Should the U.S. and Pakistan Get ‘Divorced?’

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Should the U.S. and Pakistan Get ‘Divorced?’

Pakistan’s former U.S. Ambassador says its time to give up the “magnificent delusion” of an alliance.

Much has already been said about former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani’s return to the public sphere after being accused of requesting an American intervention in Pakistani politics. The crux of Haqqani’s argument—to be developed in a forthcoming book on U.S.-Pakistan relations, Magnificent Delusions—is that the United States and Pakistan willfully mislead themselves about what their alliance means, leading to cycles of engagement and disenchantment. These cycles have had serious consequences, including feelings of distrust and betrayal, uncooperative behavior, and acts of violence. Haqqani called for a looser relationship—in his terms, a friendship, not a marriage—to break the cycle and enable the two states to cooperate more effectively in areas of common interest.

In some respects, this is not a revolutionary opinion. Pakistani distaste for America’s involvement is well-known, from the neatly-painted signs at Jamaat-e-Islami protests to the widespread nationalist grievance that followed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Polls suggest that about three quarters of Pakistanis see America as an enemy. American distaste for Pakistan is just as deep. For many Americans, for instance, the mention of Pakistan conjures of images of a flag-burning mob, while among the foreign policy elite it is not rare to hear that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are a more serious danger to America than any that Iran might acquire. The cover of The Atlantic branded Islamabad “The Ally From Hell;” nobody in Haqqani’s audience at the Center for the National Interest last month moved when he asked for a show of hands from those who thought the U.S. should have told the ISI before going after bin Laden.

What is revolutionary is that the call for 'divorce' is now coming from a man who spent three and a half years trying to keep the marriage together, for in spite of all the criticism of Washington and Islamabad’s dysfunctional relationship, few are willing to live with the risks of separation. Many American security officials have grave concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. A close relationship with Pakistan, they reason, allows the U.S. to press for stronger safeguards and, in the event of a radical coup or other crisis, gives Washington more ways to keep the bombs out of the most dangerous hands. The United States has reportedly provided guidance on securing nuclear facilities and creating stringent launch procedures, even though Pakistan has understandably kept Americans away from the physical facilities. American efforts to deepen this cooperation have been rebuffed, but officials have expressed satisfaction with the general safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and Islamabad is believed to keep its weapons systems partially disassembled, a lower state of readiness than America’s own. However, worries abound that in a nuclear crisis with India, Pakistan’s nuclear forces would disperse from their secured bases to ensure some would survive an Indian strike, and, according to some reports, Pakistan moves some warheads in unmarked vans even in peacetime. Enterprising extremists could seize some of these wandering weapons.

Haqqani argued that America’s worries about Pakistan’s bombs are not realistic and thus do not justify the alliance. After all, he noted, America did not provide assistance in securing the nuclear weapons of its rivals during the tensions of the Cold War, yet the weapons were not accidentally launched or seized by terrorists. Haqqani has a valid point. With or without American involvement, Pakistan’s government has a vital interest in the security of its nuclear weapons. Nuclear irresponsibility could have grave consequences for Pakistan’s international relations, and would increase the risk of accidental war. Pakistan’s leaders would be insane not to take steps to secure their bombs and clarify the chain of command.

However, Haqqani left out America’s intense efforts to secure its rival’s nuclear arsenal after the collapse of the Soviet Union. American leaders correctly judged that the post-communist chaos was an exceedingly risky environment for nuclear storage. It is hard not to see a potential for similar disorder in roiling Karachi or the untamed frontiers. American interests dictate a global concern with nuclear security, a concern that includes Pakistan. Still, alliance is no requisite for cooperation on nuclear security given the convergence of needs. The United States did not become Russia’s ally before it helped Russia secure its bombs. Even if Pakistan were as friendly with America as Canada or Britain, it would still keep Americans away from many elements of its nuclear program.

Haqqani argued that many other areas of cooperation, such as intelligence-sharing, would also survive a divorce. The grounds of these relations are again based on shared interests. While the ISI has some truly loathsome allies, it also has enemies, and America’s powerful electronic intelligence apparatus can eavesdrop on them far better than any Pakistani outfit.

Haqqani’s call will likely go unanswered as long as American troops remain in Afghanistan. U.S. and NATO troops need supplies, and the shortest route is through Pakistan, even though the insurgent groups that ply the border area with suspicious ease give American decision makers daily reminders of divergences between American and Pakistani interests west of the Khyber Pass. This fuels the cycle of engagement and betrayal. Although American leaders will continue to fear a breakdown of order in Pakistan, the pending retreat from Afghanistan may allow the two states to finally have their amicable divorce.

John Allen Gay is program assistant for the Regional Security Program and the Program on American National Security in the Twenty-First Century at the Center for the National Interest