from Campaign 2012

The Candidates on U.S.-Pakistan Relations

This CFR Issue Tracker looks at the United States’ relationship with Pakistan and presidential candidates’ stances on the issue.

Last updated October 31, 2012
8:00 am (EST)

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The U.S.-Pakistan relationship and success in Afghanistan have been tied together since the beginning of the U.S. war on terror in 2001. The Pakistani government aided the United States in capturing terrorist suspects, and after the war in Afghanistan began, Pakistan served as a major supply route for allied forces. But working closely with Pakistan on Afghan border control and terrorism has had its challenges.

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Drone strikes, originally considered acceptable by Pakistanis and effective in damaging militant networks (NYT), are now protested as a breach of sovereignty as the accidental drone killings of civilians (BBC) and accusations of harboring terrorists have mounted. In May 2011, Osama bin Laden was found and killed in a safe house in Pakistan, raising tensions even higher. Ties between the United States and Pakistan were further strained in late 2011 after a NATO air strike killed twenty-four Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border.

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Elections and Voting

As the war in Afghanistan draws to a close and the U.S. presidential election draws nearer, U.S.-Pakistan relations remain contentious. President Obama has sought to repair the relationship with Pakistan, especially for the sake of trade routes and assistance in hunting terrorists. Republican candidates’ opinions on the relationship remain vague, with presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney saying the relationship needs to be improved and better defined, particularly if the United States and its allies are to succeed in Afghanistan, but not yet offering specifics on how he would go about that if elected.

Editor’s Note: Click here for more CFR Issue Trackers and other 2012 campaign resources, which examine the foreign policy and national security dimensions of the presidential race.

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Barack Obama

Democratic Incumbent, Running Mate Joe Biden

In March 2009, President Barack Obama adopted his initial so-called Af-Pak strategy, increasing focus on targeting terrorist safe havens in Pakistan at the same time that he called for a troop increase in Afghanistan as part of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. The administration called for consensus building on regional security and economics with a trilateral U.S.-Pakistan-Afghanistan working group, and for overcoming the perceived "trust deficit" there.

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"The Pakistani people must know America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed," he said in December 2009.

In the meantime, however, the Obama administration stepped up CIA-led unmanned drone strikes to decimate al-Qaeda’s leadership (NPR) in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In early 2012, Obama defended the use of unmanned aircraft (BBC) to kill suspected al-Qaeda militants in the tribal areas near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, saying other methods would be even more militarily intrusive and that such strikes had "not caused a huge number of civilian casualties."

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A little more than a month after Osama bin Laden was found and killed in his Abbottabad, Pakistan compound, Obama again attempted to redefine the U.S-Pakistan relationship, pledging to address terrorist safe havens there. "We’ll work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keeps its commitments," he said in a June 2011 address.

During a March 2012 anti-proliferation conference in Seoul, Obama met with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani and acknowledged the strains (NYT) in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. "We’re both interested in nuclear security, as evidenced by our presence here today," he said. "And we have been working together because we’re both interested in a stable and secure Afghanistan and a stable and secure region that will benefit not only Pakistan but also the entire world."

Obama had another sidebar on Pakistan with President Asif Ali Zardari, this time in conjunction with the May 2012 NATO summit in Chicago (LAT). "We think that Pakistan has to be part of the solution in Afghanistan, that it is in our national interest to see a Pakistan that is democratic, that is prosperous and that is stable, that we share a common enemy in the extremists that are found not only in Afghanistan, but also within Pakistan and that we need to work through some of the tensions that have inevitably arisen after ten years of our military presence in that region," Obama said in a press conference following the meeting.

In the third presidential debate, held in Boca Raton, Florida on October 22, Obama criticized Romney’s previous statement that he "wouldn’t move heaven and earth" to get Bin Laden. The president also defended his decision not to ask Pakistan for permission before initiating the clandestine operation that resulted in the al-Qaeda leader’s death.

Mitt Romney

Republican Candidate, Running Mate Paul Ryan

In a November 2011 debate, Romney said the U.S. goal should be to "bring Pakistan into the twenty-first century" and engage the sixth-largest country in the world in trade and an exchange of ideas to encourage modernity in the region in general.

On his campaign website, Romney ties the fate of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in part to the relationship with Pakistan, saying as president, he would work with both governments to ensure that those nations are fully contributing to success in Afghanistan. He also says the United States must be clear with Pakistan about what it requires and be unafraid to use its considerable leverage. "Pakistan should understand that any connection between insurgent forces and Pakistan’s security and intelligence forces must be severed," Romney said.

In terms of entering Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, Romney said if he had been president under those circumstances, he "would do exactly the same thing" (Mediaite).

During the Republican primary debates, Romney said he was comfortable using drones to hunt terrorists in Pakistan, in part because the United States had established the proper agreements to do so.

On his trip abroad in July 2012, Romney said he discussed Pakistan, among other countries, with British Prime Minister David Cameron, but he did not offer details on the conversation.

In October, a campaign adviser for Mitt Romney said a Romney administration would take steps to prevent Pakistan from increasing its nuclear stockpile (PTI).

In the third presidential debate on October 22, Romney said that that he thinks that the United States should continue to encourage Pakistan to move toward a more stable government, but that aid to the nation should be "conditional—and consistent with U.S. foreign policy priorities."


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