America’s Pakistan Dilemma
Image Credit: REUTERS/Yves Herman

America’s Pakistan Dilemma


One of the few remarked-upon passages in Hillary Clinton’s otherwise unenlightening Hard Choices was her recollection of the decision not to inform Pakistani authorities of the U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden. In her retelling, the suggestion that the U.S. should tend to the diplomatic sensitivities of its ally was summarily dismissed by the most senior officials in the room. This would pose too great an operational risk given the known links between the Pakistani military and terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban, even, scarily, at the risk that Pakistani authorities might mistake the U.S. incursion for a fully-fledged military attack by someone else.

So well known are these terrorist connections, in fact, that sponsorship of terrorism by various elements of the Pakistani state has its own Wikipedia page, and analysts consider the use of terrorist groups as proxies to be an established operating principle of Pakistani foreign policy. Among senior U.S. officials since 2001, Clinton has been the most willing to openly discuss the contradictions in U.S. policy. She coined the memorable phrase “snakes in the backyard” to describe the impunity with which militants operate in Pakistan’s northwestern provinces. John Kerry has taken a much softer approach. His visits to Pakistan have been accompanied by lavish promises of aid and a generally polite glossing over of the strategic contradictions in one of Washington’s most complicated diplomatic relationships.

Ensnared by History

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Like Gulliver, the U.S. is ensnared by its history with Pakistan and the flawed logic behind decades of strategic involvement of the region. Despite its great power and wealth, Washington has only limited means of influencing Pakistan, and few viable options for rethinking its current policy in the short term. This is not a new problem for the U.S. At relatively few points in history do we see a really clear convergence of strategic interests between Pakistan and the U.S., and it is the U.S. that tends not to get the better side of the bargain. Though the stakes have rarely been higher, Washington is continuing in a sort of policy paralysis, leaving other players to exercise a decisive influence on the stability of the region.

Take U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement last month that the United States would provide an additional $250 million in humanitarian aid. This joins about $26 billion in total assistance – military, economic and humanitarian, but most of it military – since 2001, which now works out to about $1.5 billion annually after peaking at $2 billion in 2010. These astronomical sums have so far been insufficient to substantially influence Pakistan’s behavior in the direction the U.S. wants. Kerry announced the disbursement after months of Pakistani military operations against Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan. The government had effectively ceded control of the border province to the Pakistani Taliban in 2006. As the shocking killing of 150 schoolchildren in the province in December indicates, militant operations have not been completely disrupted, and many worry that the despite (or because of) the latest outrage a real commitment to do so is still a long way off.

But if the $250 million in humanitarian assistance was intended as a reward for credible action on the anti-terrorism agenda, then the unintentional signal of giving this relatively small sum is that most American aid is actually not contingent on Pakistan supporting the U.S. in its core strategic objectives in the region: combatting terror and promoting stable governance. And humanitarian assistance might not be the best lever on the highest echelons of the military that are unaccountable to the people, and that benefit most from U.S. military aid. In fact, the only credible pressure that has been exerted on the Pakistani military in the past few years seems to have been from the Taliban.

Time will tell how effective and committed Pakistani military action against the Pakistani Taliban will be, and whether new groups with the tacit or active support of Pakistani officialdom will fill the vacuum it leaves. There has been a long tradition in Pakistan of this kind of selectivity. The Haqqani network – worryingly, one of the most globally “connected” terrorist organizations in the region – is perhaps the most notorious player that evidently enjoys official impunity. Despite the U.S. expressing many times its wish to see the Haqqani network outlawed, Pakistan has only just designated it a banned organization, and many observers fear it will continue to operate freely despite that designation. The Islamic State also has South Asia in its sights, ensuring that the Pakistani military’s ambivalence in the fight against terror, the ongoing flow of U.S. aid, and the suffering of local populations are set to continue.

