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Military cooperation between the United States and Pakistan has undergone a tactical renaissance since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Moribund at the end of the Cold War, when concerns about nuclear proliferation and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan diminished Pakistan’s importance in the eyes of U.S. policymakers, bilateral military cooperation accelerated during the Bush and Musharraf administrations. In 2006, U.S. arms sales to Islamabad topped $3.5 billion (PDF), nearly matching total purchases by Pakistan from the United States during the fifty years prior to 2001. Now, with Pakistan’s tribal areas serving as the base of operations for Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, the United States has tried to strengthen these bonds. But U.S. covert military operations inside Pakistan along the Afghan border (including revelations of possible ground raids by U.S. Special Operations Forces), Pakistan’s political instability, and Islamabad’s questionable record on terrorism have thrown one of America’s most important military alliances into disarray.
A Complicated History
Soon after Pakistan was founded in 1947, U.S. concerns about Soviet expansionism in the region and Pakistan’s desire for security assistance against a perceived threat from India prompted a military alliance between the two countries. Washington and Islamabad signed a mutual defense assistance agreement in 1954 and soon military aid started flowing into Pakistan. But as this timeline shows, the relationship has been a turbulent one over the years. While military coups and wars with India led to U.S. sanctions and a strain in ties, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 brought the military and the intelligence agencies of the United States and Pakistan into a partnership. Along with Saudi Arabia, they worked covertly to support the Afghan resistance, the mujahadeen, against the Soviets throughout the 1980s. Following the Soviet Union’s withdrawal, which ended in 1988, the alliance cooled. In October 1990, the United States blocked the delivery of dozens of new F-16 fighter jets to protest Pakistan’s then-undeclared nuclear weapons program; Pakistan’s nuclear test of 1998 brought a fresh wave of sanctions from Washington. Meanwhile, geopolitical changes brought about by the end of the Cold War led Washington to grow increasingly intimate with Pakistan’s sworn enemy, India.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, shifted relations once again. Today Pakistan is among the United States’ top recipients of foreign military assistance. But due to the historical inconsistency in Washington’s support, experts say many within Pakistan’s security forces and government view the United States as an unreliable ally.
Terrorist Safe Havens
In the 1990s, as factional fighting kept Afghanistan in a state of almost constant warfare, Pakistan’s government supported the rise of a group known as the Taliban, or "students," who swept to power in Kabul in 1996. Elements of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, known as Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan provided the Taliban with advisers and materials in their battles with rival warlords, ensuring a friendly government that controlled most of Afghanistan. But the Taliban hosted unsavory guests, including al-Qaeda, which by the late 1990s had been identified as a serious new threat by the United States. Following the 9/11 attacks and the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that followed, leaders of al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, along with other terrorist groups, fled across the border into Pakistan and made its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) their new home.
Since then, as this Backgrounder explains, many new terrorist groups have emerged in Pakistan, several existing groups have reconstituted themselves, and a new crop of militants—more violent and less conducive to political solutions than their predecessors—has taken control. According to a 2007 report by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Pakistan had 137 percent more terrorist attacks in 2007 than in 2006. The North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the tribal areas accounted for 54 percent of the total attacks, up from 23 percent the previous year. One such attack killed Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s former prime minister, during an election rally in December 2007.
Foreign military assistance from Washington has increased exponentially since the 9/11 terror attacks, and Pakistan currently ranks among the largest recipients of U.S. military aid. In June 2008, the U.S. government reported that nearly $11 billion (PDF) in military and economic assistance grants have been delivered since 2002, the vast majority channeled through Pakistan’s military for security-related programs. A report by the Center for Public Integrity finds that in the three years after 9/11, military aid to Pakistan from the Coalition Support Fund—created after the attacks to assist U.S. allies in the global fight against terrorism—was nearly $3 billion, ten times the amount received by Poland, the second-highest recipient of cash from the fund. Pakistan has used the money to purchase helicopters, F-16s, aircraft-mounted armaments, and anti-ship and antimissile defense systems—weapons that Indian officials and others have deemed of questionable relevance to the counterterrorism mission. A June 2008 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found widespread accounting irregularities (PDF) with Pentagon spending.
