US-Pakistan partnership: Make it work for both sides

US relations with Pakistan are key to success in Afghanistan. Here’s how to bolster them.

President Obama’s Dec. 1 address to the nation correctly listed a partnership with Pakistan as a crucial foundation of policy toward Afghanistan

Sustaining that partnership may be his most formidable challenge. 

The Achilles’ heel of our past alliances with Pakistan has been both countries’ unwillingness to confront the discrepancies in their goals. This time, we need to be clear on where our goals do and don’t coincide, and what we are prepared to do about them. 

Calculus after 9/11

When Pakistan signed up for the US-led campaign against terrorism in the anxious days following 9/11, the two partners, as in the past, had objectives that overlapped – but only in part. Pakistan, like the United States, saw Al Qaeda as a danger to the world. But its other objectives were not shared by the US. 

As it had when it worked with the US during the cold war, Islamabad hoped to bolster its rivalry with India through US power. Pakistan wanted to enhance its influence, and eliminate India’s, in Afghanistan. These goals were more important for Pakistan than the US objective of ending the Taliban regime and putting extremist groups out of business. 

The collapse of Afghanistan’s Taliban government late in 2001 highlighted the difference. For the US, it was the first big success of the war against terrorism; for Pakistan, it looked like a strategic disaster. Pakistan was losing an embarrassing but pliant ally, and Kabul would now be under a government billed as friendly to India.

By early 2007, the disconnect between the two countries’ objectives was obvious. The regrouped Taliban threatened both the NATO military forces and the Karzai government, and US officials publicly expressed concern about the support they enjoyed from Pakistan’s intelligence services. 

Pakistan’s official policy favored strengthening and stabilizing the Afghan government. However, Pakistani decisionmakers, with uniformly low expectations of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s attitude toward Pakistan and his government’s capacity, had strong motives for keeping their ties with the group they had helped install in Kabul in the mid-1990s.  

First things first

Countries defend their own interests first, before worrying about those of their friends, so it is unrealistic to expect that Pakistan’s goals will be fully in sync with those of the US. But Islamabad’s record this past year is heartening. 

It has deployed the Army against domestic Taliban insurgents both in the “settled areas” of Pakistan like the Swat Valley, and in the ungoverned tribal areas along the Pakistani-Afghan border like South Waziristan

Its recognition that these will be long-term campaigns vital to the state indicates that there is a greater degree of congruence between US and Pakistani perceptions of the threat of terrorism than many Pakistanis had previously accepted.

Window of opportunity

This represents the “window of opportunity” that Obama administration officials refer to. But it does not mean that US and Pakistani priorities are fully aligned. 

If we want to build a long-term partnership, we need to recognize both its potential and its limitations. Pakistan has a long history of manipulating its American ally by calculating the minimum necessary action to lower Washington’s anxiety. The Obama administration needs to be clear on the “price of admission” for a long-term partnership. 

Mr. Obama’s speech suggested two “must haves”: action against the Afghan Taliban’s sanctuaries in Balochistan Province, and putting the extremists that operate in other parts of Pakistan, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, out of business. Neither can be accomplished in one go, but unless clear-eyed analysis indicates that Pakistan is truly moving ahead on both, the US will not have enough of a partnership to carry it through the Afghan mine fields. Americans have deluded themselves before; they must not do so again.

The importance of staying power

What does the US need to contribute to the partnership? The key is staying power. Pakistanis view the US as an unreliable partner that has used Pakistan when it was convenient and abandoned it when the moment passed. The 2011 exit ramp for US troops in Afghanistan risks reinforcing this perception. 

To counteract it, we have already offered long-term aid. We need to bolster this with real support for Pakistan’s internal security –
 capacity-building, funding, and recognition of the challenges Pakistan faces. 

Finally, always provided we are on track toward our primary goals, we should find an opportunity to have the US-Pakistan relationship “countersigned” by the Congress, which the Pakistanis see as the “gold standard” in determining whether the US is serious. 

This is the basis for a serious long-term partnership – but not an unlimited one. 

Pakistan will still consider India its major threat, consuming the lion’s share of its defense resources. The US will also have major interests in its partnership with India, and will work with India’s growing power in the Indian Ocean and emerging role in East Asia

But if Pakistan can stop providing space for terrorist organizations to operate, and the US has the grit to stay with this effort as long as it is genuinely moving ahead, we can work together in spite of goals that diverge in other respects. In the process, we will make an important down payment toward regional peace and stability. 

Teresita C. Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is a retired US diplomat who served in Pakistan. She is working on a book about US-Pakistan negotiations.

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