Pakistan-US Relations: 2012


01/10/2012 by Richard Weitz

2012 will prove challenging for the US-Pakistani relationship.  And this relationship will have a core relationship to the Afghan end game and the evolution of security relationships in the region.

Dealing with the blow ups at the end of 2011 will be important. The Unites States and NATO must ensure an unbiased inquiry into the November 26 cross-border incident that killed 26 Pakistani soldiers and punish anyone who was responsible for this tragedy. President Obama or Defense Secretary Leon Panetta should apologize if the U.S. military contributed to the affair. Such an apology would provide essential cover for the Pakistani government and military to resume cooperating with NATO.

Another urgent task is to clarify the rules of engagement along the Afghan-Pak border under the new conditions of a declining Western military presence, a Taliban seeking to wait out NATO’s departure, and a Pakistani government and military frustrated with the United States and Afghanistan but yet still open to some cooperation.

In other words, what is a realistic stance by the U.S. as it leaves and what will be its policy after the withdrawal?

Pakistan is becoming a significant strategic challenge for the US and its policies in the region for 2012. Credit Image: Bigstock

This summer, when President Asif Ali Zardari met Marc Grossman, the new U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who replaced Richard Holbrooke, Zardari said they needed “clear terms of engagement” in the battle against Islamist militants to avoid further damaging bilateral security ties.

Zardari’s office subsequently explained that, “In the absence of well-defined and documented terms of engagement, wrong plugs may be pulled at the wrong times by any side that could undermine the bilateral relations.” The statement added that, “The president said that terms of engagement should be clearly defined and specified so that any dispute could be settled amicably.” In a December 11 interview with the BBC, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani said that his government was holding the supply routes hostage to NATO’s changing its rules of engagement for military operations along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

An even more vital task is for the United States to develop and execute a strategy for Pakistan within a broader regional dynamic.

Although the Obama administration has defined detailed goals for what they would like to achieve in Afghanistan, as well as developed strategies and programs for attaining them, they have yet to do so in the case of Pakistan, despite that country’s being more important in terms of population, geography, and military potential.

Increasingly Afghanistan will be a sideshow, with Pakistan a center stage in the evolution of regional dynamics.

Establishing clear objectives is important for ranking priorities among such goals as supporting peace and security in Afghanistan through reducing Pakistani support for the insurgents, curbing vertical or horizontal nuclear proliferation, strengthening civilian authority in Pakistan, reducing tensions between India and Pakistan, and so forth.

To take one example, U.S. officials need to decide if it is worth confronting Islamabad over its support for terrorists in Afghanistan if that decreases Pakistan’s willingness to cooperate with Washington in securing its nuclear materials.

Pakistan is a troubled and possibly failing state that nevertheless has the means and potential to become a responsible and influential global stakeholder. The country’s challenges include domestic terrorism, separatist tendencies, corruption, poor governance, weak political parties, strained civil-military relations, and a lack of strong foreign alliances.

At the same time, U.S.-Pakistani ties are much better at the private and official level than portrayed in public. Their militaries and intelligence services collaborate in many important areas. Still, the United States can at best address only some of Pakistani’s problems, and then only incompletely. U.S. officials need to consider what goals are most important and how to achieve them.

In their new policy toward Pakistan, the United States and its allies should aim to induce Islamabad to support the establishment of a coalition government in Afghanistan that would be supported but not dominated by the Taliban. At the same time, American diplomats should encourage the Northern Alliance and other Afghan groups traditionally alienated from Islamabad to improve their ties with Pakistan.

U.S. diplomats also should make a greater effort to reconcile Pakistan with India.

The dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir adversely affects Islamabad’s cooperation with Washington and Kabul because Pakistani policies are often directed primarily at countering New Delhi’s influence in Afghanistan, including through the use of independent armed groups, rather than countering the Muslim extremists who have conducted terrorist operations in both India and Pakistan. The Pakistani military tolerates terrorists because they are seen as asymmetric tools for negating India’s conventional military superiority. Former ISI Director-General Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul said that inciting domestic unrest in India was equivalent to Pakistan’s having two extra divisions.

Furthermore, the United States should continue to encourage as many countries and other foreign actors as possible to engage in Afghanistan to dilute the influence and frustrate the aspirations of those foreign actors aspiring to establish hegemony over that country.

The current budgetary climate limits the amount the financial aid the United States is willing to provide the Pakistani government, but the huge losses the Pakistanis have suffered during the past decade in fighting terrorism can be acknowledged with no financial cost.

The Afghan Taliban has prudently refrained from attacking Pakistani targets, an act that could reduce their support from the Pakistani military, but some 35,000 Pakistanis, including about 4,000 Pakistani soldiers, have lost their lives in the war against the so-called Pakistani Taliban and some of the other foreign militants based in northwest Pakistan close to the Afghan border.

These terrorists have sought to impose their extremist religious views on Pakistanis and waged a vicious campaign of suicide bombings throughout Pakistan. After several ceasefires failed to end these attacks, the Pakistani army waged major offensives against their strongholds in some of the tribal areas.

Acknowledging these losses would help Pakistani complaints about not receiving adequate recognition and respect from their allies.

After the November 26 cross-border incident, Gilani again insisted that a Pakistani-U.S. partnership had to be based on “mutual respect and mutual interest.” When asked if Pakistan received that respect, Gilani replied: “At the moment, not.” Whether Obama wins reelection or is replaced by someone else, the next American president should make the long-delayed state visit to Pakistan to affirm the country’s global importance.

