Pakistan arguably remains the most complex ally the United States has ever had in wartime – far more humane than Josef Stalin in World War II but, alas, even more inscrutable. Nine years into the campaign, we still cannot clearly answer the question of whether Pakistan is with us or against us. The killing of Osama bin Laden brings the situation into even starker relief: Despite routinely requesting overflight rights from allies and other countries around the world when conducting military operations, the United States did not do so in this case out of serious concern that Pakistan might not be able to keep the secret and bin Laden might get away.
We are at a crossroads with Islamabad. Domestic politics in both countries will tend to push the allies apart. As Teresita Schaffer, co-author of a new book on negotiating with Pakistan, points out, the United States and Pakistan have had “three marriages and two divorces so far” – and many wonder when the third divorce will occur, making each hesitant to place any faith in partners in the other country. Yet we need each other. For the United States, Pakistan provides routes and logistics for supplies going into Afghanistan, help with intelligence, and our only hope of shutting down the sanctuaries enjoyed by the Afghan Taliban on Pakistani soil. Islamabad for its part needs us for aid, trade, geostrategic ballast in a tough neighborhood and ongoing efforts to stabilize Afghanistan (even if many in Pakistan fail to acknowledge these dependencies).
So we need to think bigger. Are there any requests we can make of Islamabad big enough to warrant offering more aid, a free-trade accord, an energy deal of some kind, or something else that would get Pakistan’s attention and get its leaders to truly commit to partnership with the United States? In other words, rather than let the relationship deteriorate, can we do the counterintuitive thing and see if there is a way to build it up? It’s at least worth a try.
The news has not been all bad. Pakistan has taken some worthy actions against extremists in its remote northern and western areas in recent years. Specifically, it has recognized the so-called Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) as a mortal threat to the Pakistani state and responded accordingly in some tribal areas. Also, American commanders report improved tactical coordination with some Pakistani army officers near the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Pakistanis argue, however, that limited numbers of ground troops combined with the past year’s devastating floods prevent them from doing more. Quetta, North Waziristan and other key places remain dens of iniquity, havens for extremists who continue to attack NATO and Afghan troops across the border and then return home for rest, regrouping and fresh recruiting. Major command-and-control hubs are permanently located within Pakistan as well, and key insurgent leaders like Mullah Mohammed Omar probably remain safely ensconced on Pakistani territory where U.S. forces cannot get at them. It is perhaps not just a matter of available troops. Pakistan would rather have the Taliban and the Haqqanis back in power, especially in the country’s south and east, than any group like the former Northern Alliance, which it views as too close to India. Since Islamabad cannot be sure that the current Afghan political system will survive, it keeps a backup plan based largely on the Taliban and its associates.
Under these circumstances, part of the right policy is to keep doing more of what the Obama administration has been doing with Pakistan – building trust, as with last fall’s strategic dialogue in Washington; increasing aid incrementally, as with the new five-year, $2 billion aid package announced during that dialogue; encouraging Pakistan-India dialogue, which would help persuade Islamabad it could safely move more military forces from its eastern border to its western regions; and coordinating militarily across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. But President Obama needs to think bigger, especially now, as voices in the U.S. debate will tell him to be more demanding and less generous toward Pakistan – and if we take that route, the outcome will be predictably negative.
The clarification that the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force mission will continue until 2014, and indeed beyond, at the November summit in Lisbon was a step in the right direction. It should help Pakistan begin to see that we are not abandoning the region. Most likely, Mr. Obama will reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan only modestly this summer, buttressing the case that we are committed.
Mr. Obama should also offer Islamabad a much more expansive U.S.-Pakistani relationship if it helps win this war. Three major incentives could have particular appeal to Pakistan. One is a major energy deal, perhaps nuclear related and perhaps not, depending on Pakistan’s further progress with export controls and its willingness to curb production of nuclear weapons. Second is a free-trade accord. Struggling economically, Pakistan needs such a shot in the arm, and a trade deal could arguably do even more than aid at this point. Third is debt forgiveness or other balance-of-payments help, partly in recognition for how much of Pakistan’s current economic mess we helped create with the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing global recession.
But the key point is this: Pakistan should be told that these deals will only be possible if Islamabad clamps down in general on terror groups operating on its soil, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, and also if the United States and its allies prevail in Afghanistan. Pakistan can do a great deal to make such things possible and we should force Islamabad into a major, defining choice about whether it is willing to do its share in such a possible bargain.
Small gestures of greater helpfulness are not adequate; bottom-line results are what count and what are needed. If Afghanistan turns around in a year or two and other steps against terrorist groups are taken, the deals can be set in motion and implemented over a longer period that will allow the United States to continually monitor subsequent Pakistani cooperation in the war. These terms are really just common sense, and they are based on political realism about America’s domestic politics as well as its strategic interests, since there is no way Congress would support such a deal if Pakistani policy ultimately contributed to our losing the war in Afghanistan or to another major attack on a state like India.
Would Islamabad make this kind of big deal? I don’t know. But rather than simply let a crucial relationship fray, we should think hard about whether there is a bold way to rescue it. And by the way, we might also signal to Islamabad that the status quo is no longer workable. Giving $3 billion a year to a country barely interested in helping us find Public Enemy No. 1 is not sustainable in American politics. We will either have to strengthen the partnership or it will weaken; this is a reality – not a threat – and it is time to choose.
Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.