Building Trust Among Anti-Taliban Allies

Beyond the immediate pledges of support that emerged from the U.S.-Afghan-Pakistan summit, President Barack Obama should convey a long-term U.S. commitment to the region to sustain the trust of his partners, says CFR’s Daniel Markey.  

May 7, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

U.S. President Barack Obama emerged from his trilateral summit with the Pakistani and Afghan presidents with an expression of unwavering support for the governments of the two countries in their fight against extremist forces. CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey says the meetings were aimed at bolstering cross-border cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan and offered an opportunity to press Congress on a U.S. aid package for the region. But more fundamentally, Markey says, the trilateral summit is also a step toward helping reduce the level of distrust that runs among all three countries. Markey says the Obama administration can help counter this trust deficit by making a stronger "U.S. commitment to a long-term presence in the region to make sure that the job in Afghanistan is brought to completion."

You have been privy to some of the ongoing meetings in Washington in which [Pakistan] President Asif Ali Zardari and [Afghanistan] President Hamid Karzai have been taking part. What have been the main items on the agenda?

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I would say that my window into these meetings is not a direct one, but from what I can tell the agenda for this series of meetings is primarily to try and bolster the cross-border cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan so to continue a process begun in the last series of trilateral meetings. As Ambassador [U.S. Special Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard] Holbrooke made clear in his testimony the other day, the goal for a number of these meetings is to try and bring together people at the ministerial level on both the Pakistani and Afghan side. All of that is a continuation of a process to improve relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan and for Washington to be the midwife of that process.

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At the same time this meeting has taken on a newer urgency given the level of concern about stability within Pakistan. So what would have been a subsidiary goal of this meeting, to demonstrate support to the government of Pakistan in its fight against the encroachment of what people are calling "Talibanization," has now become a central feature of all the proceedings. As I just heard in terms of Obama’s remarks after his meetings with Presidents Zardari and Karzai, there’s a clear indication that he wants to have the United States stand shoulder to shoulder with these democratically elected governments of the region to try and address these threats together.

Have there been any agreements made or promises extracted?

I’m not sure about promises or anything that would rise to the level of a formal agreement. I don’t think that was the intended purpose. But I do think that this has been an opportunity for the Obama administration to continue to press its agenda not only diplomatically, but also here in Washington in order to press Congress to be forthcoming with budgetary assistance--primarily this latest request of $400 million of rapid assistance to Pakistan to help fight back against the encroachment of Taliban movement within Pakistan and to improve the Pakistani military force and capacity to meet that threat. It’s both diplomacy at the international level and politics at the national level that we need to be watching here.

Pakistan has a history of using foreign aid to support militant networks which are now posing a threat to both Pakistan and the United States. There seems to be no clarity even now on whether the Pakistani army is willing to break ties with all militant groups. So how is this aid going to be different this time?

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At some level the provision of aid by the United States is in itself an effort to influence behavior within the Pakistani military. The aid is first and foremost, as everybody points out, to be used to improve the counterinsurgency capacity of the Pakistani military. But it is very difficult, as has been proven with recent history, to be sure exactly how money is being used. It’s even difficult to be sure how various military platforms are being used: artillery, fighter aircraft, etc. These can be used for various purposes, some of which are in U.S. interests and some of which are not. So while on the one hand the money is definitely supposed to be used to enhance capacity, it is also to be used to demonstrate a U.S. commitment to help the Pakistanis and to empower those Pakistanis in positions of power within the army in order to show that the United States will be there as a partner moving ahead. It’s both a political effort and a capacity-building effort, because it’s not just the capacity of the army that’s in question in Pakistan. It’s its will to do the right thing. Our assistance needs to be viewed in both terms.

"[T]here’s a deeper problem in terms of a deficit of trust when it comes to political commitment—when it comes to expectations about what the United States will do in the region."

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It’s clear the Obama administration at every opportunity has made an effort to suggest that things will not be the same. There will be more eyes on exactly how that assistance is being used and everybody is committed to the idea that the old games have to end. But it’s difficult to influence another country’s military, especially a military that is used to doing things in its own ways. This will not happen overnight, but this is a reasonably good start.

