The Obama administration is putting the screws to Pakistan, cutting roughly 40 percent of U.S. military assistance (NYT) and publicly challenging the activities of Pakistan's intelligence service (ISI). The question is: Will these coercive efforts pay dividends, or will they contribute to a downward spiral in U.S.-Pakistan relations?
The answer depends on whether Washington's actions are embedded in a comprehensive strategy, or if they are merely ad hoc reactions to Pakistan's frustrating policies since the May 2 U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound.
Islamabad and Washington have lurched from crisis to crisis all year. At root, the two sides continue to have fundamental disagreements over Pakistan's continued use of militant proxy forces as "strategic assets" in neighboring Afghanistan and India. Washington believes Pakistan remains only a partial partner, fighting some terrorists tooth and nail, while turning a blind eye to others. U.S. officials have evidence (NYT) that parts of the ISI are particularly untrustworthy.
Alone, cutting U.S. military assistance will not force Pakistan to reassess its strategic posture. Pakistan's generals probably benefit from the assistance more than they claim, but they can also do without it. And anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is so intense at the moment, including within the ranks of the army, that Pakistan's generals can hardly appear to bow before U.S. pressure. So if Obama administration officials believe that assistance cuts and public rebukes offer enough leverage to coerce a Pakistani about-face, they will be sorely disappointed.
That said, if Washington's harder line is being taken within the context of a more comprehensive strategy that includes other points of U.S. influence, then this deeper slide in military-to-military relations might be worth suffering.
The United States has leverage in Afghanistan, where U.S. Special Forces can strike a number of the militant groups that have had longstanding ties to the Pakistani state, especially the Haqqani network, in an effort to demonstrate to Islamabad that these groups cannot advance its interests in the region. Washington can also step up efforts to lobby Pakistan's close allies in Beijing and Riyadh to express their own concerns about the ISI's reckless behavior in quiet dialogues with Pakistan's leaders. Finally, Washington can explain to a range of influential Pakistanis that the U.S. goal is not to engineer a break with Pakistan, but to put the relationship on firmer ground.
Even if all these steps are taken, U.S.-Pakistan relations could be heading from bad to worse. In the near term, this will complicate U.S. counterterror missions and the war effort in Afghanistan. Over the long haul, it increases the chances that we will face a nuclear-armed Pakistani state that is increasingly fragile and at odds with America.