THE QUEST for improvement in the deeply troubled relationship between the United States (along with its Western allies) and Pakistan focuses largely on Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and on the country’s approach to governing. But this quest has not yielded much, and relations between Washington and Islamabad are spiraling downward. Lost in this American struggle to induce change in Pakistani behavior is a fundamental reality—namely, that there probably can’t be any significant progress in improving the relationship so long as the India-Pakistan conflict persists. For Pakistanis, that conflict poses an ominous existential challenge that inevitably drives their behavior on all things, including their approach to the West and the war in Afghanistan. But if the India-Pakistan confrontation could be settled, chances for progress on other fronts would be greatly enhanced.
That in turn raises questions about U.S. policy toward India. For years, that policy has been guided by the geopolitical thesis that the West needs to court India in order to counterbalance China’s growing power in Asia. Hence the United States has resisted the idea of pressuring India for concessions toward Pakistan in the ongoing conflict of nerves between the two countries. So long as that policy continues, prospects are high for ongoing tensions between the United States and Pakistan, which has ominous implications for America’s efforts in Afghanistan.
All this suggests that America may be pursuing an indirect strategy in its relationship with Pakistan. Instead of seeking to change Pakistan’s approach to the Afghan war and its own government, America should begin with the India-Pakistan relationship and reassess its view of India as a necessary counterweight to China. In short, what we need most is to consider the immediate issues concerning Pakistan and Afghanistan in the context of a much wider geopolitical reassessment.
IT IS widely agreed that the greatest threat to the security of the United States and its allies is the combination of terrorism and nuclear arms. The most likely place for terrorists to acquire such a weapon is Pakistan. Although Pakistan has adopted various measures to improve the security of its weapons, the West is concerned. Pakistan, suspicious of Washington, has rejected America’s offers to help further secure these arms, and Western powers realize they don’t know the locations of all of them. The 2011 attacks on a highly secure naval base in Karachi—which benefited from al-Qaeda penetration of the Pakistani army—raise concerns that similar attacks on facilities storing nuclear arms might succeed. Michele Bachmann, drawing on her membership in the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, stated that: “We have to recognize that fifteen of the sites, nuclear sites are available or are potentially penetrable by jihadists. Six attempts have already been made on nuclear sites.”
Pakistan expanded its nuclear arsenal from sixty warheads in 2007 to more than one hundred in early 2011 and accelerated construction at the Khushab nuclear site, which will provide it with a fourth nuclear reactor as early as 2013.
Even if terrorists couldn’t capture nuclear arms or acquire them from supporters within the Pakistani forces, insurgents could topple the government. This raises Western concerns—accentuated by the fact that the government is weak and unstable and that anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is widespread and intense.
A “stable dysfunctional relationship” is one in which the parties damage each other but maintain the relationship because they also nurture each other. This certainly defines the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. Former defense secretary Robert Gates famously referred to it as akin to a “troubled marriage” and used the parlance of marriage counselors in urging the parties to “keep working” at it. The admonition took on added force in November 2011 after the killing of twenty-four Pakistani soldiers by NATO forces sparked a fresh crisis in the relationship. Pakistan quickly shut down supply routes through the country that NATO forces had used to replenish their war efforts in Afghanistan.
On the one hand, the Pakistani military is helping the United States fight the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. It has allowed U.S. incursions into Pakistan and provided some of the intelligence on which drone strikes are sometimes based. On the other hand, the Afghan Taliban can hide, rest, regroup, rearm, train and organize in Pakistan, especially in North Waziristan. This greatly hinders the drive to end the insurgency in Afghanistan. Pakistan has publicly criticized the United States for violating Pakistani sovereignty, further inflaming anti-American sentiment in the country.
In the spring of 2011, Pakistan demanded that Washington remove most of its military trainers and reduce the number of CIA and Special Operations operatives in the country, but it also asked for more joint operations with the United States against the Taliban and more information sharing. While the Pakistani military often collaborates with the U.S. military, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) reportedly often lends a hand to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
The complicated relationship led to an odd situation in June 2011 when Afghan prime minister Hamid Karzai traveled to Pakistan to seek assurances that Afghan Taliban leaders, who were in negotiations for a peace settlement with his government, would not be killed or detained by Pakistan. Previously, when such negotiations seemed to be succeeding, Pakistan was known to capture the Taliban commanders involved. Elements of the Pakistani government oppose the peace process in part because the Karzai government is leaving out those Taliban members controlled by the ISI on which Islamabad depends to be able to influence the future course of Afghanistan, especially after foreign forces leave.
Pakistan also worries that the United States will become more friendly with India as it pulls out of Afghanistan and no longer needs Pakistani supply routes. Helene Cooper observes in the New York Times that Pakistan wants to keep the Taliban in its “good graces” should U.S. forces withdraw and leave the Taliban to reassert control over Afghanistan. “What Pakistan wants most in Afghanistan is an assurance that India cannot use it to threaten Pakistan. For that, a radical Islamic movement like the Taliban, with strong ties to kin in Pakistan, fits the bill.”
Pakistan responds that it has taken many military and civilian casualties in fighting both the terrorists and the militants and that it has made progress in South Waziristan and the Swat Valley. Major General Nadir Zeb, inspector general of Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps, even claims that the tribal areas have been nearly cleared of militants since 2007; only a “very thin belt is left. The rest is all cleared.”
Some observers argue that because the Pakistani military wants to ensure the continued flow of billions of U.S. dollars in military aid, the military has a vested interest in not fighting militants and terrorists too vigorously. As author Lawrence Wright has noted:
What would happen if the Pakistani military actually captured or killed Al Qaeda’s top leaders? The great flow of dollars would stop, just as it had in Afghanistan after the Soviets limped away. I realized that, despite all the suffering the war on terror had brought to Pakistan, the military was addicted to the money it generated. The Pakistani Army and the ISI were in the looking-for-bin-Laden business, and if they found him they’d be out of business.
Pakistanis point out that the United States supported them strongly as long as Pakistan served as the major venue for organizing, arming and financing the mujahideen (the predecessors of the Taliban) to drive out the USSR. However, once this mission was completed, Washington lost interest in Pakistan and the flow of funds dried up. Pakistan received no American aid in 1992, down from $783 million in 1988. Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf argues:Image: Pullquote: Suggestions for the West to pressure Pakistan in various ways to change its behavior ignore the reality that the West needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs the West.Essay Types: Essay