Aliza Litchman is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The once strong U.S.-Pakistan relationship may be set to expire. Since the Afghan-Soviet war (1979-1989), Pakistan has served as a key U.S. ally in Central Asia—providing a base for military operations, participating in the counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and mediating relations between the United States and China. This bilateral relationship expanded in 2001 under President Bush, who increased humanitarian and military aid from $187.7 million in 2001 to $2 billion the year after 9/11—totally $20 billion in the subsequent decade. In 2009, Congress passed the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act that granted $1.5 billion in non-military aid to Pakistan over the next five years. However, recent Pakistani political and military decisions reveal shifting allegiances, calling into question the strength of U.S.-Pakistan relations.
In recent months, Pakistan embarked on a number of initiatives that support U.S. regional interests. Much of these initiatives were spurred by the December 16, 2014, Peshawar school attack—the most violent terrorist attack in Pakistan’s history—in which Taliban militants killed 145 people, including 132 children. Subsequently, in December 2014, the Pakistani government created National Action Plan (NAP) to crack down on terrorism. In January 2015, Pakistan began a process of deepening military ties with Afghanistan to strengthen border security. Also in line with U.S. regional interests, Pakistan pursued friendlier relations with India by resuming dialogues amid tensions on the contested Jammu and Kashmir border. As a result of Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts, the State Department’s approved Pakistan’s request for nearly $1 billion in military equipment.
However, granting another $1 billion to Pakistan may be premature, as Pakistan’s renewed crack down on terrorism is facing barriers to implementation. The country’s interior ministry released a progress report on the NAP that revealed poor progress and systemic miscommunication and disorganization. For instance, it revealed that 292,097 individuals were investigated during “combing operations” but only .05 percent were linked with terrorist organizations. Additionally, longstanding distrust between the civilian Intelligence Bureau and military-led Inter-Services Intelligence often results in ineffective communication and operation implementation. This is problematic because poor information sharing promotes faulty investigations and weak prosecution of suspected terrorists, who are frequently acquitted as a result.
Additionally, the Pakistani initiatives supportive of U.S. interests are greatly overshadowed by strengthening Pakistan-China and Pakistan-Russia relations. Most recently, on April 16, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced plans to embark on a $46 billion infrastructure spending plan in Pakistan known as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and, in early April, Pakistani president Nawaz Sharif approved an approximately $5 billion deal with China to purchase eight submarines with the potential to attach nuclear warheads. With a security interest in filling the vacuum left by the drawdown of U.S. troops from the region to stem the growing threat of terrorist attacks in West China, and following promises of unprecedented investment to Pakistan, Pakistan may default to a partner with which its interests more directly align—China. Russia, too, is growing closer to Pakistan. Most recently, it lifted its long-standing embargo on weapons sales to the country, agreed to the first-ever joint Pakistan-Russia military exercises, and sent the Russian defense minister to visit Pakistan for the first time in forty-five years.
It’s not just the government that supports these growing regional alliances. Pakistan’s deepening regional ties have reached an unprecedented strength, according to a study by Pew Research Center. While only 16 percent of Pakistanis view America’s influence as “mostly positive,” 75 percent and 25 percent view China and Russia as such, respectively.
Meanwhile, U.S. priorities are losing traction. Despite U.S. pressure to maintain a peaceful relationship with India, Pakistan is increasing its military arsenal and engaging in acts of aggression against India. In March, Pakistan test fired a Shaheen III ballistic missile with a range up to 1,700 miles—which would allow Pakistan to hit any location in India—and, the following month, it test fired the Ghauri Ballistic Missile with a range of 807 miles; both are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
For almost fourteen years, the United States convinced itself that supporting U.S. doctrine is a core strategic interest of Pakistan. U.S. officials have regularly regarded counterterrorism as a key tenant of bilateral relations. In reference to the recent State Department agreement to the $1 billion arms deal, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency said, “[we] will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a country vital to U.S. foreign policy and national security goals in South Asia.” However, that does not mean that U.S. priorities are in line Pakistan’s.
Pakistan’s recent actions reflect an increasingly different set of priorities. While Pakistan’s rivalry with India, quest for regional alliances, and pursuit of a strong military arsenal are not new, the country’s growing alignment of interests and unprecedented collaboration with potential U.S. rivals—China and Russia—threaten the stability of a bilateral relationship founded primarily on Pakistan’s reliance upon the United States. The United States should question whether it is clinging to an outdated perception of U.S.-Pakistani relations.