United States feeling bruised and Pakistan unsatisfied.

The Pakistani parliament is poised to take up the terms of reference for U.S.-Pakistan relations some time after March 19. The army and the government have apparently agreed to reopen ground transport links to NATO forces in Afghanistan, subject to a higher price tag related more specifically to the amount of transshipment. This would be an important contribution to a modus vivendi on Afghanistan, though it would not prevent the governments from working at cross-purposes on Afghanistan’s fundamental political problems. But the rest of the parliamentary package could add new roadblocks, especially if it includes a demand to end drone attacks. The involvement of parliament in this decision is a welcome step toward shared responsibility between civilians and the military, but comes at the price of adding an unpredictable element to decision-making in Pakistan.

This is not a good starting point for a post-2014 relationship that fosters internal stability in Pakistan and healthier regional and international relationships. And yet stability and regional peace are the most important legacy the United States hopes to secure as it winds down its involvement in Afghanistan. To do this, the U.S. needs to cultivate some other building blocks for a more normal but constructive U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

The first is a lower-key diplomatic style. For over half a century, every period of strong U.S.-Pakistan partnership has relied on lofty but ambiguous promises to create the impression of a strategic bond. The U.S. and Pakistan now need less soaring rhetoric and more understanding of their mutual expectations. Where expectations are unrealistic, they need to be pared down through serious consultations. This kind of exercise has often been castigated as a "transactional relationship." Perhaps – but that is not an insult: it is a way to avoid the "jilted lover" syndrome that has afflicted both Islamabad and Washington through over-promising and under-delivering.

This more candid and realistic diplomatic style also includes greater U.S. willingness to listen to Pakistan’s articulation of its own needs, and vice versa. The United States needs to be willing to say no when Pakistan’s requests are really beyond reach – and to accept no for an answer, even if Pakistan rejects U.S. assistance that Americans think would help it. Above all, hard as it may be, the United States should get out of the business of pleading and finger-wagging. Our system makes it hard to stop issuing report cards – some (like the human rights report) are legally required, others are an inevitable result of Congressional testimony and other demands – but the U.S. should minimize this.

Moving beyond style, the United States should start now to build up three tools. The first is a smaller but better targeted economic aid program. Present aid levels are more than the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations can sustain, and the U.S. administration will have its work cut out preserving even a much smaller program once U.S. forces have left Afghanistan. But both the United States and Pakistan can benefit from concentrating on activities that support the parts of the Pakistan economy that are modernizing.

The U.S. and Pakistan should work out the details in candid consultations. Our suggestions start with infrastructure: irrigation and power generation facilities. This can be done with Pakistanis in the driver’s seat, and with due attention to the political dimension of these projects. Such projects have a visibility that U.S. aid programs have all too often lacked. A second suggestion is, for want of a better term, business development: helping Pakistan build up the human capacity and institutions to support a larger and more vibrant small and medium business sector. We believe these would be welcomed in Pakistan despite the rejectionist posture one hears today.

The next tool is building up real business ties between the United States and Pakistan. This should not be in the form of a gift from the U.S. government: businesses make their own investment decisions. Before they invest in Pakistan, they will require a safer environment and above all the example of Pakistani businesses putting their own money into new plants and other facilities in Pakistan. But the U.S. government can lend important support once tentative efforts start. Examples include insurance programs like those of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and pre-investment studies like those funded by the Trade and Development Agency (TDA). The biggest contribution would be extending preferential access to Pakistani textiles – a big stretch in today’s environment but something that could be pursued if current tempers quiet down.

The third tool is more political: quiet U.S. support for more stabilizing regional relationships. Discreet encouragement for what India and Pakistan are doing on their own, including the trade opening initiative they are starting to implement, is part of this. But equally important is encouraging a broader set of regional ties. Afghan trade to and through Pakistan; energy linkages, including those involving India and countries in the Gulf; and even allowing the much discussed gas pipeline from Iran to sink or swim on its own commercial merits would all contribute to embedding Pakistan in a set of regional relationships that create greater peace and stability over time.

None of these regional efforts ought to be advertised as a U.S. initiative. It’s not about us, it’s about creating the infrastructure for a more peaceful and prosperous South Asian region. And none of these proposals will make longstanding U.S.-Pakistan problems vanish by magic. The reason for quietly supporting regional linkages, reinventing a better focused aid program and enhancing commercial ties, is that durable peace in the volatile region from the Persian Gulf through the Indian Ocean is at the heart of U.S. strategic interests. A dysfunctional Pakistan on terrible terms with its neighbors makes this impossible. Even in our eagerness to write the script for the end of our Afghan engagement, regional peace is an edifice worth building.

Teresita Schaffer is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; Howard Schaffer teaches at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Both are retired U.S. ambassadors with long experience in South Asia. They are co-directors of

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