Shadow Government

How to save the U.S.-Pakistan relationship

Islamabad is unhappy with the United States. As the anniversary of the killing of Bin Laden approaches, Pakistani officials, and especially parliamentarians, are spewing even more venom against the United States than they usually do — which is saying a lot.  Pakistan is full of grievances. It is furious that the United States is launching ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Islamabad is unhappy with the United States. As the anniversary of the killing of Bin Laden approaches, Pakistani officials, and especially parliamentarians, are spewing even more venom against the United States than they usually do — which is saying a lot.  Pakistan is full of grievances. It is furious that the United States is launching drone attacks against al Qaeda terrorists on its territory. Pakistan has not yet reopened the logistics support line to Afghanistan through its territory, which it closed in retaliation against the previous spate of American drone attacks. The future of that line now appears to be in real jeopardy.

Pakistan wants $3 billion from the Coalition Support Fund as compensation for its operations in support of the American effort against terrorists operating from the Tribal Areas. Washington is prepared to reimburse about a third of that amount, and is not yet ready to pay even that.

Finally, Islamabad is uneasy with the Afghan-American agreement that commits Washington to a decade of support for Afghanistan once American and coalition troops withdraw in 2014. No one really knows how much American assistance will really be available. Ten years is a very long time, and American interests could lie elsewhere. But Pakistanis, ever seeking to render Afghanistan firmly within their sphere of influence — and to prevent it from becoming part of India’s sphere — are uneasy about the thought of close American ties to Kabul for the foreseeable future.

There are those in Washington who persist in calling Pakistan an American ally. It is no such thing. The American-Pakistani relationship is a forced marriage of inconvenience. American-Pakistani relations are a shadow of the cooperation that had reached its zenith when Pervez Mussharraf committed himself to the fight against al Qaeda. Early in the past decade, Pakistan redirected its forces from the Indian border, and undertook serious operations against al Qaeda. Pakistan lost many troops in the effort, and the United States, recognizing Islamabad’s contribution, established the Coalition Support Fund, which, at least when I was in charge of payments, covered over 80 percent of all Pakistani claims.

But times have changed. Pakistan’s military has become increasingly radicalized, even as the size of its nuclear weapons arsenal continues to grow apace. The country’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, has struggled with the military virtually since the day he took office.  The Pakistani "street," whose history of hostility to the United States dates back at least to the 1979 burning of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, is even more violently anti-American today. The power and influence of the Imams, and of the students who graduate their madrasas, continues to grow unabated. And the possibility that the country will break apart, with Pashtu, Baluch, Sindhis, and Punjabis, each going their own way, is considered more real than ever before.

The United States cannot abandon Pakistan. To do so is to invite open Pakistani support for the likes of the Haqqanis, who probably are now America’s most dangerous adversaries in Afghanistan. However bad the relationship with Pakistan’s military might be, having no relationship would be even worse. After all, not all of Pakistan’s generals are radical Muslims; many still retain a Western-oriented outlook.

Moreover, the only way to combat the influence of radical Islam in Pakistan is to fund schools that can compete with the madrasas, by offering both religious and secular studies, as well as the hot meals that impoverished students can obtain nowhere else. While reeling economically, only the United States, despite its own economic headaches, is still in a position to finance directly the creation and sustenance of such an educational system.

Finally, however uncomfortable the relationship with Pakistan may be today, a Pakistan that becomes even more radicalized, or worse still, breaks apart, will represent a true danger to American security. Washington is right to ignore Pakistani protests and once again to employ drones against those who seek to harm America. It is also right to withhold payments of Coalition Support Funding until the road to Afghanistan is once again re-opened. But America must do more, in other ways, particularly in developing a much more ambitious plan to support modern education in Pakistan’s poorest areas -that would also encompass traditional Koranic  studies. Perhaps direct American assistance will not be feasible — Islamabad may prohibit such aid. In that case, indirect means will have to be found — perhaps via international organizations. If the United States truly hopes for a cooperative relationship with Pakistan, it must do all it can to shed the light of modern education on the darker corners of that country’s psyche. Nothing less will do, and no action at all would constitute a tragedy, for Pakistan, for the entire region, and for the United States as well.     

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.
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