Asia, World — March 17, 2012 at 10:47 am

Islamabad Relations

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Illustration by Esha Maharishi

From the unannounced raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound that surprised and humiliated Pakistani officials, to a badly botched NATO operation that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, 2011 was not a great year for US-Pakistani relations.

Many American policymakers are dismayed that neither friendship nor financial assistance has induced Pakistan to cooperate with American objectives in South Asia. Moreover, the strategic justifications for working with Pakistan are becoming less clear. In 2001, the United States sought to partner with Pakistan in the war on terror; now, with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan fast approaching, it is unclear what strategic interest continues to bind Washington and Islamabad.

It’s no wonder, then, that there is increasing support in some quarters for scaling back this partnership. In late 2011, a group of congressmen wrote indignantly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, citing a lack of Pakistani cooperation and demanding a rethinking of America’s expensive alliance with the country.

The skeptics have one thing right: It is time for a decisive shift in US-Pakistani relations. However, this shift should not be toward disengagement. While dropping Pakistan as an ally might be politically expedient for congressmen who want to undermine President Obama’s foreign policy track record, the geostrategic importance of Pakistan extends beyond the election cycle.

US and NATO troops are poised to leave Afghanistan in the next few years, and the main obstacle to post-withdrawal stability is the insurgency, composed of groups such as the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and al-Qaeda. The insurgents thrive because they can cross the notoriously porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border or reside at its Federally Administered Tribal Areas for refuge. Tribal insurgents in Pakistani border regions offer the support that sustains their Afghan counterparts, thereby undermining the American mission in Afghanistan. Pakistani cooperation is key to stabilizing the Afghanistan situation.

The problem for American diplomats is that the Pakistani government, officially an American ally, refuses to go after the insurgents despite America’s insistence that it do so. In fact, there is evidence that the government is actively helping these groups. Consequently, Americans have complained of a Pakistani “double game” and have called for the end of a clearly broken strategic partnership. But Pakistan is America’s only hope for stabilizing the troubled border region and for preserving its hard-earned gains in Afghanistan. Therefore, America should seek to make its relationship with Pakistan mutually beneficial again.

Revamping the US-Pakistan relationship first requires that policymakers understand why the Pakistani government continues to support extremist insurgent groups when such relations weaken its standing with the United States, its most important ally. The answer lies in a fundamental sense of national insecurity that is a product of history, geography, and circumstance. Pakistan, nestled between an increasingly powerful India and an unstable Afghanistan, has good reason to fear a future in which it is geographically and politically isolated from its neighbors. The historical enmity between India and Pakistan dates back to the bloody partition of the two countries in 1947, and still stands to be resolved. This historical tension, combined with India’s rising global prominence, has led Pakistan to anxiously pursue regional policies intended to protect it against future Indian hostility.

How, then, does Pakistan believe supporting insurgents enhances its security?  In allying with the tribal militants that dominate poorly governed Pakistani border regions, the Pakistani government gives itself a greater measure of control over these areas and creates an effective buffer against two of its biggest fears: a hostile India and an unraveling Afghanistan. Moreover, Pakistan’s ties to militants gives leverage in future regional negotiations, as it can gain clout with other nations by promising to restrict those groups’ violent activities – a strategy it has used successfully with the United States in the past few years.

This tactic is a key component of Pakistan’s regional policy, as well as the biggest source of American frustration with Pakistan. But America has played an indirect role in pushing Pakistan into the arms of the militants, since American diplomacy has done little to assuage the geographical and historical insecurity that drives most of Pakistan’s policies. For Pakistan, the darkest point in the history of its troubled relationship with America was in 1989, at the end of the Soviet-Afghan war. During that conflict, America enlisted Pakistani support against the Soviets in Afghanistan and poured massive amounts of aid money and arms into the country. Once the war ended, however, America left South Asia high and dry, causing Afghanistan’s descent into civil war. The conflict in Afghanistan destabilized Pakistan as well, but America, recently a steadfast ally, was suddenly nowhere to be found.

Pakistanis remember this incident with great resentment because they see it as an example of America acting like a “fickle friend.” When President Obama announced a withdrawal timeline for NATO forces, it seemed to Pakistan that history was bound to repeat itself. Recognizing that Afghanistan is not stable enough to self-govern amid the exiting of Western powers, Pakistan is justifiably suspicious that it will, once again, be left without a friend to help clean up the imminent mess in its region.

America’s dubious commitment through the years has enhanced Pakistan’s already acute sense of national insecurity. Pessimistic about what a future without American support might hold, Pakistan has continued to shelter militants to consolidate influence in unstable regions. Thus, Pakistan’s preemptive effort to bring domestic stability in fear of the retracting American support is, in part, a cause of America’s withdrawal. To end this vicious cycle, America must reassure Pakistan that one thing the future does hold for it is continued American support.

One important way for the United States to ease Pakistan’s anxieties and repair the damaged alliance is to improve the way American aid dollars are spent.  The amount that America spends on aid to Pakistan seems inappropriate to some, given Pakistan’s lack of cooperation, and infeasible, given America’s own fiscal troubles. But cutting off the aid flow at a time when the United States needs Pakistan more than ever would do more harm than good. Rather, American policymakers can reform the aid program in a way that will improve Pakistanis’ perceptions of their “fickle friend,” thereby promoting better cooperation with American objectives.

The 2009 Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill (KLB) provided a long-term aid package to Pakistan. The intention was to use aid to gradually replace military domination of the country with civilian control, as well as to bolster Pakistani support for America. While an enormously positive step, KLB has in practice done little to improve Pakistani views of America’s commitment, and may have even worsened them. One problem is that Pakistanis simply have not seen much of the money. Much of it is eaten up by questionably high “administrative costs” and other deductions on the American side for which there is little transparency. On the receiving end, the outlook isn’t much better: Lawrence Wright of The New Yorker has chronicled the poor oversight that has permitted the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) to divert aid away from its intended purpose of civilian development and use it instead for military buildup – the precise result that KLB was designed to prevent.

Additionally, American officials have tried to exert too much control over how exactly the aid programs are implemented, shutting out local actors with more knowledge of how to tailor the programs to local conditions. These officials often favor what Pakistanis indignantly describe as “Made in America” solutions that don’t reflect the needs and priorities of the people whom the aid is meant to help. Thus, KLB has been ineffective in improving economic conditions and political stability. But there is the larger problem of perception, as well: By neglecting local Pakistani input on how to spend the money, America aggravates suspicions that it only has its own interests in mind.  Making the program less corrupt and more inclusive of Pakistani priorities may go a long way to convince Pakistan of America’s reliability.

A related problem is that America insists on making its aid to Pakistan conditional – that is, requiring Pakistan to make certain political reforms before it can receive the funds. While conditionality seems like an easy way to make American aid dollars effective, it reinforces the idea that America only wants to help Pakistan on its own terms and that the relationship is one-sided. Pakistani frustration centers on the idea that the partnership is purely “transactional,” sustained not by friendship or commitment but by benefits to the United States – a perception that contributes to the fear that America’s commitment may abruptly end once its benefits run out. In the long run, conditionality stokes deep-seated sources of resentment and contributes to Pakistan’s insecurity about its future.

Finally, America can work to change its image in Pakistan by easing protectionist trade barriers on textiles. Since Pakistani businesses have been pushing for this sort of policy change for many years to no avail, an easing of barriers would be a powerful symbol of America’s intention to finally make the relationship two-sided. In fact, many Pakistanis actually favor less direct aid and more economic engagement, using the slogan “trade not aid” to describe what they want from the United States. While domestic manufacturing interests have thus far prevented America from eliminating the controls that keep Pakistan out of the market, the long-term political dividends from promoting Pakistani manufacturing will outweigh the immediate costs to US manufacturers.

To be sure, reforming aid effectiveness and trade policies is only the beginning of what must be a long-term effort to repair the relationship. No improvement can occur without other American initiatives, such as reexamining the use of drone strikes on Pakistani territory – which are seen as undermining national sovereignty – and playing an active role in mediating the India-Pakistan conflict. Indeed, that relationship may be the most important, given how much it influences the regional policies of both Pakistan and India. American support for an easing of tensions could start a process that will eventually place Pakistan in a more secure geopolitical situation, and lessen the incentive to support insurgents and the Taliban. Still, even that initiative requires that Pakistanis trust America, a condition that certainly does not hold today.  This indicates how important it is to reform Pakistani perceptions of the United States. Understanding how the aid program reinforces suspicions of the American relationship as transactional is an important first step to improving the aid program and, ultimately, the alliance itself.

There are, of course, no guarantees that these solutions will solve this complicated problem anytime soon. But it is the focus on short-term gains rather than on the long-term implications of policies that has gotten US-Pakistan relations to this problematic point.  The United States cannot afford to waste this opportunity to work with Pakistan to return stability and civility to their troubled region.  Perceptions matter as much as tangible results. If policymakers begin by taking small but decisive steps to show Pakistan that America is a real ally with real concern for Pakistan’s interests, there can be hope that 2012 will mark a sustainable turning point in relations between the two countries. 

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