And then there is Mullen, perhaps the most ardent proponent of closer cooperation with Pakistan inside the administration. Mullen, who is retiring at the end of the month, has made over 20 visits to Pakistan as the top US commander, and worked tirelessly to forge a close personal bond with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani. It’s both ironic and fitting that he was the one to deliver the unprecedented rebuke to Islamabad.
The question now on everyone’s mind is: what comes next? South Asia analysts have been mulling this prospect for years. It should come as little surprise that there are few good options. Pakistan holds substantial points of leverage over the United States, not least through its control of key supply routes into Afghanistan. The administration has wisely invested in alternative supply lines through Russia and Central Asia, reducing Pakistan’s monopoly from nearly 90 percent a few years ago to just under 50 percent today. Whether or not the United States could sustain the Afghan war effort without Pakistan – by dramatically increasing the workload of the Northern Distribution Network and airlifting more supplies in – is a matter of speculation. Ashton Carter, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, believes it is possible. He told Reuters in May, ‘We’re confident that we’re not dependent on any particular single thread, and we can continue to supply the Afghanistan effort.’ Additionally, the problem will gradually solve itself, with the phased reduction of US troops through 2014.
Pakistan can also withhold intelligence cooperation, evict US military, intelligence, and diplomatic personnel and end whatever support remains for the incredibly successful CIA-operated drone programme. All of this could seriously complicate the United States’ war efforts.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But the cost to Pakistan would be far greater. Pakistan is a country with few friends. Islamabad frequently touts its relationship with China, but Beijing’s hesitant embrace rests on shaky foundations. The friendship grants China leverage over India and holds the possibility of opening up new energy routes to China through Central Asia, but Beijing has never accepted the patron role that Pakistan so clearly desires. After floods ravaged Pakistan in 2010, the United States offered $150 million in emergency aid. China’s contribution: less than $5 million. More telling, when Islamabad invited China to build a military base in Gwadar earlier this year, Beijing’s response was ‘thanks, but no thanks.’
Pakistan has survived bouts of profound economic turmoil and mismanagement on the strength of generous financial aid from the United States and IMF, where the US holds veto power. The United States is capable of bringing tremendous – and potentially fatal – financial pressure to bear. Were Pakistan’s relationship with the US to turn openly hostile, diplomatic isolation would follow, as would the suspension of aid and spare parts for Pakistan’s military. ISI officials with known links to militant groups could be targeted for sanctions by the United States and international community, as could the Pakistani government, whose actions far exceed the criteria to be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.
This isn’t the preferred path. Even as Mullen lifted the veil on Pakistan’s double game, the Joint Chiefs chairman argued that the United States must stay engaged with Pakistan; that we need to be there ‘when the light goes on.’ For many, this is wishful thinking. But it is instructive to remember that there’s one diplomatic mechanism with a track record of success in Pakistan. Immediately after the attacks of 9/11, then deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage warned Pakistan’s leadership that it would be ‘bombed back into the Stone Age’ if it did not support America’s invasion of Afghanistan. That was the first – and last – time the United States received Pakistan’s full cooperation in this war. Washington then deemed it sufficient to sustain Pakistan’s cooperation with carrots, doling out $20 billion in aid over the past decade. Yet with every new cheque, Pakistan’s resentment toward the US grew and support for militants grew.
Perhaps, at the 11th hour, the Obama administration has realized the folly of this approach and found its own Armitage moment. Whether or not it has the same effect on Pakistan has yet to be seen. One thing is clear, however: the gloves are off.
Jeff M. Smith is the Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council