One of the biggest problems for the United States remains the deficit of trust between the Pakistani and the Afghan governments. What are some of the other measures Washington is taking to make them work together on security issues in particular? And what in your opinion

needs to be done?

The United States has for a while now recognized that there was a problem between Pakistan and Afghanistan. That’s been true from the start and way before the history of the post-9/11 period where you’ve seen this deficit of trust basically running in every direction--between Pakistan and the United States, the United States and Pakistan, and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, increasingly, there’s a problem of trust between the government of Afghanistan and the U.S. government. There’s a trust problem that goes every way. There have been a variety of fairly concrete efforts at the military and intelligence level led by the U.S. military and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] command in Afghanistan to try and improve cooperation along the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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But there’s a deeper problem in terms of a deficit of trust when it comes to political commitment--when it comes to expectations about what the United States will do in the region. Here one of the fundamental pieces of the puzzle that has been lacking is a strong U.S. commitment to a long-term presence in the region to make sure the job in Afghanistan is brought to completion. By that I mean that the state of Afghanistan becomes much more capable in itself with much less external support to resist the Taliban and to resist the possibility that its territory will be used as a safe haven [for terrorists]. These are the kinds of things that the United States should be committed to. First, that will reduce the deficit of trust that Afghans have because they’re not sure quite what the United States intends to do. But maybe more important is that it would help to reduce the trust deficit between the United States and Pakistan because many Pakistanis still believe, and fairly influential Pakistanis still believe, that the United States does not intend to stay the course in Afghanistan. This has led some Pakistanis to persist in deeply counterproductive behavior by hedging their bets in supporting militant groups, in particular former Afghan Taliban, to try and continue to keep some influence in Afghanistan where they believe the United States will sooner or later pull out. That’s the kind of trust deficit reduction that I’d like to see on the political side. The Obama administration is moving in that direction.

There have been news reports speculating about a possible agreement between the United States and Pakistan wherein U.S. forces would train Pakistani soldiers in counterinsurgency somewhere outside Pakistan. What do you know about this?

I’m not aware whether or not this was discussed in today’s meetings, but I can say that this is something that appears to have been very much on the table. I can say that it’s a good idea in terms of enhancing the level of counterinsurgency capacity of the Pakistani troops. It’s absolutely central to what the United States needs to do there.

"I don’t have a problem with the idea of seeking more out of Pakistan. I do have a problem with the idea of using this specific form of conditionality that seems to be more punitive against our potential allies and partners in Pakistan than against the problematic enemies we face."

I see this as a kind of stopgap effort. This is the kind of thing you do in the near term while the politics make it impossible to train within Pakistan. Over the longer run the goal of the U.S. military should be to work much more cooperatively with the Pakistani military, including training Pakistani forces inside of Pakistan. But right now that may be more than the political traffic can bear inside of Pakistan, and that’s why we’re not seeing it and why we’re getting these other fairly creative proposals meant to address an immediate threat, if not a longer term need.

There’s a renewed push in Congress for attaching conditions to aid to Pakistan. Is that helpful?

Congress is concerned, rightly, about how U.S. tax dollars are being spent. They are also rightly frustrated about the fact that billions of dollars have gone to Pakistan since 9/11, and of course historically, and that the outcomes have been suboptimal to say the least. So Congress is looking for tools to try and influence Pakistan more effectively. Unfortunately the legislative side of our government has relatively few tools, and some of them are relatively blunt in the way that they can be implemented. When you build legislation you can build in conditionality whereby you suggest that if the Pakistanis don’t do something we demand or think is important then the implication is that we would cut off assistance.

My concern is not so much that we shouldn’t be aware of what the Pakistanis are doing with our money and that we shouldn’t be looking to use that money in a certain way as leverage, but that this particular method for using our assistance as leverage is probably not going to be very effective. We do not empower our allies or potential allies within Pakistan by doing that. What we do is convince them that there’s every chance that if they don’t succeed, we’ll abandon them. They’ll continue to believe that we’re looking for an exit strategy when in fact what they should start to believe is that we are willing to commit to them over the long run. I don’t have a problem with the idea of seeking more out of Pakistan. I do have a problem with the idea of using this specific form of conditionality that seems to be more punitive against our potential allies and partners in Pakistan than against the problematic enemies we face.


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