Features | Security | South Asia

What US Gets Right About Pakistan

By publicly acknowledging the price Pakistan pays for its counterterrorism policy, the US is helping untie its leadership’s hands.

Viewed by the United States and its allies as one of the most dangerous places on earth—and a country that provides a safe haven for leaders of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant movements—it’s little wonder that Pakistan has been garnering so much US attention.

Some of the most serious international terrorist plots in recent years have been traced back to Pakistan, including one revealed just this month involving the training of terrorists in Pakistan to conduct Mumbai-style attacks on civilian targets in Western European cities. Meanwhile, the surprising reach of the Pakistani Taliban became apparent in May when they tried unsuccessfully to use US citizen Faisal Shahzad to detonate a car bomb in New York’s Times Square.

So it’s not surprising that last week saw the third ministerial-level US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue in just seven months, following a March 24 session in Washington and a July 15 session in Islamabad. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Pakistan Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi chaired the latest session, which marked among other things a welcome shift in tone and US recognition of Pakistan’s efforts so far.

Since yielding to a US ultimatum in September 2001 to ally itself with Washington against al-Qaeda in return for considerable economic and military aid, the Islamabad government has engaged in a comprehensive campaign against foreign militants on its soil. Yet the combination of the US-led war against the Afghan Taliban (which since 9/11 has re-established its core support operations in Pakistan) and the escalating combat on Pakistani territory have helped give rise to domestically-focused terrorist movements that have been conducting a vicious campaign of suicide bombings throughout Pakistan.

The threat to Pakistan’s stability has been compounded by local insurgencies in the west of the country that have inflicted numerous casualties on the Pakistani army, which remains better suited for fighting a war with India than a counterinsurgency campaign. Meanwhile, the Islamabad government, whether under military or civilian rule, has sought to work out a formal or de facto truce with the insurgents.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But after publicly rebuking the Pakistanis last year for appeasing domestic militants, Obama administration officials have now demonstrated a welcome shift in tone. The clearest evidence is the praise it has given the Pakistani military and its government for engaging in the fight against domestic and violent extremists at the cost of thousands of Pakistanis killed or wounded.

‘One thing that is not often reported enough is that the United States has no stronger partner than Pakistan in fighting the mutual threat we face from extremism,’ Clinton said at a joint news conference with Qureshi. ‘And the cooperation is very deep and very broad.’

This new public line is welcome because it better addresses the widespread Pakistani perception that the growth of Islamist militancy in their country has been due to their leaders’ decision to provide comprehensive support to the US war on terrorism.

But there’s been more to the administration’s Pakistan policy than warm words. As well as the persistent (and sensible) efforts to induce Pakistani authorities to crack down on terrorist plots, the Obama strategy has included a commitment to providing additional economic and security assistance to Pakistan’s civilian government. Last week’s Strategic Dialogue session, for example, saw detailed discussions about how the United States could help develop Pakistan’s energy, water and counterinsurgency capabilities.

At the meeting, Clinton announced that the administration would submit to Congress a Multi-Year Security Assistance Commitment—a security assistance package worth almost $2.5 billion that mostly finances enhancements to Pakistan’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorist capabilities. Combined with the $7.5 billion commitment to civilian projects over a similar five-year period in the already approved Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation, the total US aid figure now approaches $10 billion.

Of course making these commendable pledges is one thing, but it’s quite another to ensure that they are implemented properly. One problem with the $7.5 civilian aid package is that it has yet to be used to launch specific projects on the ground in Pakistan, while the US Congress also needs to enact the legislation required to establish the US-funded Reconstruction Opportunity Zones and the Enterprise Fund. These multi-year initiatives are essential if Pakistanis are going to see concrete economic benefits for cooperating with the United States and if something is going to be done to help counter perceptions that US aid is skewed in favour of security assistance designed to induce Pakistanis to fight and die for US goals.

But the US should go further to win over a sceptical Pakistani public. By more visibly acknowledging Pakistani losses from the country’s counterterrorist and counterinsurgency operations, Washington could help avert the kind of public relations setback that occurred a few years ago when some members of Congress complained that the Pakistanis were not ‘earning’ the approximately $1 billion annually in military aid they were receiving each year from the United States.

