Opportunity amid the Crisis with Pakistan

This is not a time for Washington to lose its nerve. The current debacle can be transformed into a better future for U.S.-Pakistani relations.

The U.S. air strikes that killed Pakistani troops near the border with Afghanistan have created yet another in a series of crises in U.S.-Pakistan relations. To his credit, President Obama rejected the State Department’s advice to apologize for the incident. But so far, the United States has focused on tactical responses to reduce tensions. Even if the United States manages this situation, such crises are inevitable as long as Pakistan continues its support for insurgent groups at war with coalition and Afghan forces. What is necessary is a broader plan to change the strategic context and end Pakistani support for the insurgency.

American-Pakistani discussion should focus on two subjects. First, the United States should explain the risks that Pakistan faces if it continues its current policy. Pakistani leaders must appreciate that clashes along the border are inevitable if Pakistan continues training, arming, financing and directing insurgent forces in Afghanistan. In addition, the U.S. Congress will inevitably curtail or condition all military and economic assistance to Pakistan on its cooperation on Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Afghanistan will be pushed to develop a closer security relationship with India, Pakistan’s regional rival.

Second, the United States should offer a package of benefits and rewards if Pakistan cooperates and brings the Taliban and other insurgents to the negotiating table. In these talks, the United States should commit to work for a settlement that will take into account Pakistan’s legitimate interests. The settlement should allow insurgents to join Afghanistan's political process provided that they lay down their arms, break ties with al-Qaeda and accept an Afghan constitution. At the same time, Pakistan should commit to breaking with and targeting insurgents who refuse to pursue a political settlement.

The Obama administration faces a challenge in making both elements credible. Many in the Pakistan military leadership believe that the United States is on its way out of the region. They point to problematic U.S. relations with the Afghan government, which call into question whether the United States can conclude a meaningful, long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan after Afghan forces assume sole responsibility for the country’s security after 2014. They also believe that the growing distance between the Afghan government and its people means the government in Kabul will be a weak player after the U.S. drawdown. In this view, time is on Pakistan’s side.

Should Pakistan nevertheless refuse to cooperate, the United States must be willing to escalate pressure on Pakistan while keeping the door open for future cooperation. So far, the indicators are not good. Pakistanis are projecting defiance. They are refusing to send senior representatives to the Bonn conference to address the problems of Afghanistan. They are trumpeting their rights as a sovereign country. Yet the United States and Afghanistan also have rights. We have the rights of individual and collective self-defense under international law. ISAF forces operate under a U.N. Security Council mandate and at the request of the Afghan government.

If the United States acts with determination, Pakistan might recalculate the risks of its policy, just as Islamabad did in the aftermath of 9/11 when it abandoned the Taliban regime in the face of U.S. pressure.

This is not a time for the United States to lose its nerve. While twenty-four Pakistani troops died in the recent clash, the United States and its other allies have lost more than a thousand troops fighting the insurgents. Many more Afghan military, police and civilians have been killed by those who are given sanctuary and support by the Pakistani military. With calibrated diplomacy, the United States can seize the opportunity inherent in the current crisis.

Zalmay Khalilzad is a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2007 to 2009, he served as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. He has also previously served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, as well as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and also as special presidential envoy to Afghanistan.