Washington: Just Say No To Pakistan

September 20, 2013 Topic: Failed States Region: Pakistan

Washington: Just Say No To Pakistan

It is time for America to turn the page on Pakistan.


Another day, another calamity: thirty killed by a suicide bomber at a funeral in Quetta; the commanding General in Swat blown up by Pakistani Taliban; renewed Indo-Pakistani fighting along the Kashmir border threatens to torpedo fragile reconciliation efforts. These events—all in the past six weeks—reinforce recent disclosures in the Washington Post confirming deep-seated official US doubts and fears about Pakistan. Taken together, they constitute an inflection point: it is time to re-examine the entirety of our ties with that duplicitous, nuclear-armed and unstable country

Another cycle of Foggy Bottom delusion will soon begin, as Pakistan moves to capitalize on an Afghanistan from which America is mostly absent. In policy terms, dealing with Pakistan resembles “Groundhog Day”—a dismal recurring cycle of action/reaction, with hopes recurrently dashed.

Whether it is the unhappy fate of a Pakistani doctor helping track down Osama Bin Laden, retried after winning an appeal; or predictably resumed skirmishing in Kashmir—all lead inevitably to grave doubt. Every week, U.S. and other policymakers voice a silent question: "Why Pakistan?"

 Why Pakistan?

As a thought experiment, it’s a question worth asking, because there’s nothing inevitable or firmly grounded about ‘Pakistan’ at all. Imagine for a moment that Pakistan and Afghanistan did not exist as separate states. Consider instead what might have happened had a decolonizing British India devolved into countries with the same culture/ethnic basis as in Europe.

British imperialism was skilled at manipulating ethnic divisions in south Asia, but in 1947, it choose instead to act as midwife to an artificiality based on religion rather than ethnicity, thereby spawning via a bloody Partition a new state named ‘Pakistan’ (‘Land of the Pure’) in which an inherently implausible gaggle of Bengalis, Sindhis, Punjabis, Baluchis, and Pashtuns found themselves lumped together.

It was a fateful choice. If the British had instead used the same culture/language/ethnicity criteria for states as done in Europe, would Pakistan exist? Instead of Pakistan and Afghanistan. we might have ‘Pushtunistan’, ‘Baluchistan’, and even a 'Sindhi Nation' around Karachi. Afghanistan's Tajiks and other minorities might also have melded with a future Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, while the residual India would have rested on a core inclusionary civilization. Ironies abound: More Muslims live in India than in Pakistan.

Yet we must live with the baleful consequences of the Great Error in 1947. But with only the slender reed of religion, we shouldn’t be surprised, especially given Salafi and jihadi money from the Gulf States flowing into Pakistan. Nor should we be surprised by a spreading Sunni-Shia proxy war spreading across the Greater Middle East, from North Africa to Pakistan.

If prevailing Southwest Asian realities had rested instead on a cultural/ethnolinguistic foundation, it would still fall well short of being a region of peace and harmony. But feuds and clashes would have remained local. We would not have to worry about a neighborhood dispute like Kashmir being a potential trigger for nuclear conflict.

Barely a week passes without some ghastly massacre in Waziristan, Karachi, Quetta, or even in the Sindh. Despite more than $20 billion in U.S. aid since 2001, Pakistan ranks #13 on Foreign Policy magazine’s Failed State Index, 'edged out' only by such wonders as Somalia, Haiti and Zimbabwe from descending into still more humiliating status.

More than sixty years after Partition, large swathes of Pakistan’s territory remain outside central control. It ranks 113th of 120 countries in literacy, with a combined men’s and women’s rate of 55 percent. In over seventeen thousand madrasahs, mushrooming in part because of the collapse of public education, over three million young men study little beyond the Koran. Despite its boomerang effect, Pakistan’s intelligence and security establishments can’t wean themselves off using terrorist groups for political goals, as in Afghanistan and Kashmir, even though the dog bites its master, time after time.

Most of this lies well beyond our ability to influence or control. Yet, the most delusional of these failures plays out far from South Asia, as one U.S. administration after another has continued to pump in money, hoping against hope that things may improve. It has led to long-term cash commitments for short-term needs like keeping the Afghan supply “pipeline” open.

Pakistan long ago lost interest in America’s longest war. Whatever sweet noises its latest leadership makes, Pakistan makes sure that our enemies in Afghanistan remain its friends. In our respective careers in government, we’ve found few who know, or can even explain, why American, Australian, British and other country personnel continue to die in Afghanistan from actions traceable back to Pakistan.

With the recent return to power of Nawaz Sharif, we are now seeing another round of delusional moves to square this resolutely round circle. A former American ambassador to Pakistan writes in a recent Asia Society paper that “new people can bring new energy to a relationship." Cameron Munter cites a "new President," a "new Chief of Army Staff" and a "new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court” as hopeful signs, mentioning that a 'new' prime minister will soon come to Washington. The "question for Americans,” he says, “is how best to help, find common cause, and define common actions.”

No, there is no such question. There is no corner to turn. Damage limitation, not common cause, is the only choice. Pakistan’s retort, 'don't let us fail,' has been repeated down the years and well before 9/11.

As to Islamabad’s future, survey South Asia specialists and the consensus view is that the best to expect is simply that chance that Pakistan’s elite can stay afloat. Option B—‘muddling through’ rather than either moving toward a modernized society or slipping towards total collapse’—is the most prevalent view.

Pakistan’s habit of holding implicit threats (loose nukes or more transnational terrorism) over our heads while suggesting that these might abate, if only a little, by our keeping the money spigots open and flowing. Up to now, we’ve acceded to this game, sending more good money after bad.

It is time to rethink the entire relationship. Pakistan needs to understand that actions have consequences. Their failings and shortcomings are their own. It makes sense to broadly offer open markets and investment, and moving forward on a robust bilateral investment treaty. Beyond that, have a nice day. If China wants to take charge, that’s okay by us—India’s vision for southwest Asia looks a lot better than a return to Kabul’s status quo ante before 9/11.

Breaking decades of implicit blackmail by Pakistan—from its insanely prolific nuclear-weapons production to its stable of semicontrolled terrorist groups—means learning to say no, both to the Pakistanis themselves and to their apologists and fantasists in Washington.

If U.S. policy can begin to make that refreshing turn, then we can begin to cease being delusional about one of the world’s most delusional states. For U.S. policy, the proper maxim must be 'less is more.' For starters, cease feeding the beast with military aid.

This is not an argument for complete disengagement but, rather, a plea to turn the page. We should put focus on market access so Pakistan can encourage its brightest people to expand light industry and assembly and compete in the global knowledge economy. China’s labor advantage is disappearing, and a more competitive investment environment in Pakistan stands a fair chance of being rewarded.

We are at a crunch point now. As the next Afghan chapter plays out, absent a large-scale U.S. presence on the ground, Pakistani behavior will almost certainly thwart a stable, non-terrorist threatened Afghanistan, part of Pakistan’s phobia about India’s plans for Central Asia. After America leaves, Afghanistan will become inevitably an object of heightened Indo-Pakistani competition. Indian objectives in Afghanistan are modest, seeking to engage Kabul economically, bolster stability and offset Pakistani hegemony. But Pakistan, structurally, cannot move away from its beggar-thy-neighbor approach. It’s all it knows.

This soon-to-unfold scenario only serves to underscore the limits of any serious overlap of interests between Washington and Islamabad. A scaled-back and less pretentious relationship offers us more latitude—if we can give up our own delusions.  

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a senior counselor to the UnderSecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004 and a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008.

James Clad is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South Asia.

Image: Wikicommons/U.S. Navy Flickr