The recent Wikileaks exposure of over 90,000 classified US documents about the Afghan war revealed a Pakistan that has been both a major American ally and, at times, engaged in supporting the very Taliban who kill US soldiers in Afghanistan.
That would be a big mistake. America has abandoned Pakistan before, after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, with regrettable results. It can’t afford to do so again – nuclear-armed Pakistan is simply too important and dangerous now.
Instead, both Washington and Islamabad must break the cynical, transactional bonds of their relationship, and work to form a partnership that supports their long-term, mutual interests. That won’t be easy. But it’s the only way the United States can protect its national security interests in Southwest Asia.
A most important – and least understood – country
America can begin by educating itself about a land of which it remains terribly ignorant.
With 177 million people, Pakistan is the sixth-most-populous country on the planet and it has a very young population, with 64 million people 14 years of age or younger.
It is also the only country that within the past 15 years has manufactured, tested, and proliferated nuclear weapons; had a military coup d’etat (and a subsequent peaceful return to power of civilian politicians); been forced to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund to avoid an economic collapse (2008); and become the global epicenter for Islamist militancy and extremism. Yet, few people in the West understand all of these problems, or Pakistan’s efforts to solve them.
Mostly, we see Pakistan as we always have, as an on-again-off again “ally” whose relationship with the United States is transactional – that is, we enlist them when we need help against the Soviet Union or Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, for example, pay them generously while the relationship is on, and then drop the relationship when we do not need them.
Our fecklessness is due in part to the fact that we know virtually nothing about Pakistan, a place far from and alien to the US.
Although the Pakistani diaspora population is significant, with more than seven million Pakistanis living abroad, only 300,000 or so live in the United States, where there is no appreciation for the ancient Indus River Valley civilization (the pharaohs and pyramids of Egypt’s Nile River Valley Civilization are much better known), Pakistani sports (cricket, anyone?), music (Junoon, Pakistan’s biggest rock band of the 1990s, just put out a new song), or the latest movies from Lollywood (its Lahore-based movie industry).
While we treat Pakistan as an unreliable client, Pakistan treats the US as a far-away, fair-weather friend. Pakistan and the United States currently find themselves embroiled in an on-again period of uncertain friendship, but neither side counts on the relationship to last.
Pakistan expects the United States to walk away again, while the US believes that Pakistan will continue to see itself as caught between two rising great powers, China and India, each with nuclear arsenals and aspirations to dominate Asia. China (which also sees India as a rival) is Pakistan’s northern neighbor and “all-weather” ally. India is Pakistan’s great resented rival and hegemon of the South Asian subcontinent.
The two countries were created by Britain’s partition of the subcontinent in 1947, when the colonial territory ruled under the British Raj was divided into a Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan (then including East Pakistan, which in 1971 would become independent as Bangladesh). Since Partition, Pakistan and India have fought four wars (1947, 1965, 1971, and 1999) and numerous skirmishes, and both have developed nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
India has prevailed each time, because although Pakistan has an excellent military that is the world’s seventh-largest in terms of active duty troops, India’s military is the third-largest and has a military budget that is eight times bigger. It is as if the United States and Mexico had a long-standing dispute that occasionally erupted into open conflict.
Why Pakistan turns to Islamist militants
Thus, although Pakistan has spent an inordinately large share of its national budget to build a far larger military than it needs, that military has never been able to perform its primary task with regard to India successfully. So, in 1998, shortly after India conducted nuclear tests, Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons, but while its 100 or so nuclear warheads may provide some deterrent capability against a lightning Indian attack, Pakistan can hardly use its nuclear arsenal as an offensive weapon.
That leaves the third leg of Pakistan’s strategic triad, Islamist militants run by the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Historically, Pakistan has achieved its foreign policy interests in neighboring countries more through the activities of the militants than by way of its conventional or nuclear forces.
Pakistan’s biggest national security concern, by far, is India, with which it has an existential struggle over the disputed Kashmir region. Since the American-led intervention in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, India has gained a foothold there as well. By aiding the Afghan government and building consulates around the country, New Delhi is not only undermining Pakistan’s hopes for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, but motivating even greater need for the militants.
Implications of withdrawal
The United States has announced a July 2011 target for beginning a withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan, which has been read throughout the region as meaning that the West will begin a serious pullout then. All the regional actors have begun to prepare for the American-led withdrawal, meaning that Pakistan cannot abandon its only functional national security tool.
