Too Late to Punish Pakistan

Calls to coerce Pakistan into cooperating in Afghanistan by stopping aid miss the point. Pakistan holds the cards now.

Anyone remotely involved with US foreign policy over the past decade will either have worked with, or heard of, Zalmay Khalizad. He’s the personification of the American Dream – born in northern Afghanistan to a Sunni Pashtun family in 1951, he travelled to the United States during his high school years and eventually earned a PhD at the prestigious University of Chicago. His achievements in government are even more impressive than his educational credentials, where he served both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as a State Department and Pentagon staffer. 

But his career really picked up under President George W. Bush, when he served as US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations, before returning to private life in 2009. As someone hailing from Afghanistan who has advised multiple presidents on South Asian affairs, Khalizad knows the region inside out. So when he has something to say, officials dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan will usually listen. 

Yet Khalizad’s latest commentary in the Washington Post, in which he outlines steps the United States needs to take in order to salvage the US-Pakistan relationship, is a little aggressive for a US government more eager to disengage from the region than spend unlimited sums in a futile state-building effort. 

It’s clear that Khalizad is deeply upset and frustrated that Pakistan has been such an unhelpful partner, both with the NATO-led campaign in Afghanistan and the broader battle against international terrorism. The surreal notion that the Pakistani government receives $7.5 billion in non-military assistance, yet is still dragging its feet over cooperation, only adds to Khalizad’s angst.  Indeed, the US Congress is currently debating whether to make US military assistance conditional on Pakistani cooperation, particularly on counterterrorism. (Osama bin Laden’s residence being found smack in the middle of a Pakistani military town certainly hasn’t helped Pakistan’s cause).

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

Still, Khalizad’s recommendations, the most daring being the withholding of US military aid to pressure Pakistan to meet US demands, is surely a non-starter for promoting constructive dialogue between the two countries. If there’s anything US policymakers should have learned over the past few years, it’s that Pakistan’s military establishment doesn’t respond well to threats. Indeed, using the stick too frequently tends to have the opposite effect, strengthening Pakistan’s resolve and giving its government an excuse to use militant groups to pursue foreign policy goals: the same militants that the United States and NATO wish to defeat. 

This isn’t to say that cutting security aid is an inherently bad idea. But slashing assistance because Pakistan doesn’t have the same goals in Afghanistan and the region as the United States only heightens the perception that Washington is only looking out for itself.  Khalizad’s approach would also give Pakistan’s political and military officials a convenient excuse to further distance itself further from Washington—and move closer to China.

It’s not that the carrot-and-stick idea isn’t without merit. Pakistan hasn’t so far been held properly to account for its meddling in Afghanistan, nor for its believed covert support to insurgent groups like the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. But there’s a good reason why it hasn’t – because it still holds the strongest card in their relationship with NATO. Put simply, at a time when the US-led coalition is planning to withdraw, NATO needs Pakistan more than Islamabad needs it.

Khalizad’s tough approach towards Pakistan might have been useful during the early stages of the war, when the world was squarely on the United States’ side and when the 9/11 attacks had dramatically elevated Washington’s negotiating position. But 10 years and tens of thousands of deaths later, and with hundreds of billions of dollars spent, Washington’s negotiating position has reached its lowest ebb since the ‘war on terrorism’ began. 

As long as the United States remains in Afghanistan, punishing Pakistan for playing a double game with Islamic militants simply won’t work. The best way to rebuild a healthy US-Pakistan relationship isn’t to chastise it for refusing to make our lives in Afghanistan any easier. Rather, it’s simply to continue with plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan and refocus attention on areas of mutual interest: a strong, vibrant global economy, an al-Qaeda-free South Asia, and regional reconciliation.  

Daniel R. DePetris is an MA Candidate at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, where he studies security issues and Middle Eastern affairs. He is an associate editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis.