The United States and Pakistan: Best Frenemies Forever?

The United States and Pakistan: Best Frenemies Forever?

New political tensions and demands will create opportunities for Pakistan to build up other relationships in the region at U.S. expense.

The United States is once again ratcheting up the pressure on Pakistan to fall in line with U.S. policy in Afghanistan by ending the Afghan Taliban’s enjoyment of safe haven. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan is once again pushing back. Amid the mistrust, mutual recrimination, and stale narratives that have increasingly characterized the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in recent years, there is one Pakistani talking point I have heard routinely from officials that should be taken at face value: Pakistan does not intend to fight the Afghan war on Pakistani soil. Although the reality of the situation is dissatisfying, the United States needs a strategy in Afghanistan and policy toward Pakistan based on the best Pakistani behavior it can have, not the Pakistani behavior it wants to have.

The current military-centric U.S. strategy for Afghanistan—largely a bet on continuity, with a modest escalation—depends for ultimate success on reversing Pakistan’s practice of helping enable the Taliban to sustain its insurgency by, among other things, permitting its leadership to operate from Pakistan and facilitating activities of the Taliban’s especially deadly Haqqani element. Although Pakistan also has enabled the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan—in part by serving as the main supply route for U.S. and NATO forces—it does not judge its security interests to be served by going all-in to back a U.S. military strategy that it does not believe will succeed and an Afghan government whose durability it doubts. Pakistan is also unwilling to add the Taliban to its long list of militant adversaries.

The United States has long found logical fault with Pakistan’s calculations, but has proven unable to change Pakistan’s perceptions of its own national interests in its own neighborhood—and not for lack of offering carrots, applying sticks and taking matters into its own hands (see the unilateral U.S. takedown of Osama bin Laden and drone strike on Taliban chief Mullah Mansur, both done on Pakistani soil). One of the constraints on American persuasiveness is the deeply entrenched Pakistani narrative that the United States left Pakistan with a mess next door in the 1990s and cannot be relied upon not to do the same again.

U.S. policy debates during the Obama administration and into the Trump administration have centered on the dilemma that the United States is pursuing a strategy in Afghanistan that both impels it to penalize Pakistan for failing to act in concert with that strategy and limits how far the United States can rationally go in imposing penalties. The United States insists that Pakistani cooperation is essential; if that’s true, then the policy imperative must be to elicit more, not less, cooperation. But the more punitive the American approach to Pakistan, and the more humiliating (from a Pakistani perspective) the rhetoric of demands, the less cooperation is likely. Pakistan would undoubtedly prefer to maintain already dwindling U.S. civilian and security assistance, but it isn’t dependent upon it, and Pakistan’s so-called “all-weather friendship” with China could help it ride out a storm blowing from Washington.

Pakistan is not behaving as it does vis-à-vis the Taliban because that behavior pits it against the United States, but, rather, despite that effect. Consequently, Pakistan should be seen as having already weighed the risks to its relationship with the United States and found them more tolerable than the costs of definitively taking sides in what it views as a civil war in a fragmented society in which the Taliban represents one of the main fragments—and one that is a bulwark against Indian influence in Afghanistan.


Pakistan should also be presumed to have built into that equation the leverage it has to moderate American pressure. It could complicate the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in multiple ways, most easily by constricting or shutting down the ground- and air-supply lines through Pakistan to its land-locked neighbor, or by pushing large numbers of Afghan refugees across the border. Pakistan also may find comfort in the knowledge that the Trump administration’s assertion of an open-ended military commitment to Afghanistan has heightened concerns about the U.S. strategy on the part of China, Iran and Russia, none of which want to see permanent U.S. bases in the country; this dynamic creates potential opportunities for Pakistan to build up other relationships in the region at U.S. expense. But most important, it is hard to imagine any form of enduring sufficient stability in Afghanistan over the objections of Pakistan; Americans will not be in Afghanistan forever, but Pakistan will be forever next door.

Difficult as it is for Washington to work with Islamabad because of the mutual mistrust and diverging perspectives, the United States has real interests in the relationship. Those interests extend beyond the war in Afghanistan and include promoting nuclear security, maintaining ability to help de-escalate India-Pakistan crises, and mitigating spillover risks from Pakistan’s struggle with domestic extremism. Tough though it may be for many focused on the fight in Afghanistan to fathom, it is also plausible over the long term that the United States will want—and need—to work with Pakistan to pursue broader counterterrorism objectives, as it has in the past. Pakistan sits in a region that will continue to be a source of threats, it has genuine security capabilities, and, despite its political weaknesses, it has institutions that function sufficiently well without external propping-up.