The U.S. and Pakistan: “Divorce”?

From Flickr,

Pakistan’s colorful former ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, created a flutter of excitement in a recent presentation by calling for a “divorce” between the two countries – and urging them to find “friendship outside the marital bond.” His analysis of this dysfunctional relationship tracks well with our book, How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States: Riding the Roller Coaster. Our preferred solution would be different, however: we focus more on the content of the new friendship. As a new U.S. ambassador prepares to arrive in Islamabad, the United States needs to build up aspects of its relationship that do not revolve around Afghanistan, while developing an Afghanistan strategy that is realistic about Islamabad’s goals. These differ sharply from Washington’s.

Haqqani notes that Pakistan-U.S. relations have broken down in the past. More importantly, he underlines some of the areas where U.S. and Pakistani strategic interests are different. For Pakistan’s security planners, India represents the existential threat – and as Haqqani noted, the United States will not go to war with India on Pakistan’s behalf. Indeed, it recognizes the folly of choosing between India and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, where the U.S.-Pakistan security partnership is directly engaged, the U.S. objective is to eliminate Al Qaeda influence. By contrast, Pakistan’s primary goal is to minimize India’s influence, even if this means working with militant organizations still linked to international terrorism. And, closest to the bone for Pakistan, Haqqani observes that “I have no realistic expectation of the United States ending the drone campaign and Pakistan accepting it.” He’s right on both counts.

So the U.S.-Pakistan strategic partnership has broken down. Unlike the previous “divorces,” in 1965 and 1990, the collapse has not taken the form of a formal U.S. termination of its military sales or other assistance, and it has taken place primarily, though not exclusively, at Pakistan’s initiative.

The two governments’ efforts to put the relationship back together, especially during the past eight months, have displayed negotiating patterns on both sides that have bedeviled their ties over half a century. Pakistan continues to operate on the premise that the United States needs it more than the other way round. Case in point: the effort, eventually abandoned, to radically increase U.S. payments for transit of military goods through Pakistan. Pakistan’s policy has been driven primarily by its military establishment, and specifically by the feelings of humiliation within the army over several major U.S. actions, with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the lead. Unlike previous U.S.-Pakistan crises, however, the army has had a harder time turning off the public outrage it had earlier stoked. This reflects the bitter anti-American sentiment that is found in all groups in Pakistan. And Pakistanis, including those with extensive experience dealing with Americans, do not understand the depth of U.S. anger over, for example, Osama bin Laden’s long sojourn in their country.

U.S. missteps have also contributed to this sad turn of events. The U.S. system of government practically guarantees that raw feelings inside the U.S. government towards a country with which Washington has problems will be put on public display. Exhibit A: Admiral Mullen’s broadside against the Pakistani intelligence service’s ties with the Taliban just before he stepped down as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. However accurate it may have been, Pakistanis found it humiliating. In the many negotiations over U.S.-Pakistani efforts to establish a broad-ranging strategic partnership, the United States overlooked the differences in U.S. and Pakistani strategic objectives in Afghanistan and was shocked and disappointed every time these reared their head. And as the talks zeroed in on the reopening of ground transit through Pakistan to Afghanistan, the U.S. continued for months to accept Pakistan’s framework for the negotiations – in other words, to accept the “guilt trip” that was Pakistan’s starting point, and to approach Pakistan as a supplicant. In fact, the United States did not need to plead. It had already reduced its dependence on Pakistan through arrangements with Afghanistan’s northern neighbors, albeit cumbersome and expensive ones.

It has been clear for some time that the old dream of a broad strategic partnership is out of reach. But simply declaring the “marriage” dead is more likely to lead to another downward spiral than to launch a more realistic friendship. That is a bad outcome, and one to avoid. Pakistan, with its 180 million people, an impressive array of talent and a nuclear arsenal, is still important to U.S. interests. And Pakistan, despite what one often hears, needs the United States: the U.S. is its largest export market, by far the most important player in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, its major source of high-end military equipment, and a country that can help Pakistan improve its international standing – or not. Even without a strategic bear hug, we need to identify genuine common interests and find ways to work together.

We need to revive aspects of U.S.-Pakistan relations that are not dominated by Afghanistan. Breathe some life into commercial relations; quietly encourage ties between U.S. and Pakistani entrepreneurs; continue the lively exchange of academics through the Fulbright and other programs; build up scientific contacts in health, hydrology, and other fields where both countries have something to contribute.  Economic aid is likely to take a hit – the U.S. budget wars will see to that. But a fresh look at how we spend these funds is in order. We should reserve some of them for infrastructure, especially for the hard-pressed power sector. And despite the current bad blood between the U.S. and Pakistani military services, we should preserve normal channels for exchanges.

The United States and Pakistan are still obliged to try to work together on Afghanistan. Realistic expectations are key. Our interests are shared only up to a point. Ideally, the U.S. and Pakistan should find a zone within which they can both encourage a stable, governable post-2014 Afghanistan. But the hallmark should be candor, even if it is disagreeable. Having given ourselves a deadline – and regardless of whether that deadline was a good idea – the U.S. cannot afford the self-delusion that has characterized too many of our efforts in Afghanistan. If we are able to develop a mutually agreeable procedure for collaborating with Pakistan on reconciliation and negotiations, that is the best chance at success. But if, as seems more likely, we find ourselves working at cross-purposes, we need to minimize our dependence on Pakistan.

This is a fitting start-up program for the new U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, once he is confirmed.

Teresita and Howard Schaffer

5 Replies to “The U.S. and Pakistan: “Divorce”?”

  1. Would note that Amb [ret] Haqqani writes from his cozy perch on the banks of the Charles. That said, I find merit in his thesis. The GOP still has unhealed wounds from ’65, ’71 and ’98 — and long memories. The bin Laden caper may have been the last nail in the coffin of the “marriage”. The best we can do for the indefinite future is to give the relationship some “breathing room” — and that will not even be possible until the last NATO trooper departs Afghanistan. The tragedy of our whole relationship with AfPak is that our policy gurus never understood the trans-Khyber ethos. Maybe Kipling should be obligatory reading at both ends of Pennsylvania Ave and in the Pentagon as well.

  2. Single most essential US objective in Afghanistan is to ensure that when US withdraws the government and/or various political elements all agree not to allow Afghanistan to resume its role as base and staging ground for attacks on the USA. If we could even get that much, we would probably be satisfied and not really care if the Afghans go back 13 centuries and again stone uneducated women and hang thieves from soccer goal posts. This is surely something the Pakistanis would understand and agree to, for the right price.

    1. “No terrorist base” is indeed what the US will be negotiating for. And protecting women may be beyond the power of outsiders to ensure. But “don’t care”? no, no, no.

  3. Given the reality that the military rules Pakistan, Washington might have calculated that the Abbottabad raid would be the proverbial last straw for Rawalpindi. Arguing the future of U.S.-Pak relations is naturally important from Washington’s perspective. But, where, if anywhere, is Pakistan going after the divorce? Nuclear Somalia?

    Beijing has set about resolving the Pyongyang riddle. Perhaps it should add Rawalpindi to its list of problems, being the rising superpower.

    Ranga Chari

  4. An excellent review. In addition,I would recommend US giving more aid to the fund starved Pakistani police which has to bear the brunt of counter-terrorist campaigns. More details in US Institute of Peace special report(Feb 2011) prepared by Prof.Hassan Abbas, a former Pakistani Police officer, now a leading academic in USA:
    Democracy will grow in Pakistan only if civil agencies(not the military) is strengthened by building up a legal based CT system

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