This reality poses a particular problem for the United States. That’s because many of the militants were trained and maintained in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which sits next to the Durand Line. The Durand Line is a border negotiated between the British and Afghanistan in the 1890s, when the British ruled what is now Pakistan and held indirect sway in Afghanistan as well.
The Tribal Areas remain semi-autonomous and a barren bastion of Pashtun tribesmen, who are cousins of the Afghan Pashtuns across the border from whom the Taliban sprang. The demographic explosion and economic malaise in Pakistan combined with heightened anti-American sentiment following 9/11 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 to produce a new generation of Taliban, many of whom have abandoned the old ties to the ISI and now pursue their own targets, including Pakistani soldiers, police, public officials, and civilians.
So, for much of the past decade since 9/11, and perhaps even now, Pakistan has played a dangerous double game of helping the Americans destroy some of the Taliban that are located in and operating from safe havens on Pakistani territory, while simultaneously maintaining some of the Taliban against the day when the United States leaves Afghanistan.
Moving beyond a transactional relationship
How can the US engage Pakistan in a way that leads to a better outcome in the war in Afghanistan? There is no good answer to this question, because it requires both countries to change their historical behavior.
The US would have to go beyond the transactional relationship to develop a strategic partnership with Pakistan, which is unlikely given the far larger population and market of India just next door (and the possibility of India as hedge against rising Chinese influence and power).
Pakistan would have to abandon its militants, which would be hard enough even if everyone wanted to do so, but this is a federal country with a dominant military, important Islamist political parties, and many religious schools. There are numerous ways for the militants to continue even if the policy of the government is to eliminate them. And, since Pakistan believes the US will abandon it yet again, it has no incentive to change its behavior and every reason not to. As for the US, it faces the timeless problem of having to prove a negative – namely, that it is not going to abandon Pakistan yet again. How can it prove that to skeptical Pakistanis?
Can’t twist Pakistan’s arm
Pakistan cannot be cajoled, induced, or even threatened into changing its behavior, and the US cannot prevail in Afghanistan without a change in Pakistan’s behavior. Pakistan must change because it wants to do so, which will require both deep internal reforms of its institutions and regional diplomatic initiatives to lower the temperature in the neighborhood.
The US must take two linked and challenging steps.
First, it must program a significant portion of its aid to Pakistan for non-security assistance that produces changes to its economic and political structures, so that long-overdue institutional reforms can be fostered.
The seamy underside of our transactional relationship is that most of America’s aid to Pakistan has gone historically to its military, thus preventing badly needed reform. That must change if the cycle of mutual duplicity is to be broken.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made some progress on this front in July, when she announced $500 million in funds for hospitals and hydroelectric generation, part of a larger sum of $7.5 billion in US aid for development projects in Pakistan.
“It’s our goal to slowly but surely demonstrate that the US is concerned about Pakistan for the long term, and that the partnership goes far beyond security against our common enemies,” Secretary Clinton said.
But she faces an uphill battle. A Pew survey this summer showed that 6 in 10 Pakistanis regard the US as a “nemesis.”
The best thing we have done in Pakistan in recent memory was the post-earthquake relief effort in 2005, which prompted enduring positive feelings toward the US in the remote northern villages of Pakistan where US military helicopters dropped from the sky to provide life-giving supplies and ferry the injured to US military doctors.
Now Pakistan is awash in historic and devastating floods, and the US response to this tragedy – $76 million in aid so far – could provide another opportunity to build goodwill. “The people of Pakistan will see that when the crisis hits, it’s not the Chinese, it’s not the Iranians, it’s not other countries,” said US special envoy Richard Holbrooke. “It’s not the EU, it’s the US.”
Yet the US should spend ten times that amount, and immediately offer to redeploy troops from Afghanistan to help in Pakistan. US government relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina eventually topped $100 billion, and the first supplemental appopriation just after the hurricane was for $10.5 billion, so pushing our spending on Pakistan up to $7.6 billion is viable.
Second, the Kashmir dispute that is at the root of the historical animosity with India must be resolved. The US must provide leadership to bring about that resolution, despite Indian desires to have Washington sit on the sidelines. This step will be very difficult, as India has already rebuffed efforts by the Obama administration to do exactly that.
Both steps must occur in tandem, so that each side can make important, but painful, changes to longstanding institutions and positions. Above all else, the US must not abandon Pakistan again.
Larry P. Goodson is the author of “Afghanistan’s Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban” and a forthcoming book about Pakistan.