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This week, Pakistan’s top spy, Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, arrived in Washington for a series of intensive consultations. The visit followed a disastrous few months during which U.S.-Pakistan relations hit a new low. The Raymond Davis affair was the catalyst for a downward spiral that is no longer a mere diplomatic dispute or game of spy versus spy. If not for the revolutionary events in the Arab Middle East, the Japanese tsunami, and the budget debate, Americans would be more aware that the central pillars of U.S. strategy in Pakistan are in peril.
The Obama administration has routinely declared the vital strategic importance of Pakistan, and yet for all the rhetoric, its "AfPak" reviews have placed far greater emphasis on al-Qaeda and the Afghan war than on getting Pakistan right. The present crisis offers an important opportunity for change.
Any U.S. strategy for Pakistan must advance three primary goals. First, it must work to eliminate international terrorist networks, degrade regional militant groups, and reduce the role of violent, extreme ideologies in Pakistani society. Second, it should force and support an end to Pakistan’s longstanding policy of actively or passively supporting militancy as a means to promote its interests in Afghanistan and India. Third, it must help Pakistan achieve long-term stability through economic growth and reform.
A clear-headed understanding of what the latest crisis is about will help to guide future efforts. There are at least four overlapping reasons for the crisis.
Understanding Pakistan’s Interests
The first cause is the most obvious. From the most senior generals to the average man on the street, Pakistanis are angry about U.S. violations of their territorial sovereignty. While U.S. officials believe such anger is overstated and misplaced--after all, they are targeting terrorists who threaten to destabilize Pakistan--the level of anti-American vitriol that runs through Pakistani society cannot be denied. Such anger makes it extremely difficult for Pakistan’s leaders to justify cooperation with the United States, even if they appreciate the material benefits we offer. Any U.S. strategy must be crafted to operate under these constraints, as frustrating as they might be.
Beyond the level of raw emotion, Pakistan’s leaders may also be trying to renegotiate the terms of their partnership with Washington at what they perceive to be a critical moment of American vulnerability. This is not a new phenomenon; Pakistan used its strategic geography during the Cold War to extract assistance from the United States in exchange for cooperation against the Soviet Union. With the Obama administration accelerating its military campaign in Afghanistan and along Pakistan’s tribal belt, savvy Pakistani leaders may simply be attempting to raise the rent. Within limits, Washington should probably be willing to pay.
Third, the present crisis has roots in Islamabad’s frustration that the United States is using tactics that weaken terrorist organizations that have historically been on the Pakistani intelligence service’s payroll and are not perceived as threats to the Pakistani state. Pakistanis see unannounced U.S. drone strikes on North Waziristan-based fighters in the Haqqani network and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group as killing militants with whom Islamabad enjoys influence and--by many accounts--nonaggression pacts. Worse, the Raymond Davis case exposed U.S. efforts to spy on Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group with even closer ties to the Pakistani state.
Pakistan’s generals want the United States to narrow its target list to foreign fighters like al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban groups who threaten Islamabad. Their motives are impossible to know for certain. At best, Pakistan’s leaders believe they lack the capacity to attack all of these militants at the same time. They fear unifying opposition to the state and prefer a "divide and conquer" approach. At worst, they hope to maintain their militant proxy forces for future use against India and Afghanistan.
[T]he crisis reflects Pakistan’’s fundamental uncertainty about U.S. intentions and strategy in the region. In particular, Pakistanis fear that the war in Afghanistan will not end well for them.
The United States cannot afford to back down on this issue. In fact, degrading LeT, Haqqani, and other militants must be part of Washington’s effort to change Pakistan’s regional strategy. The weaker the groups, the less utility they will hold for Pakistan, and the more likely Islamabad will choose to find alternative means--preferably political and economic--to expand its influence in the region.
Fourth, and most worrisome, the crisis reflects Pakistan’s fundamental uncertainty about U.S. intentions and strategy in the region. In particular, Pakistanis fear that the war in Afghanistan will not end well for them. From Pakistan’s perspective, Washington’s military and diplomatic "surges" in Afghanistan have introduced new tensions without advancing any clear strategic purpose.
On the one hand, Pakistan sees U.S. General David Petraeus’s expanded war of attrition as depleting Taliban forces, some of which are Islamabad’s old allies. On the other hand, Pakistan sees Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s efforts to "reconcile" with the Taliban as a desperate effort to find a face-saving way to bring U.S. forces home quickly. In neither case does Islamabad feel that its interests are being looked after, reinforcing its deeper fear that Washington will abandon Afghanistan to chaos, or worse, to an Afghan regime whose sympathies lie with India. If only to reduce the unhealthy consequences of Pakistan’s uncertainty, Washington needs to offer greater clarity about its strategy for Afghanistan.
Recasting the Relationship
With all these doubts, some Pakistanis believe that the costs of cooperating with Washington now outweigh the benefits. Those benefits--in the form of billions of dollars in military and civilian assistance--have so far provided the greatest ballast against a complete bilateral meltdown. Still, for a wide range of reasons, U.S. aid is not yet generating sufficient leverage or trust to enable effective cooperation.
The quantity of assistance may not be the problem. Greater sums of assistance could generate more dependency, not necessarily good will. With these points in mind, a revised assistance strategy is now required. In particular, Washington should focus on how U.S. dollars can be used to encourage private investment from American and other international sources into Pakistan. Greater trade and investment, not direct assistance, will be the only way to transform Pakistan’s macroeconomic prospects over the long run.
All told, the present crisis has undermined critical pillars of the Obama administration’s approach to Pakistan. By forcing Washington to pull covert operatives out of the country, Islamabad has hurt the U.S. ability to target terrorists by drone or human surveillance. By shutting down training programs for Pakistan’s Frontier Scouts, steady improvements in Pakistani counterinsurgency capability have been jeopardized. Finally, given the bitter, critical tone taken by both Pakistani and U.S. officials in their recent public exchanges, it is clear that Washington’s assiduous effort to cultivate closer personal and professional relationships with top Pakistani military leaders has taken a beating. The United States will need to find new, more sustainable ways to achieve each of these important ends.
All of Washington’s goals would be best achieved by working in partnership with the people and government of Pakistan. But that does not mean U.S. policymakers should measure success by whether Pakistanis are pleased with their efforts. Some U.S. policies will be unpopular because they require significant and painful revisions to the status quo. Thus, even in this moment of crisis, Washington should resist the temptation to patch things up and get back to some lesser version of "business as usual."
At the same time, the opposite temptation--to throw up our hands in frustration with Pakistan and seek alternate regional partners (as some in the U.S. Congress have suggested)--would be even more dangerous. At best, the road to more successful partnership with Pakistan will be long, frustrating, and costly. But cultivating this partnership is probably still the best way to avoid facing a future in which a nuclear-armed Pakistan of nearly two hundred million people remains wracked by instability, riddled with extremists, and convinced that the use of militant proxy forces best serves its interests in the region.