Craig Cohen and Derek Chollet of the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggest that more funding should be aimed at development and humanitarian programs. "Although foreign military financing is often justified to Congress as playing a critical role in the war on terrorism, in reality the weapons systems are often prestige items to help Pakistan in the event of war with India," the authors write. "Few of these weapons are likely to provide much help in rooting out al Qaeda or the Taliban." Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says the United States should focus more on economic and political initiatives in the region.
Pakistan’s Failed Promise
Former Pakistani president and army chief Pervez Musharraf promised "unstinted cooperation" to the United States in the fight against global terrorism. But while Musharraf cracked down on terrorist groups, he did so selectively, experts say. Ashley J. Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes (PDF) that Musharraf tightened pressure on groups whose objectives were out of sync with the military’s perception of Pakistan’s national interest. Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Bhutto, is seen as being pro-American and has pledged to combat terrorism. But the army remains the key player and most analysts express concern that the civilian leadership in Pakistan may not have much say in the matter. "The main challenge for the civilian government is to gradually assert their predominance over the military (PDF)," says South Asia expert Frederic Grare. However, he warns it must do so without humiliating the military and while avoiding direct confrontation.
Today, more than eighty-five thousand Pakistani troops remain deployed along the Afghan border. While the military has captured over seven hundred al-Qaeda operatives within its borders, experts say it has made no significant victories against the Taliban and other groups that have been traditionally supported by the military and the intelligence services. But Pakistan points to the death of nearly a thousand soldiers in its fight against militancy to deny these charges.
U.S-Pakistan Military Cooperation Pakistan’s armed forces have proven ineffective in the tribal areas, in part because the regular military has not been deployed in these semi-autonomous areas in decades. Thus, Islamabad has turned to its Frontier Corps—a Pakistani paramilitary organization that operates in the the autonomous tribal areas—to target insurgents. Local language skills and familiarity with the local terrain have given the corps an advantage. But this strategy, too, has been plagued with problems; there have been numerous defections, and refusals to fight and follow orders. RAND Corporation expert C. Christine Fair, in January 2008 testimony to a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, said the Frontier Corps is "inadequately trained and equipped and has been ill-prepared for counter-insurgency operations in FATA." Fair, along with other experts, also questions the soldiers’ willingness to fight. She says the corps "was used to train the Taliban in the 1990s and many are suspected of having ties to that organization."
Hassan Abbas, a former Pakistani government official who is now a research fellow at Harvard University, notes that Washington has funded a program to transform Pakistan’s Frontier Corps into an effective counterbalance against terrorist elements. Training of the corps—part of a broader $400-million effort to improve security in the region—was expected to start in late 2008. But an errant U.S. air strike in June 2008 that Pakistan says killed eleven Frontier Corps soldiers has infuriated the Pakistani military and jeopardized the training effort (NYT). Brian Cloughley, a South Asian military affairs analyst, says the program faces an uphill climb (PDF) even if it does get off the ground. "The Frontier Corps … is under strain because its members are all Pushtun and there are extreme pressures placed upon them in regard to combating fellow Muslim tribesmen," Cloughley writes in a January 2008 research brief.
Another approach taken by past and present Pakistani governments in the tribal areas is to sign peace agreements with tribal leaders. So far, most of them have failed. Critics, including many in Washington and the U.S. military, say such agreements only end up strengthening the militants.
In January 2008, the United States’ top intelligence officials traveled to Islamabad to request permission to hunt down militants inside Pakistan. The request was rebuffed by then President Musharraf (NYT), but some analysts believe a quiet understanding was hashed out during that meeting. K. Alan Kronstadt, a specialist for South Asian affairs at the Congressional Research Service, writes in an April 2008 report that "three Predators are said to be deployed at a secret Pakistani airbase and can be launched without specific permission from the Islamabad government." Pakistan officially denies the planes exist, but reports of operational successes inside the country suggest a beefed-up U.S. presence in the tribal areas. In February 2008, the Washington Post reported that a CIA Predator had fired two Hellfire missiles inside Pakistani airspace three weeks earlier, killing a senior al-Qaeda commander. A month later, Jane’s Defense Weekly reported that a strike by an unmanned aerial drone on March 16, 2008, killed fourteen people in southern Waziristan. The Washington Post in September 2008 reported a threefold increase in Hellfire missile attacks by Predator drones from 2007 to 2008.
