Pakistan's General Raheel Sharif Goes to Washington: Déjà Vu All Over Again

 
 

Imagine you’re the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, and you’ve been tasked to draft a cable to prepare American officials in Washington for the visit of General Raheel Sharif, the Pakistani army chief who has arrived in town for a five-day trip.

So what would you say?

First, you’d counsel some conciliatory comments: “We should recognize growing Pakistani casualties in the fight against militants … [and] reiterate the long-term U.S. commitment to support Pakistan.”

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Soon thereafter, however, you’d urge your Washington counterparts to get down to business: “We need to lay down a clear marker that Pakistan’s Army/ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency] must stop overt or tacit support for militant proxies.”

And then you’d get to the heart of the matter: “The single biggest message … is that this support must end. It is now counterproductive to Pakistan’s own interests and directly conflicts with USG objectives in Afghanistan—where [the] Haqqani [network] is killing American soldiers and Afghan civilians,” and in the broader region, where the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 “exposed the fruits of previous ISI policy to create Lashkar-e-Taiba and still threatens potential conflict between nuclear powers.”

Some thoughts on Afghanistan would be in order: “We should ask for his views on what political end state in Afghanistan would convince him to end proxy support for militants.”

And on India as well: “Indo-Pak tensions are still simmering, but to avoid a potential Indian military strike, the GOP [government of Pakistan] needs to continue to show progress on prosecuting those Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives responsible for the Mumbai attacks.”

Nuclear proliferation too: “We believe that the military is proceeding with an expansion of both its growing strategic weapons and missile programs.”

There would also be some obligatory words on U.S. military aid to Pakistan: “We continue to work on delivering Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance aerial capability,” and “we need to come to agreement with Pakistan” on aligning U.S. military support with Pakistan’s long-term counterterrorism needs.

Finally, you’d wrap up with some suggested talking points for conversations with General Sharif. Their tone would range from cordial (“What we seek going forward is an all-encompassing bilateral relationship based on what we can accomplish for the future.”) and inquisitive (“We must succeed in Afghanistan. What is your vision for what constitutes an acceptable outcome?”) to firm bordering on threatening: “It is time to cut your ties to extremist groups/proxy forces and urge the permanent severing of ties. Such ties hinder trust and our ability to move forward together.”

In fact, there’s nothing hypothetical about this cable. It’s already been written—but not earlier this week. It was transmitted nearly seven years ago—in February 2009, several weeks after President Obama took office, on the eve of a visit to Washington by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Pakistani army chief at the time.

And yet it would also be a perfectly suitable memo to set the scene for General Sharif’s Washington meetings this week.

To be sure, much has changed in the U.S.-Pakistan security relationship since 2009. The Pakistanis have significantly ramped up their fight against anti-state militants. The frequency of U.S. drone strikes—another big theme in the 2009 memo—has diminished dramatically. Washington’s nuclear concerns have shifted from Pakistan’s strategic assets to its rapidly intensifying tactical stockpile. Above all, U.S. forces are no longer fighting a combat war in Afghanistan, meaning that Washington does not need as much Pakistani counterterrorism and countermilitancy assistance. Consequently, military aid flows to Pakistan could see some reductions—and the relationship on the whole could be scaled down to an extent.

And yet the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The United States continues to emphasize cooperation with, and a commitment to, Pakistan. It continues to seek Pakistani assistance in Afghanistan, and to ply the Pakistani military with money and material. For good reason, it continues to worry about Pakistan’s nukes and its volatile relationship with India.

And yet through it all, Pakistan’s security establishment continues to nurture ties with militant groups that endanger U.S. interests and lives.

The cold hard calculus of international relations dictates that nations pursue relations with each other to help advance national interests. And yet Washington’s relations with Pakistan have arguably imperiled its core interests as much as they have advanced them. To be sure, Pakistan has helped U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan by offering the use of supply routes, and it has assisted U.S. drone efforts by letting the United States use Pakistani military bases. Additionally, in recent months Pakistan has waged major offensives against militants and their command-and-control systems in North Waziristan. This has brought some much-needed stability (read: fewer terror attacks in Pakistan, at least for now).

And yet even as it pockets billions in U.S. aid and takes in tons of military hardware, Pakistan patronizes proxy groups that terrorize Americans, Afghans, and Indians.

What accounts for this dysfunctional dynamic? One reason is naiveté: a belief that showering Pakistan with aid will, in time, compel it to act in ways that benefit U.S. interests. As Husain Haqqani’s book Magnificent Delusions makes clear, U.S. officials have long been content to keep the aid flowing while holding their noses and hoping for the best. Such an approach is utterly wrong-headed; U.S. aid does not buy Washington leverage over Pakistan. Additionally, U.S. and Pakistani interests are diametrically divergent on the militancy issue. For America, the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba are dangerous groups that must be reined in. For Pakistan, these groups are useful assets because they make archenemy India vulnerable.

Another possible reason for Washington’s continued courtship of a nation that works against American objectives and interests? Fear. The United States prefers to be on the good side of a volatile nuclear-armed nation than on its bad side.

Whatever the reason, we can expect more of the same this week in Washington. General Sharif’s meetings will feature plenty of discussion about Afghanistan—and how Pakistan can help bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table. There will presumably be talk of a potential—though highly unlikely—deal to scale back Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Sharif will likely make fresh pitches for new military assistance. The United States will issue fresh calls for Pakistan to end its relationships with militants. And through it all, Gen. Sharif will receive the full red carpet treatment—as he did on his last trip to Washington.

It’s possible and desirable to make the best of a difficult relationship. Indeed, there is considerable scope for genuine cooperation—based not on pie-in-the-sky hopes for a nuclear deal, but rather on limited but practical counterterrorism collaboration on shared threats such as al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, and, as November 13 made horrifically clear, an increasingly expansionist ISIS. The Americans and Pakistanis can also work together to resuscitate the Afghan reconciliation process—though despite their best efforts, along with those of China, the Taliban has little incentive to come to the table, given its soaring successes on the battlefield. Additionally, Kabul’s enthusiasm for a peace process with a deep Pakistani imprint has dimmed of late. Yet given the stakes for a war with no military solution, this is something U.S. officials should discuss in earnest with General Sharif.

Nevertheless, none of this will silence the constant refrain yapping at the heels of this relationship: We’ve been here before. Or, as the late and inimitable Yogi Berra famously put it, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Disagree? Just refer back to that 2009 cable.

We’ve seen this movie before—literally. “Groundhog Day” is a 1993 film about a weatherman doomed to repeat the same day—Groundhog Day—over and over. It is an apt metaphor for one of diplomacy’s most fraught bilateral partnerships.

When it comes to U.S.-Pakistan security relations, every day is Groundhog Day.

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