Kerry has long been an advocate for humanitarian aid as a means to combat terrorism by enhanced development and supporting civilian institutions. As a senator in 2009 he sponsored a bill authorizing a much-expanded civilian aid program for Pakistan. The humanitarian help is badly needed, but it is wrong to expect it will be decisive for the U.S. counterterrorism agenda. “Carrots” are ultimately ineffective without “sticks,” and the United States is too constrained by its current obligations to offer any credible disincentives to Pakistan’s “double game.” The United States has given so much aid to Pakistan over the years that it must come up with ever more astronomical sums to impress the Pakistani leadership with sufficiently enticing “carrots.” If we recall the economic concept of marginal utility, then it is hardly unexpected that the “return” in the form of purchased loyalty on each additional dollar the United States gives is diminishing.

Drone Strikes

In place of the viable military effort on Pakistan’s part that the U.S. has hoped for, Washington has depended instead on its own drone strikes program to pursue counterterrorism operations. However, drone strikes are deeply controversial, damaging to America’s reputation, and prod some local populations towards terrorism. Nor can drone strikes solve the problems that make joining or supporting Islamist militants attractive to local publics. Only a real commitment by the Pakistani military and government, one that involves a well-crafted civil-military strategy, and then economic development, can achieve this.

The history of U.S.-Pakistani relations shows that Pakistani and U.S. strategic objectives have been in alignment on very few occasions. The prevailing wisdom is that Pakistan was a solid supporter of Washington’s interests during the Cold War, but in fact it did so only up to a point and for reasons of its own. In 1954 the U.S. pursued a strategic alliance with Pakistan in the hope that, as a newly independent and Muslim-majority state, engagement with Pakistan could act as a bridge to a multilateral strategic alliance in the Middle East.

This constituted a fundamental misreading of Pakistan’s core strategic concerns on Washington’s part – its prime strategic focus was not the Middle East, but rather South Asia and its rivalry with India. In the end Washington cobbled together Mideast and Southeast Asian treaty frameworks, with Pakistan in both, but neither provided much more than symbolic value to U.S. interests during the Cold War. Meanwhile, U.S. military aid to Pakistan was profoundly important in stoking Indo-Pakistani tensions and alienating India from the United States.

This was precisely why Pakistan had courted the U.S. as a military backer since its earliest days as an independent state (it also forced Eisenhower’s announcement of a not-yet-finalized deal by leaking details of it to the U.S. press). While India’s vocal, non-aligned status was politically vexatious to the United States, Washington had no strategic interest in jeopardizing Indian security. As the largest non-Communist, democratic state in Asia, Washington had a stake in seeing India stable even if it was non-aligned. Thus, while Pakistan had some utility to U.S. Cold War objectives, they were never one and the same. Washington’s failure here was in being too quick to dismiss the difference between its own strategic interests and Pakistan’s actual strategic interests.

The 1960s and 70s offer similar examples. JFK entered office determined to tilt to India for the sake of cultivating warmer ties with the non-aligned bloc. Pakistan threatened to pursue military aid from China in retaliation, and eventually did so in 1966. There has been good deal of attention recently to the Pakistan-Bangladesh war of 1971 and Nixon and Kissinger’s shameful role in it. Despite warnings that genocide was occurring, Nixon continued to offer diplomatic and the possibility of military support to Pakistan.

The striking thing about the archival record of Nixon’s policies is the extent to which the U.S. administration felt it had no leverage to exert over Pakistan after being so committed for so long. The U.S. interest in South Asia was in a stable region outside the Communist sphere of influence, yet the repercussions of 1971 would seek an Indian treaty of “friendship” with the USSR and ongoing military ties between China and Pakistan (which were, admittedly, less worrisome with the opening of U.S. diplomatic relations), and nuclearization. Pakistan had enjoyed a privileged status as a Cold War ally and China was waiting in the wings to extend its influence – even had Nixon been more moved by the humanitarian implications of the events in Bangladesh, he would have needed to consider what opposing Pakistan’s crackdown and dropping its ally might mean for the credibility of U.S. grand strategy.