Debate over Washington’s covert tactics inside Pakistan’s tribal region took on new significance with a September 11, 2008, report by the New York Times detailing secret orders signed by President Bush allowing for unilateral ground assaults. The report brought condemnation from Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani. "The sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country will be defended at all cost (ABC) and no external force is allowed to conduct operations against inside [sic] Pakistan," he said. Shuja Nawaz, a journalist and author of Crossed Swords, a history of the Pakistani military, says the government of Pakistan has never allowed unilateral ground assaults by U.S. Special Operations Forces inside Pakistani territory.
Even so, some military analysts have advocated increased U.S. activity in the region. "Congress should encourage the CIA and other agencies in the [i]ntelligence [c]ommunity to take more active and aggressive measures to gather intelligence and act against al-Qaeda and Taliban militias [in Pakistan’s tribal regions]," Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, told lawmakers in April 2008 (PDF). But U.S. diplomats see things differently. According to Kronstadt, opponents of the policy, including some State Department officials, fear mounting Pakistani anger will eventually outweigh the military gains, a concern that is borne out in public opinion surveys. A national poll conducted in mid-2008 found that 74 percent of Pakistanis oppose direct U.S. military (PDF) action against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants.
Betting on Musharraf
Washington’s support for former President Musharraf—despite his declining popularity in 2007—has left the United States without much support within Pakistan. In February 2008, a civilian leadership took over; six months later, Musharraf was forced to resign. Even as the U.S. State Department and national intelligence reports attributed the growing strength of al-Qaeda and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan to Pakistan’s safe havens, the Bush administration continued to praise Musharraf on his success against terrorism.
Having relied on Musharraf, Washington had to rush to make friends with the new army chief once Musharraf stepped down in November 2007. So far, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, unlike his predecessor, has shown a preference for keeping the army out of politics. Pakistan’s new ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, told CFR.org in December 2007 that General Kiyani’s training in the West works in his favor among the U.S. military hierarchy. But even while many in the Pakistan army would like to have positive relations with the West, Haqqani says they would like "a different set of terms to be the determining factor for that association."
An Ailing Alliance
Despite ongoing criticism, U.S. military and intelligence officials have gone out of their way to praise the United States’ military-to-military relationship with Pakistan. In November 2007, Lt. Gen. Carter Ham called Pakistan "a great partner so far in the war on terror" and said collaboration and cooperation in border missions was improving. During a visit to Islamabad in June 2008, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, reiterated Washington’s commitment to Pakistan. “Pakistan and the United States remain steadfast allies, and Pakistan’s military is fighting bravely against terrorism,” Mullen said.
Yet longtime observers of the delicate partnership say events in 2008—like the June air strike, Pakistan’s February elections, and reports of American ground assaults—have increased tensions and strained the alliance. Peter Bergen, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, says Washington can do more to heal the relationship and increase Pakistan’s counterterrorism capabilities. During an April 2008 hearing on al-Qaeda, Bergen suggested the U.S. military should train Pakistani army officers at Fort Bragg or Fort Leavenworth in counterterrorism tactics; increase military aid but link conditions to the funding; and publicly declare its intention to stay in the region for the long term.
But Kronstadt says Washington also needs to consider the historical perspective of Pakistanis when seeking to mend fences. "There are short and long, general and specific problems here," the CRS analyst says. "In the general sense, there’s recognition we need a good relationship with Pakistan. I don’t think there is any push within the major powers in either capital for a divorce. But in the short term, there are obvious problems. There’s a historic mistrust. I don’t think many people in Washington get that in Pakistan, they feel that the U.S. treats them as a disposable ally."