The U.S. drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour comes during a period of testing times in U.S.-Pakistan relations. Yet in order to get a clear sense of the true state of the bilateral relationship and its broader implications, one needs to take a closer look at the dynamics underway.
The headline-grabbing event cited as being emblematic of the downturn in U.S.-Pakistan relations is Congressional opposition to the sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan that had been brewing since April, related partly to concerns about its impact on U.S.-India relations as well as growing unhappiness about the terrorist attacks in Afghanistan by the Haqqani network. Pakistan was finally informed early May that the U.S. Congress would allow the sale but not help with the funding as earlier promised. That was significant as it meant that Pakistan would have to pay the entire amount of about $700 million from its own resources. Islamabad rejected the idea.
The U.S. House of Representatives confirmed this when it passed the National Defense Authorization Act 2017 on May 17 that included restrictions on military aid for Pakistan. It blocked $430 million that were to finance the sale of F-16s under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) unless Pakistan took action against the Haqqani network. The Senate version included similar restrictions.
In Pakistan, the Congressional action ignited memories of the Pressler Amendment, the 1985 law under which all economic and security assistance to Pakistan including the supply of F-16 planes for which Pakistan had already made the payment was terminated in 1990 (The aid was not revived till the U.S. reengagement with Pakistan after 9/11). Understandably, recent Congressional actions have led some Pakistanis to fear that the two countries might be headed for another periodic downturn in relations. The fear has been compounded by the drone strike against Mullah Mansour that crossed many red lines – it was the first drone attack outside the FATA area and it was against a Taliban political leader, not a declared terrorist, and one whose complete freedom of movement indicated full support of the government of Pakistan. U.S. President Barack Obama has threatened more such strikes if necessary.
These developments raise the question as to whether the United States may be walking away from Pakistan yet again and relying instead on its military power to degrade the Taliban strength at the expense of relations with Pakistan as it extricates from the Afghanistan war. While there is no simple answer to this complex question, a better understanding of history may help us assess where both sides really are today.
A closer look suggests that history is not really repeating itself in U.S.-Pakistan relations in the way some think it is. Analogies to the previous downturn in bilateral ties ignore some critical differences that may tell us more than the similarities. For instance, when Washington walked away last time, it walked away from the region, not just from Pakistan. This time it is heavily invested in the region as South Asia has changed beyond recognition, presenting economic, strategic and security opportunities, threats and challenges. Several triangular relationships are emerging in South Asia—the United States, India and China; the United States, India and Pakistan; the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan; China, Pakistan and Afghanistan; and a prospective Russia, Iran and India axis. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan gives Washington a place in all of them.
As Special U.S. Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Olson said in a Congressional testimony on April 27, “Pakistan is strategically vital, due to its role in issues that matter to us, as well as its location at the crossroads of Afghanistan, India, China, and Iran. American national interests require that we stay engaged as Pakistan charts its long-term future.”
Olson is not alone in his assessment. Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee noted that “Pakistan has been a long-standing strategic partner of the United States” and expressed its desire to continue a “strong and enduring” relationship between the two countries.
If the United States clearly recognizes Islamabad’s importance, what explains the F-16s dispute and the strike against an apparent protégé of Pakistan? With respect to the F-16s, the Obama administration appears to be acquiescing to the Congressional action because it is finding that political battles are getting ever harder to fight for Pakistan as its public image in the United States – a key driver of Congressional perceptions – has eroded significantly.
Yet at the same time, the administration clearly recognizes that Pakistan cannot be ignored either: it has an important role in facilitating or complicating the advancement of U.S. interests in the future. As Ambassador Olson had said in the same testimony “Pakistan is critical to a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan; strategic stability in the subcontinent; countering violent extremism; and defeating terrorists that threaten the U.S. and the region.” The Obama administration thus does not want to abandon Pakistan.
Some have suggested that the administration may be experimenting with a new approach to U.S.-Pakistan relations: rather than continuing with a past policy of alternating between periods of engagement and isolation, it may have decided to more strategically fuse engagement and containment and use aid as a leverage to more adroitly influence Pakistan’s actions. In other words: Washington is sending Islamabad a signal that while it can take the F-16s, if it wants the funding for them it will also need to meet certain demands.
The demands largely focus on the Taliban issue. Pakistan was expected to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table but it failed. It was then asked to take action against the insurgents operating from its territory but it failed here too. So Pakistan has been clearly told by a frustrated Washington and an angry Kabul that it simply cannot have it both ways. Pakistan has come under enormous pressure lately both from the Afghan government and the United States, especially Congress. The drone strike may yet be another move by Washington following closely on the heels of the dispute over F-16s to put a squeeze on Pakistan.
More likely, however, is the possibility that Pakistan may have acquiesced in the drone strike to release some of this twin pressure from the United States and Afghanistan by passing it on to the Taliban. In this way, Pakistan thus enhances its leverage against the Taliban by moving closer to Washington and also keeps U.S.-Pakistan relations on an even keel. The bottom line is that if Pakistan wants better ties with the United States, it has to do a little more to accommodate U.S. interests. Pakistan may have finally realized that and begun to act on it.
The key question, though, is how far Islamabad will go. Specifically, will Pakistan finally change its approach towards the Taliban? In the past, Pakistan has always prioritized its own national interests on this question, even sometimes at the cost of American aid. The big question now is whether Pakistan has at long last begun to realize that a change in its Taliban policy is indeed in its national interest.
As for Washington, it has to realize Pakistan should not be expected to compensate for the failures of U.S. policies. It is not sanctuaries in Pakistan alone that have caused the failure of the Afghanistan war, but a range of factors including America’s own missteps. Following from that, actions against sanctuaries may not help, and furthermore could potentially create more problems than they solve. The fundamental issue affecting the American interests in the region is Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and the internal dynamics of both countries. And that is not going to be resolved any time soon, and certainly not by drone strikes.
Touqir Hussain, a former Ambassador and Diplomatic Adviser to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, teaches at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University.