The roots of the present problem of Islamist terrorism lie with the U.S.-backed Mujahideen forces that Pakistan hosted and trained during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. It seems to be only here that we can find a deep alignment of U.S. and Pakistani interests. Yet the legacy of this phase of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation is as brutal as it is well known. Its effects pose a devilish irony: Washington has expended its blood and treasure to establish a post-conflict government in Afghanistan that seems to be interested in stability and combatting terror. Yet the flow of aid from the United States to Pakistan depends on the ongoing cross-border insurgency, and Pakistan has a vested interest in this continuing.

‘Strategic Depth’

Hillary Clinton has criticized the notion that Pakistan should pursue “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. What she acknowledged here was the fact that Pakistan has traditionally favored a weak government in Afghanistan, most especially one that India can’t influence. India, on the other hand, regards Afghanistan as a natural ally and has recently committed substantial sums to rebuild Afghanistan. We thus find that it is India’s interests, and not Pakistan’s, that are in alignment with Washington’s. As the U.S. seeks a stronger relationship with India, the threat to India from Islamist terrorism has proven an ongoing irritant. India took exception, in fact, to Kerry’s aid deal as a stamp of approval of Pakistan’s military efforts against the Taliban. A Ministry of External Affairs spokesman alleged that Pakistan has done very little of substance to disrupt terrorism, and other analysts see merit in that assessment.

Other longstanding American national interests are undermined by its aid relationship with Pakistan. Pakistan is considered the most likely country in the world to proliferate nuclear weapons. Behind closed doors U.S. officials must be painfully aware of their limited ability to deter Pakistan from undesired behavior, particularly given that the transfer of sensitive information or materials could be accomplished in relative secret and by relatively few individuals.

Another key U.S. interest in the region is in strengthening democracy, yet in Pakistan democracy is chronically fragile precisely because the military has long seen itself as the arbiter of government, and the military benefits most from the relationship with the U.S. In September last year, and capitalizing on high poverty rates, weak and failing institutions, poor infrastructure and tribal tensions, the military flexed its muscles over the civilian government by orchestrating a month of mass demonstrations designed to destabilize Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This raised the specter of the fourth outright military coup in Pakistan’s history. If humanitarian aid of the kind Kerry announced is the lever with which to influence Pakistani policy, the U.S. must consider what the vastly larger sums it gives in military assistance really does to the balance between civilian and military power inside the country.

Nor has U.S. civilian aid seemed to make much of a dent in the Pakistani poverty rate, which hovers at 20 percent according to the UNDP. While the Pakistani government claims the cost of conflict to Pakistan since 2001 to be in the order of $100 billion (or half its current GDP), the capacity for foreign aid to bridge the gap and act as a stimulus to balanced economic development is limited. Hence, boosting civilian aid probably isn’t going to directly influence those who are playing Pakistan’s “double game” and is unlikely to create the conditions for change from underneath their feet.

In the wake of the school massacre, the Pakistani government asserted that it would no longer discriminate between “good” and “bad” terrorists in its counter-terrorism efforts. Time will tell if the outrage leads to a fundamental change of position for the Pakistani military. What is true is that a matter of significance to U.S. regional strategy is still largely out of Washington’s control. If she becomes president, Clinton will confront the longstanding dilemma that dropping Pakistan will make a bad situation worse. As the Afghani government strengthens, the U.S. will seek to wind back its commitments to Pakistan, and Clinton is probably well placed to manage that process since her tough talk already conveys a resolve to do so. Can the U.S. get out of its unrewarding friendship for good? Probably not, but it should be considering all possible options. After all, Pakistan’s acknowledgment that terrorists can be “good” as well as “bad” was a very frank admission about what its real position has been – an admission that U.S. officials, in the traditional tactful mode, let slide.

Sarah Graham is a lecturer in U.S. foreign policy at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and a former postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California. She earned her PhD at the Australian National University.

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