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How will the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan affect U.S.-Pakistan relations?

Question submitted by Ahner Abdullah, January 21, 2014

Answered by: Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia

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Many Pakistanis are inclined to view 2014 as the beginning of a new U.S. abandonment of Pakistan. This perspective is inspired both by a long history of ups (1950s, 1980s, early 2000s) and downs (1960s, most of the 1970s, and 1990s) in the relationship between Washington and Islamabad, as well as by the coming military drawdown from Afghanistan.

Such skepticism about U.S. commitment to Afghanistan helps to explain why, rather than fully jumping on the NATO-led bandwagon after 9/11, Pakistan retained ties with Afghan Taliban members and associates. Islamabad's unhelpful approach, however much it has infuriated U.S. policymakers, is not likely to change now.

The question then is whether U.S. officials, exhausted by Pakistan's destructive policies, will again pull away from Islamabad as soon as Pakistani roads and ports are no longer needed as supply routes for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Washington's policy shift would not necessarily come as a dramatic rupture; it could instead look more like quiet neglect. The Obama administration, facing other pressing challenges in the Middle East, East Asia, and elsewhere, would put Pakistan on the back burner, reducing diplomatic attention and resources. Many in the U.S. Congress would happily follow suit; military and civilian assistance to Pakistan is unpopular and cuts hold added appeal in a time of austerity.

Yet neglecting Pakistan would be shortsighted on Washington's part. Pakistan has the realistic potential to threaten bigger, long-term U.S. interests in Asia, starting with the peace and economic growth of its neighbors. Equally, a program of constructive regional economic integration, with U.S. support, is probably the only way to encourage Pakistan's own development and turn its youth bulge from threat to opportunity. These observations inform a two-pronged, Asia-centered approach to U.S. strategy for Pakistan that I explain in my latest Council Special Report.