Pakistan and the US mustn’t lose sight of their interdependence
Like some long-married couples, the US and Pakistan are chronic bickerers. Their latest spat, over Washington’s decision to withhold $800m in military aid, is more serious than usual, but will likely blow over in time, as have all the other rows before it. The bottom line for both partners in this peculiar union is they need each other more than they dislike each other. Divorce is not an option.
That said, this year has been particularly turbulent. It began badly, with the killing of two Pakistanis in Lahore in January by a CIA contractor. Under public pressure, Islamabad made a political issue of the case. Imperious US demands that its man be freed from custody did not help. The incident became a lightning rod for the anti-Americanism never far beneath the surface in Pakistan.
Continuing, unauthorized US drone attacks against insurgents inside Pakistan, a source of deep public outrage, formed the backdrop to a string of ensuing tiffs over visas, reductions in the CIA presence, and the “outing” of the CIA station chief. When US special forces entered Pakistan to assassinate Osama bin Laden in May, without giving prior notice or asking permission, national dignity was sorely affronted.
Subsequent American accusations that Bin Laden must have been sheltered by “elements” of the Pakistani state either the army or the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency (ISI) led to further deterioration. Recent US claims that the ISI was complicit in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks and ordered the murder of a Pakistani investigative journalist have fuelled the fire.
“There is a pessimistic tendency in US-Pakistan relations,” said a western diplomat based in Islamabad. “They are collaborating closely in lots of areas. But there are real structural problems in the relationship that are difficult to overcome. It’s definitely fragile at present.”
Two basic fault lines underlie recurring frictions. One is the American perception, reinforced by bitter experience since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, that Pakistan is not co-operating fully in its “war on terror” and is playing a double game by maintaining links to selected Afghan Taliban and home-grown terror groups.
The other is the widely held Pakistani perception that Pakistan has been placed in the invidious position of fighting America’s wars for it, and has suffered disproportionately economically and in terms of casualties as a result. About 30,000 Pakistanis had died since 9/11, said an intelligence official. “We’re a state that is being held hostage by terrorists and militants. Yet still Pakistan is being demonized,” the official said.
When they are not actually shouting at each other, most American and Pakistani leaders recognize the pivotal importance of their relationship. For Washington, reasons to persevere include its pressing need for some kind of military and political settlement in Afghanistan as US troops trudge towards the exit; its hopes, reiterated by the new defense secretary, Leon Panetta, of inflicting a strategic defeat on al-Qaida and its allies (whose replacement leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, is said to be in Pakistan’s tribal areas); and its aim to prevent another war between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India while curbing the regional influence of Iran.
For Pakistan, strategic reality comprises the fact that financially, in terms of IMF bailout funding; economically, in terms of foreign investment and trade; and developmentally, in terms of direct US assistance, it cannot manage without a friendly Washington.
It sees India as a constant threat, from which the US provides a degree of de facto protection. And both its weak political establishment and its relatively powerful military depend on the US alliance, the one for its democratic credibility, the other for the superiority of US-made weaponry compared, for example, to that of would-be supplier China.
Despite appearances, recent tensions may have had a positive effect in highlighting this basic interdependence which Washington, instead of handing out unilateral punishment, would do well to fully recognize.
For seasoned analysts such as Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, the “struggle for control of Pakistan” between the civilian-military establishment and the jihadists eclipses the Afghan drama and could, if it ends badly, massively impact on US regional interests.
“Contrary to some assessments, Pakistan is neither a failed state nor a failing state. It functions as effectively today as in decades past.
Rather it is a state under siege from a radical syndicate of terror groups loosely aligned together with the goal of creating an extremist jihadist state in south Asia. They want to hijack Pakistan and its [nuclear] weapons,” Riedel said.
Zalmay Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, suggested the US should be offering more carrots along with the sticks.
These might include expanded IMF and bilateral assistance and “a major, multilateral diplomatic effort to mediate disputes among Afghanistan, Pakistan and India”, leading to “an India-Pakistan peace and normalisation process”.
If Pakistan’s “intransigence” persisted, Khalilzad said, the US would have to consider closer security ties with India “as part of a containment regime against Pakistan”.
Sensible people in Islamabad and Washington must hope it never comes to that. Such a latter step would represent a galling defeat for a $20bn, 10-year policy of engagement and a striking victory for the jihadis.
And it would confirm a half-suspected truth: that in fighting to save Afghanistan, America succeeded only in losing Pakistan.