The Debate

What’s Wrong With US-Pakistan Relations?

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The Debate

What’s Wrong With US-Pakistan Relations?

A look at how both sides can improve their strained relationship.

What’s Wrong With US-Pakistan Relations?
Credit: White House Photo

The United States and Pakistan had the sixth round of their strategic dialogue in Washington recently. The U.S. Pakistan Strategic Dialogue Joint Statement issued after the talks details extensive ongoing cooperation in the fields of energy, trade, investment, education, and science and technology, and reiterates the commitment to continue it.  It also speaks of close cooperation in counterterrorism, especially action against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)/Da’esh. But on regional security issues, strategic stability, and non-proliferation, there were largely hints of policy differences glossed over by generalities, with Afghanistan being the exception where the need as well as desire for cooperation was obvious.

Overall, the statement, though strong on rhetoric was mixed on substance. It was essentially an aspirational statement. And given the complexities of the U.S.-Pakistan relations and their recent history, one would say much work needs to be done by both sides to realize its objectives.

Regardless of whether one labels the U.S.-Pakistan relationship strategic or transactional, it has served the interests of the two countries over the last six decades. Yet it has not been a normal bilateral relationship. More often than not, the two countries have been allies on one issue while being antagonists on another. The United States lived with or tolerated the differences when there were overriding strategic interests. But when these interests had been served, it resorted to sanctions, and Pakistan responded with its own devices. It is not just Pakistan that took advantage of the United States; Washington did too in equal measure. In sum, they lost as much as they gained from the relationship.

Over time, both the U.S. and Pakistan governments accepted the losses grudgingly and gains ungratefully and still found each other relevant in times of need. But times have changed. Since the September 11 attacks, the relationship has gotten entangled with the ongoing war in Afghanistan.  It is never easy to handle a war-related relationship, especially when that war has not been going well. This is even more so when there are multiple issues and stakeholders with competing interests and priorities. Also impacting the relationship is Washington’s growing ties with India, along with a whole set of new security issues which have agitated public concerns, fueled by a 24-hour news cycle and an activist think tank community.

This has affected public opinion as well as politics, preventing a coherent and workable policy towards the war in Afghanistan as well as U.S.-Pakistan relations more generally. As a consequence, Pakistan is seen as having undermined the war effort and the stabilization of Afghanistan. Though Islamabad has been a good partner in the war on terrorism, it is being defined not by what it has done but by what it has failed to do. A whole new industry of writings on Pakistan representing different interests has emerged in what often seems like a competition for negativity. This has caused recurring tensions and irritants in the relationship. The U.S. Congress keeps talking about cutting off aid, while the White House keeps harping on the Haqqani network. And among the chattering classes, the common refrain is that U.S. aid to Pakistan has been a dead loss.

The fact is the bulk of the aid, the so called Coalition Support Fund, is not aid. It was essentially reimbursement for Pakistan’s cost in deploying about 170,000 troops in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province for years and for providing road communications for the logistics support to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan. Deployment of forces for combat costs money, as Washington knows from its own experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. Should Pakistan expect no compensation for its work?

Pakistan has a lot to answer for, but not so much for the ‘failure’ of the Afghanistan war. Even if one accepts that it has been a ‘failure,’ there were many causes for this. The military campaign in Afghanistan lacked a political strategy. Furthermore, in the rush to war, there was little effort at comprehending the nature of the threat or the enemy. Even at the outset, it was clear to close observers of the region that the Taliban were not going to fight; they were going to run away to Pakistan where they had a support. Was it difficult to understand? The lack of strategic context of the war, incoherent war aims, insufficient resources and poor execution soon undermined the war effort, especially as attention and resources shifted to the Iraq war. And thereafter, the strategy would change every year, much like it continues to change even now.

The United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan have all made mistakes. Afghans have to realize that despite the fact that Washington has contributed a great deal to create a new Afghanistan, they themselves have not played their role well. The national unity government clearly is not working, and the so-called Kerry plan has not been implemented. And regardless of whether policymakers want to admit it or not, the ethnicity issue also continues to remain a major factor. Afghans are a great people, and theirs is a great country. But they need to face the reality of its internal fissures, the role of the regional strong men and power brokers, and the corruption which is hindering their efforts at stabilization. Groups like the Taliban or Haqqani network are the resulting consequences, not the root causes of Afghanistan’s troubles. Afghans cannot keep shifting the onus of their failures to Pakistan. The Taliban are in Pakistan because no one is defeating them in Afghanistan.

Taliban are not invincible. They have to be defeated politically within Afghanistan and that can only be done with good governance, rule of law, ethnic unity and by taming the regional centers of power. As Ioannis Koskinas pointed out in a two-part article in Foreign Policy Magazine last month, though the fracturing of Afghanistan’s body politic looms, it can be stopped. “Ultimately, many Afghans believe that the country’s security woes have more to do with poor Afghan government choices than Taliban battlefield brilliance. At their core, the greatest performance failures of 2015 were political, rather than military,” Koskinas wrote. “The fall of Kunduz City to the Taliban in late September 2015 was emblematic of such grand deficiencies”.

As for Washington, it has to realize that strategic issues cannot be dealt with through a merely transactional relationship with Islamabad. The United States and Pakistan need a strategic relationship. Forging this is not easy; both countries need to contribute. Pakistan does have legitimate security concerns that need to be acknowledged. The United States also has to recognize that Pakistan does have a strategic importance  as it affects American interests in India one hand and Afghanistan on the other. Now that the United States is leaving Afghanistan, it needs Pakistan’s help even more to stabilize Afghanistan. Besides, as others have rightly observed, the region’s significance has been enhanced considerably as a consequence of China’s growing involvement there as well.

Pakistan, for its part, must understand that if it wants a strategic relationship, it will have to earn it. While national interests may diverge in some cases, where Pakistan has a shared interest with the United States, Islamabad needs to bring its policies closer to those of Washington, especially when it comes to addressing America’s core security concerns. Jihadists have to be dealt with without distinction not only for America’s sake but also Pakistan’s as well. It is crucial that Pakistan explain its position and policy responses on this issue unambiguously and effectively from high echelons of the civil-military leadership. Silence conveys complicity, a lack of commitment, or, at best, ambivalence. This is not good for establishing mutual trust with which Pakistan has already taken one chance too many in the past.

Both countries also have to get rid of old assumptions. Pakistan should shed its belief that the United States cannot walk away from the bilateral relationship; the United States should abandon the notion that Pakistan cannot survive without U.S. help or that cutting off aid will beat Pakistan into submission. The fact is that Pakistan would rather forgo aid than do something against its national interest. Lastly while de-hyphening the relations with India and Pakistan may be fine, the United States must recognize that it cannot advance its broader interests in South Asia without a South Asia strategy.

Has Pakistan been a good partner thus far for the United States? I think so. But if the United States thinks otherwise, it should keep in mind that only good policies make good partners. Then Washington doesn’t have to worry about issuing blank checks.

Touqir Hussain, a former Ambassador and Diplomatic Adviser to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, is Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and SAIS Johns Hopkins University, where he is also Senior Pakistan Visiting Fellow. He writes on South Asian security issues, Iran, and Afghanistan.