The Obama administration’s recent hard-line gestures to get Pakistan back in line are more of the same in the US’s reluctant friendship with its ally—they do not merit much optimism for improved US-Pakistan relations.
Last week, the administration decided to suspend around $800 million in military aid, with renewal conditioned upon Pakistan taking a more aggressive approach to counterterrorism. This decision followed on the heels of an unusually negative public rebuke by Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who on July 7th accused the Pakistani government of sanctioning the assassination of a Pakistani journalist. The suspension came in response to Pakistan’s request to reduce US military personnel involved in counterterrorism operations following bin-Laden’s assassination, but is an expression of frustration at the longer history of Pakistan’s less-than-whole-hearted cooperation against Islamic militants in the region.
Pakistan’s military, particularly its shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has long been linked to militant groups in its effort to promote Pakistani security and influence in the region (for a concise backgrounder, see the Council on Foreign Relations’ list). Since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan has supported Islamic militants in an effort to promote a sympathetic government in its neighbor, despite such groups’ linkages with anti-NATO forces such as al Qaeda. And Pakistan’s ties with anti-Indian groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) run deep in its empathy for LeT’s cause of liberating the disputed region of Kashmir.
However, Pakistan has had trouble managing its complicated effort to juggle these efforts to promote regional interests by proxy with a US friendship. The US has long been aware of Pakistan’s complicated dance, but since the last attempt at coercive diplomacy in the 1990 aid cut-off, has maintained a relatively tolerant position. This approach, taken in large part due to Pakistan’s critical importance in the US’ fight against terrorism in the region as well as the failure of the previous cut-off to do much to improve Pakistan’s behaviour, seems at first glance to be changing today. However, the US’s efforts to coerce Pakistan into cooperation will remain ineffective until they target Pakistan’s primary security concerns and build the US’s own credibility as a reliable partner.
It is in US interests to get Pakistan to more actively tackle its domestic insurgents, cooperate more openly with US intelligence, and cease covert support for militants (which Pakistan denies is occurring, despite accounts of continued relations), behaviour that not only undermines US counterterrorism efforts, but can also lead to devastating consequences such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks and fuels tension with neighbours such as India. However, from Pakistan’s perspective, the US is an unreliable ally: supportive so long as it meets its own security goals, but not invested enough in Pakistan’s own problems. Moreover, American ability to pump resources into the region is constrained by a domestic audience tired of war and anxious about the economy. For Pakistani leaders and officers, then, Pakistan has to watch its own back, and do it the way it has done so for decades: negotiate with militants, and work with proxies.
The attack on bin-Laden is highly emblematic of the fraught US-Pakistani relationship. Pakistani officials at some level were probably aware of bin Laden’s location. The US was too suspicious of leaks to inform Pakistan in advance of the attack, humiliating the Pakistani army. Afterward, instead of working to breach this deep gulf of distrust, both sides retaliated with angry, “I don’t need you” gestures. However, the fact is, a cooperative Pakistan is extremely helpful—an estranged one is extremely dangerous (particularly if Pakistan believes it can rely on China for military assistance).
If the US wants to get cooperation, it needs to address Pakistan’s security concerns by moving forward on negotiations for stability in Afghanistan with Pakistan, and encouraging gestures of trust with India through trilateral talks and increased military cooperation and intelligence sharing on common threats. Moreover, Pakistan does recognize the dangers of domestic militants such as the Pakistani Taliban. The US should redouble support in responding to such groups, assuring Pakistan that Pakistani stability is a vital US interest. It also should continue to support efforts to build coherence and transparency in the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies, but do so with sensitivity and greater selectivity. Slamming Pakistan as a whole gives hard-line elements in the Pakistani leadership greater credibility in a country that already views the US highly negatively. Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, for example, suggests targeted sanctions on specific ISI officials. US-Pakistani relations are too important to let animosities fester. Unfortunately, current policy maintains an arms-length relationship of mutual recrimination.
photo credit: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2010/0325/US-will-expedite-aid-to-Pakistan-to-fight-Taliban-and-Al-Qaeda