Of course there’s plenty that Pakistan can do to convince a wary Congress that US taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. One way would be to do more to publicize the costs it has incurred—human and financial—in trying to combat the militant threat. Another would be to stop diverting funds from this programme to enhance its conventional capabilities for a possible war with India

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Overcoming US scepticism won’t be easy, and the task was made all the harder after a cell phone video began circulating on the Internet last month depicting individuals wearing Pakistani military uniforms executing what look to be six bound and blindfolded civilians. When asked about the issue at a joint press conference with Clinton last week, Qureshi reassuringly said ‘that there’ll be zero tolerance against human rights violations’ in the Pakistani military. Still, to bolster support for the proposed military aid package, the administration has indicated that it will suspend US training and equipping programmes for those Pakistani units that violate US laws and regulations, especially the so-called Leahy Amendment, which bans US military assistance to foreign military units that commit major human rights abuses.

But setting aside direct military aid, there are other ways that the United States can help Pakistan boost its internal security. One would be for the administration to pay greater attention to increasing the capacity of Pakistan’s civilian police forces as part of its larger efforts to enhance Pakistan’s civilian government institutions. Not only are police units often more suitable for countering local terrorism threats, but they could also help balance the country’s powerful military and intelligence services, including the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), many of whose leaders are reluctant to break ties with the Afghan Taliban, which the ISI founded in the mid-1990s to serve as a Pakistani proxy in Afghanistan’s civil war.

More broadly, though, Washington needs to take a good look at its regional security strategy. US policymakers should take the recent interruptions in their use of Pakistani territory to supply their forces in Afghanistan as confirmation of the need to reduce their dependence on Islamabad’s support for the war on terror. As well as providing the main route along which NATO receives its non-lethal supplies, Pakistani officials also allow the United States to conduct an air campaign against their own territory. (Indeed, media sources have suggested that the unmanned aerial vehicles that constantly bombard Pakistani territory are actually based in Pakistan and receive much of their targeting intelligence from Pakistani sources).

Not only would diversifying Washington’s regional support base be prudent in and of itself, but relying so heavily on the Pakistani government to actively support US policy like this places Pakistani leaders in the unhelpful position of appearing to be Washington’s regional puppets.

And there’s already some indication that such diversification could work, with the continued improvement in Russia-NATO relations providing a possible window of opportunity to allow these parties to consider expanding the flow of NATO supplies reaching Afghanistan via Russia, Central Asia and perhaps even through the South Caucasus, an area of special sensitivity to Moscow due to Russian unease about NATO’s ties with Georgia.

Yet there’s another country that also looms over US ties with Pakistan—India.

Last week saw little progress over Pakistan’s requests to receive a civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement comparable to that already negotiated by its neighbour and rival. The problem is that the US Congress, which is now subjecting the proliferating number of nuclear cooperation agreements to closer scrutiny, is almost certainly not going to approve such an accord with Pakistan given its inferior proliferation record compared with India.

On the other hand, the Obama administration is aware of Pakistani concerns over the prospect of being granted secondary status compared with India. With this mind, President Barack Obama made sure to tell the Pakistani delegation at the White House that while he wouldn’t go to Pakistan next month when he travels to India, he will visit Pakistan next year and will eagerly greet President Asif Ali Zardari in Washington.

Of course, whatever reassuring gestures Obama makes now won’t overcome decades of US-Pakistan tensions any time soon—Pakistanis have felt misunderstood and mistreated by Washington, which they believe has demonstrated interest in Pakistan only when it needs Islamabad’s help against regional threats.

US policymakers, for their part, are perplexed by Pakistan’s skewed threat perceptions and apparent insistence in believing India to be a greater danger than Islamist terrorists. Washington believes, with some cause, that Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons deter India from using force against Pakistan, but offers little protection against Islamist suicide bombers.

So although the meeting between Qureshi and Clinton marks another important step in the relationship, the two were also right to talk about a multi-year and even multi-generation programme for rebuilding the bilateral relationship. After all, against a background of decades of mistrust, putting ties on a firmer footing won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick.