The death of Osama bin Laden creates an opportunity for the United States to fundamentally re-examine its strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia. Such a re-evaluation must take into account three basic concepts:
• That Pakistan is much more important than Afghanistan from the standpoint of global threats to U.S security interests;
• That U.S. and Pakistani interests, as defined by current elites in Pakistan, are often in conflict;
• That U.S. leverage over Pakistani actions is fundamentally limited.
In addition, polling data suggest that public support for the United States in Pakistan is astonishingly low, civil-military relations are dominated by the military, and elements of the military support the Taliban along with a range of other Islamist militant groups. Because Pakistan has more than 100 nuclear weapons, is currently building them more rapidly than any country on the planet, and already has a population larger than Russia, it is fair to say that U.S.-Pakistan relations should be a high priority.1 In fact, an argument can be made that the association with Pakistan is the most difficult partnership the United States has tried to manage since its alliance with the Soviet Union in World War II.
Pakistani Behavior Will Change Little
The recent death of Osama bin Laden brought an interesting response inside Pakistan. The official reaction was one of great embarrassment—not at the fact that bin Laden was alive and living in a garrison city less than a mile from a military academy, but rather because he had been found and killed by the United States without Pakistani assistance or, apparently, detection. The director general of the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI) reportedly offered his resignation to Parliament. Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has toured the country’s military bases to restore morale. Civilian politicians have condemned the U.S. action as a violation of sovereignty, and a demonstration of our lack of faith in Pakistani security forces. Both charges, in all likelihood, are correct.
The United States has seen this kind of mendacious behavior before. In the past, when caught in activities that violated understandings and agreements with the United States, Pakistan has practiced a combination of denial and wounded accusation.2 In 1965, Pakistan invaded India using U.S. arms that had been supplied on the understanding they would be used as part of an alliance against the Soviet Union. This led to an arms embargo—which became “evidence” of U.S. “bad faith” and remains a standard item of complaint when Pakistanis discuss the relationship today. Similarly, one of the most convincing bad-faith accusations has been the Pressler Amendment—which cut off arms to Pakistan in 1990 when President George H. W. Bush no longer could publicly certify that Pakistan did not have nuclear weapons capability.
The problem with that accusation, of course, is that Pakistan’s military leadership was regularly briefed by the U.S. Embassy on exactly what the law meant, what steps were necessary to avoid violating it, and the consequences if the line was crossed. When Pakistan overstepped the boundaries of the relationship and was caught, it responded with claims that the United States is an untrustworthy partner. It never admitted culpability or modified its policies. There is, therefore, a track record of deteriorating U.S.-Pakistan relations after key national security differences are publicly exposed.
More disturbing, the same phenomenon can be seen with Pakistan’s darkest moment and most devastating defeat. In 1971, in response to the electoral victory of the Awami League in East Pakistan, the Pakistani army unleashed genocidal violence against the Bengali population. The history of that decision is unambiguous, and the consequences spectacular: in December 1971, East Pakistan was liberated (becoming today’s Bangladesh), and Pakistan lost half its territory and population in a war with India. Pakistani history and public memory continues to minimize or deny state and army culpability in that disaster, instead blaming it on Indian perfidy and lack of U.S. support. That absence of national self-reflection and re-assessment suggests an inability to adapt to policy failure—a definition that surely applies to the bin Laden debacle.
As a result, there is no reason to assume that Pakistan will substantially change its behavior post-bin Laden. There will be short-term and tactical accommodations to increase cooperation in some areas of mutual interest in order to regain negotiating leverage with the United States. At the same time Pakistan will find other ways to express its displeasure: limiting American advisers in-country, eliminating training missions, and the arrests of five Pakistanis accused of cooperation with the CIA on the bin Laden raid are recent examples. Nothing in the history of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship suggests that it will improve, or that Pakistan will make any long-term effort to make amends. In fact, if anything, both sides must focus carefully on mutual interests in order to prevent a repetition of the past and a complete collapse of the relationship—which would not be in the interests of either party or the international community.
Sanctuary for Terrorists Will Continue
In 1947 Pakistan used Pashtun irregular forces to stage an invasion of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. In 1965, Pakistan used irregulars and special forces in an effort to spark a Kashmiri uprising in India. Pakistan’s ISI backed Islamist militants in Afghanistan well before the 1979 Soviet invasion, and then became the primary source of training and support for the mujahedin throughout the 1980s. In the late 1980s, ISI encouraged the creation of militant groups to wage war in Kashmir, and also supported Afghan factions (Hekmatyar, the Taliban, and the Haqqanis) in an effort to ensure influence on its western border. Pakistan’s national security policy is intimately linked to the use of militant groups, and most such groups in Pakistan—including some in the Pakistani Taliban (TTP)—are viewed as either actual or potential assets.
As a result, Pakistan will continue to provide sanctuary for “friendly” militant groups. Some will deliberately engage in acts of terrorism in other countries, with the tacit or open support of the Pakistani military and intelligence services (which remain closely linked). The groups include the Haqqani network, the Afghan Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Other groups will provide training or support to individuals, or may attempt to recruit cells in the West—many of the most recent planned attacks in Britain have some connection with Pakistani militant groups, and Americans involved in terrorist activities have been linked to both the TTP and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Pakistan faces threats to its own security and stability, frequently from groups it has supported in the past. Those militants often have sympathizers in the military and ISI. In fact, military officers were linked to assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf, and the attack on Mehran naval air station in May reportedly had inside support.3 Many of the organizatons have considerable popular backing. Lashkar-e-Taiba, for example, is supported by a large political and charitable wing (Jamaat-ud-Dawa). As a result, Pakistan’s security forces are reluctant to crack down on the militants, for fear of creating much higher levels of internal opposition and instability. Most are accommodated, rather than attacked, and the military tries to redirect their efforts against other countries—again, tacitly or actively supporting those that will carry out transnational terrorism.
Irksome Flirtations with China
Pakistanis regularly refer to China as an “all-weather friend.” Unlike the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, which is marked by alternate periods of close engagement (1954–65, 1970–71, 1980–90, and 2001–09) and frigid distance (1966–70, 1971–80, and 1990–2001), Pakistan’s relations with China have always been close, recognizing the People’s Republic of China long before the United States, establishing aid and trade relationships in the 1960s, and even transferring territory back to Chinese sovereignty in 1962 (still a sore point with India).
China also is an important regional player, using its relationship with Pakistan to constrain India. And unlike the United States it is actually contiguous with Pakistan. China has been a reliable supplier of conventional arms, a covert supplier of nuclear and missile technology, and an important economic partner. As a result, forced to choose between the United States and China, Pakistan probably would opt to align itself more closely with China.
It is unlikely, however, to have to make that choice. Pakistan would prefer good relations with both countries, because the United States can deliver technology, aid, and weapons that China cannot. In addition, it appears that Pakistan regards its relationship with China as more crucial to China than the Chinese do. China has never offered overt support to Pakistan in either crisis or war. In May, Pakistan invited China to turn the port of Gwadar into a military facility—an offer the Chinese politely declined. Pakistan will try to use its relationship with China to pressure the United States, but it is not clear that China desires an entangling relationship with Pakistan. China currently is India’s largest trading partner, and may not wish a more complicated security relationship with the United States. Thus the costs of a closer relationship with Pakistan may outweigh the benefits.
More U.S. Dollars Not the Key
Optimistic theories regarding the role of foreign assistance in changing national priorities or public opinion in Pakistan require close scrutiny. Increased foreign aid is unlikely to significantly improve cooperation on core U.S. national-security interests: eliminating transnational terrorist networks, improving regional security and stability, and ensuring the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Those interests are closely linked with Pakistan’s own perceived vital security concerns, but its priorities are often quite different. On terrorism, Pakistan may provide additional support against specific groups or targets, but will not reorient its national security doctrine to focus on internal threats, nor will it disarm or permanently withdraw support from its militant proxies. Pakistan’s views of regional security and stability are deeply at odds with the U.S. perspective. The army dominates national security policy, and has systematically sustained regional instability through its obsessive competition with India. Terrorist attacks (Mumbai in 2008 and New Delhi in 2001) and irregular infiltrations (Kargil in 1999) have undermined potentially productive bilateral dialogues on Kashmir and regional peace. Pakistani nuclear weapons are fundamental to maintaining this “ugly stability.”4 Pakistan is deply concerned about the safety of its nuclear arsenal—but does not recognize or share our concerns about personnel reliability and divided loyalties.
U.S. aid has not materially affected policy on any of those issues. As mentioned previously, Pakistan developed nuclear weapons and violated the Pressler Amendment despite regular briefings on what would constitute a violation and despite massive U.S. economic and military assistance throughout the 1980s. More than $10 billion in security assistance has not affected Pakistan’s support for key militant groups that the United States considers a particular threat. Military aid, therefore, does not appear to change Pakistan’s national security calculus, and economic assistance does not have any impact on its army’s decision-making unless that powerful and virtually autonomous institution gets a share. The Kerry-Lugar Bill of 2009, intended to demonstrate a long-term U.S. commitment through a substantial aid package (Pakistan now receives more U.S. government aid than Egypt, and possibly Israel), instead prompted angry complaints and threats of rejection. Despite the significant aid provided over the past decade, public opinion in Pakistan regarding the United States is abysmally low.
Aid can make a difference if it can be specifically targeted to particular needs and requirements. That strategy, however, risks making assistance “transactional”—a term that Pakistanis regularly use to suggest a lack of U.S. commitment to the relationship. Nevertheless, U.S. aid has been particularly effective when it has been transactional, such as the significant commitment made to improving the capabilities of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps—the primary force used for internal security in Pakistan’s western provinces bordering Afghanistan. A transactional approach, therefore, may be a more prudent and effective means of thinking about aid. It may also be necessary to target aid much more specifically—to the power and energy sectors (urban brownouts are common), to the provision of medical care for the public, and to police reform, for example. Doing so would not fundamentally change Pakistani policy, but might have long-term effects on internal security, economic growth, and perceptions of the United States.
Last but not least, continued military-to-military cooperation—including the DOD’s International Military Education and Training program and Pakistani students attending U.S. military education facilities—provides a critical link for facilitating tactical and short-term cooperation, particularly in the security sphere. At the strategic and policy levels, this impact is more limited—General Kayani’s attendance at the Army War College obviously does not ensure completely overlapping views or interests. The loss of those contacts after 1990—another effect of the Pressler Amendment violation—made cooperation much more difficult in the post-9/11 era, in part because a generation of officers had missed out on U.S. military education. While some Pakistani generals retain fond memories of the United States, most midlevel officers view America with complete distrust. The benefits of such contacts between the two countries clearly far outweigh the extraordinarily small cost of maintaining those programs.
Pakistan’s Military Will Not Cede Influence
Pakistan has been governed by the military for more than half of its national existence. Although there is no evidence the army wishes to re-assume a formal governance role, it does appear that it staunchly defends its institutional interests and traditional autonomy. It remains the primary determiner of national security policy, exercises enormous influence on foreign policy, and exerts growing influence over the national economy.5 ISI and the army more broadly are autonomous in Pakistani society and politics, and remain largely unaccountable to elected officials.6
In 2008, President Asif Ali Zardari attempted to put ISI under the control of the Home Ministry, taking it from army control, but that proposal was promptly vetoed by the army, and Zardari backed off. After the Mumbai attack, Zardari said that the director general of ISI would go to India and cooperate with the investigation, and again backed off after an army veto. More recently, ISI has been accused of complicity in the May murder of Asia Times correspondent Saleem Shahzad, who reported frequently on ties between the Pakistani military or ISI and militant groups, including al Qaeda.
On top of that, Pakistani democratic politics remain deeply factionalized and dynastic. The two major parties, the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League–N, are linked, respectively, to the Bhutto family and the Sharif family. Each party has criticized the military when out of power, but quickly moved to accommodate it once elected. Islamist parties, while a small minority in terms of electoral representation, maintain the ability to mobilize for mass street demonstrations. Both Islamists and other parties (particularly the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in Karachi) also have the capability to organize public violence over political issues. A recent “debate” over blasphemy laws in Pakistan was effectively settled with the assassination of two leading politicians (one a Christian) who were known to favor reforms.
As a result, the potential for elected civilians to exert significant control over civil society, the domestic political process, and Pakistan’s highly autonomous military appears rather limited. The army retains a monopoly over national-security decisions. The intelligence services exert an ominous presence in the domestic realm, and what appears to be near-autonomy in maintaining relations with Pakistan’s dozens of armed militant groups. Elections alone will not enable civilian officials to become the major power centers in Pakistan. The army would either have to withdraw deliberately from the political sphere or suffer the kind of major embarrassment that utterly discredited its leadership. The bin Laden episode, however humiliating it has been for the military, has not created that kind of transformational momentum.
Crisis and Opportunity
For almost five years, a series of shocks and revelations havs created instability in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. In 2007, the “Lawyers Revolt” demonstrated Pakistani civil society’s rejection of then-President Pervez Musharraf, while the takeover of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in downtown Islamabad was a preliminary indicator of tensions between Islamist militants and the Pakistani government. In 2008, a new civilian government in Pakistan was unable to assert control over the intelligence services, and was surprised and embarrassed when militants supported by those intelligence services launched a highly-publicized terrorist assault on Mumbai.
In 2009, President Barack Obama’s “AfPak” strategy caused waves of resentment in Pakistan, as did increased drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The Kerry-Lugar Bill, intended as a demonstration of U.S. support for Pakistan, was met with emotional protests that the United States was infringing on Pakistani sovereignty by attaching conditions to economic assistance. The combination of downward trends in the relationship, lack of cooperation against key militant groups actively killing Coalition forces in Afghanistan (the Haqqani network in particular), and the vitriolic fallout from the Raymond Davis affair created enormous stress in the spring of 2011.7
As a result, the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad—a military garrison city and home to Pakistan’s military academy—can be viewed as both a crisis and an opportunity. It is a crisis because it demonstrates either the tacit complicity or the incompetence of Pakistan’s intelligence services: Either some elements knew he was there and chose to shelter him, or the vaunted ISI had no idea that the most wanted man in the world was living comfortably just 35 miles from Islamabad.
The attack itself is a humiliation of Pakistan’s armed forces, which failed to detect the raiding team while it was in Pakistani territory and were not trusted enough by the United States to cooperate in the assault—or even to receive prior notification. The humiliation is further compounded by the Pakistani Taliban raid in May on Mehran naval air station near Karachi, which reportedly was facilitated by Taliban sympathizers in the military and which led to the destruction of expensive naval assets.
The bin Laden raid also represents an opportunity, however. It provides an incremental victory in the war on terrorism—one so potent and visible that it creates genuine possibilities for strategic adjustments. These include a re-examination of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, a re-evaluation of strategy in Afghanistan, and a re-assessment of U.S. and Coalition priorities in the region.
Ultimately, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship must become more pragmatic. Despite flowery rhetoric and desperate efforts on both sides to find long-term, binding common goals, the two countries’ national interests have been and are likely to continue to be fundamentally in conflict. Over time, the United States will develop a strong relationship with India. It also desires an Afghanistan where Taliban influence is as limited as possible. It wants Pakistan to end support for transnational militants and terrorists. And it views Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as a potential source of regional and global instability. Pakistan, with alternate priorities, pursues foreign policy in ways that often are reckless andastrategic, and seems to exert little or no control over militants it has empowered and supported in recent decades. Given those vast differences, aid and diplomacy should focus in the short-term on transactional relationships that improve areas of common interest and understanding.
The Reassessment of Priorities
The re-evaluation of strategy in Afghanistan already is under way. As long as the United States and the Coalition maintain more than 100,000 foreign troops in theater, Pakistan has significant leverage because of the land lines of communication that sustain and supply those forces. As Coalition forces are drawn down, Pakistan’s leverage will decrease—but it can (and will) still use militant proxies to influence the peace process and political reconciliation that must be part of any Coalition strategy, including any negotiations with the Taliban.
The most important aftermath of the bin Laden episode is the opportunity to reassess U.S. and Coalition priorities in the region. Pakistan‘s population, relative economic strength, coherent (if dangerous) foreign policy, European and American diaspora, and nuclear arsenal all make it a more significant strategic concern in the long run than Afghanistan. What the United States and the Coalition must acknowledge, however, is that they have little control over events and developments in Pakistan. Multiple forces contribute to Pakistan’s instability—violent domestic ethnic and religious groups, dysfunctional domestic politics, significant corruption and endemic delays in the legal system, and fiscal incompetence.8
The major concerns the United States and the international community have regarding Pakistan, however, are the result of deliberate choices by political elites. The most powerful and influential force is the army, which drives the country’s strategy, defense planning, and (to a great degree) foreign policy. The Pakistani army is in many respects as autonomous and pernicious an institution as the Mexican drug cartels. It has control over many violent instruments and does not want to govern the country, but it wants to ensure that the government that does run the country is weak enough so all of the army’s needs, interests, and internal agendas are met.
The United States and the international community, therefore, must use aid and diplomacy to influence Pakistan in directions that provide for greater regional stability and security. This can only be done by working carefully to strengthen Pakistani civil society through targeted economic assistance and by systematically helping to empower other official and nongovernmental institutions in Pakistan, especially those that can both deliver results and influence the policy process. As long as the military maintains its unique world view, its autonomy in the national security and foreign policy arenas, and its reputation as the one organization in the country that can get things done, Pakistan will remain an epicenter for violence and a threat to stability.
2. See Howard B. Schaffer and Teresita C. Schaffer, How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States: Riding the Roller Coaster (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2011).
3. “Inside help suspected in PNS Mehran base attack,” The News (Pakistan), 27 May 2011 http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=6290&Cat=13.
4. See Ashley J. Tellis, Stability in South Asia (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1997). Dr. Tellis coined this phrase to describe the military balance in South Asia before the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests.
5. Ayesha Siddiqa, Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy (London: Pluto Press, 2007).
6. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005); Hassan Abbas, Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror (London: M.E. Sharpe, 2005).
7. See “Timeline of U.S.-Pakistan relations since the Raymond Davis shooting,” The Telegraph (U.K.).12 April 2011 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/pakistan/8445972/Timeline-of-US-Pakistan-relations-since-Raymond-Davis-shooting.html. Raymond Davis was a U.S. government contractor charged with shooting two armed assailants in Lahore in January 2011. The case fueled a major controversy in Pakistan and spawned myriad rumors. Davis eventually was released after a payment of reparations..
8. See Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country (New York: PublicAffairs Books, 2011).