The best way to make enduring progress in weaning Pakistan away from supporting international terrorism is by continuing to partner with Pakistan rather than berating Islamabad in public or openly embarrassing its civilian government through overt cross-border attacks that violate Pakistani sovereignty.

On one such instance, when U.S. Special Forces conducted a ground assault in the tribal areas in 2008, the Pakistanis reacted furiously. On several occasions since then, Pakistani troops and militia have fired at what they believed to be American helicopters flying from Afghanistan to deploy Special Forces on their territory.

Further large cross-border U.S. military operations could easily rally popular support behind the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan. It might even precipitate the collapse of the Islamabad government and its replacement by a regime in nuclear-armed Pakistan that is less friendly to Washington.

Pakistani officials have also insisted that Pakistani regular troops and paramilitary forces can deal with the insurgents and any high-value terrorist targets. Yet, they have lacked the capacity and perhaps the will to occupy all of the Federally Administrative Tribal Areas (FATA), where most of the Islamist militants are based.

The Pakistani Army has repeatedly postponed announced plans to occupy North Waziristan, which is where the Afghan insurgents and the foreign fighters supporting them and al-Qaeda are concentrated. Such a move that would meet fierce resistance from the region’s population, which has traditionally enjoyed extensive autonomy. But the main reason for not attacking the Afghan Taliban or its foreign allies based in Pakistan’s tribal areas is that doing so would result in their joining the Pakistani Taliban in its vicious fight with the Islamabad government. Furthermore, the Bin Laden episode suggests possible deeper Pakistani problems in dealing with terrorists.

Since the Pakistani government cannot suppress terrorism in the FATA, but is unwilling to allow NATO forces to fight them on Pakistani territory, the coalition will conduct continued drone strikes against targets in the tribal areas since the drones have become the sole means for U.S. forces to attack terrorists and insurgents in certain parts of Pakistan.

The Congress is likely to respond to the latest crisis by cutting back some aid and imposing restrictions on other U.S. assistance to Pakistan. For example, future aid might require executive branch certification for release of the funds. The Obama administration already employed this approach in 2011 by withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in Coalition Support Funds in response to Pakistani restrictions on the number and movement of U.S. government security personnel in Pakistan.

Nonetheless, continuing the transactional relationship seems the best solution for now for resolving the logistics bottleneck created by the closing of the NATO supply lines. U.S. aid to Pakistan should be contingent on Pakistan’s keeping the supply lines to Afghanistan open and continuing its counterterrorism cooperation with the United States.

Reports that Pakistani authorities are considering imposing a tax on the convoys should be pursued since this would offer cover to Pakistani politicians to approve resuming the delivery of the supplies. Agreeing to pay Pakistan more for the transit is consistent with the transactional approach and would also provide Pakistan with indirect Western aid at a time when budgetary pressures and irritation at Pakistan’s perceived “double game” regarding Afghanistan is making it difficult for Western legislators to continue the aid deliveries.

U.S. officials will need to tolerate anti-American rhetoric on the part of Pakistani politicians, who need to win elections. The Pakistani authorities appear to cooperate with the United States against the foreign terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda and provide much other low-profile assistance to U.S. counterterrorism activities.

One easy but invaluable step would be for Pakistani authorities to cut off the supply of ammonium nitrate fertilizer entering Afghanistan from the Pakistani factories located near the Afghan-Pakistan border. The insurgents use the material, which is banned in Afghanistan, to manufacture the deadly improvised explosive devices—often a simply plastic jug filled with the fertilizer and a detonator– that kill many innocent civilians as well as Afghan and Pakistani soldiers.

The two governments clearly gain more through mutual collaboration than conflict. Pakistan receives considerable financial and diplomatic support from Washington .The United States gives Pakistan billions of dollars in direct assistance. Pakistanis also earn considerable revenue by shipping NATO supplies to Afghanistan. A deterioration in Pakistani-U.S. ties harms Islamabad in its competition with India for regional influence. U.S. diplomats have also helped dampen Indian desires to retaliate militarily against Pakistan for earlier terrorist attacks.

The United States in turn needs Pakistani support to transit military supplies to its troops in Afghanistan. Efforts to develop an alternative supply route through Russia and other former Soviet bloc states have made considerable progress, but these shipments are more expensive and make the NATO war effort excessively dependent on Moscow’s goodwill.

Washington must have some Pakistani support to achieve a favorable regional environment for an eventual peace settlement in Afghanistan. The United States is also very eager to collaborate with the Pakistani military to secure the country’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal. Secretary Panetta  has observed that, “Ultimately, we can’t win the war in Afghanistan without being able to win in our relationship with Pakistan as well.”

Despite the clear benefits both sides gain by cooperating, the danger is that at some point emotion can overwhelm rational cost-benefit analysis. The United States and Pakistan need to take further measures to minimize the stresses on their relationship.

The recent history of U.S. relations with Turkey offers some grounds for optimism. Ties between Washington and Ankara were terrible after the United States went to war with Iraq in 2003, despite Turkish opposition, manifested in the parliament’s rejection of a U.S. request to invade northern Iraq from Turkey. Turks held extremely unfavorable views of U.S. policies for several years after that. But the last year has seen the Turkey-U.S. relationship recover thanks to the cooperation between the two countries regarding Syria, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern issues. Future events might help bring about a comparable reconciliation between Pakistan and the United States.

Unfortunately, Afghan-Pakistan border incidents will invariably recur. Rebuilding trust between the two nations will require many years, and possibly multiple generations, to achieve. In the meantime, the current status quo of wary cooperation and mutual mistrust is likely to continue. The United States will need a hedging policy when things do not work out—as if often the case for the Afghan-Pakistan region.