How to Repair the U.S.-Pakistan Relationship

Pakistani-American relations are broken. President Obama refused to meet with President Asif Ali Zardari at the Chicago NATO summit last month. The new head of Pakistani intelligence—the ISI—canceled his trip to Langley to see the CIA. Pakistan wants an apology for the NATO attack last November that killed two dozen of its soldiers. It wants an end to the drone war. Washington wants Pakistan to finally take action against terrorists like Hafez Saeed, the leader of Lashkar e Taiba that murdered six Americans in Mumbai four years ago. It also wants answers to how Osama bin Laden was able to hide out in Pakistan for a decade when Washington gave Islamabad almost $25 billion to fight al Qaeda.

Polls show Pakistanis see America, not India or al Qaeda, as their mortal enemy. The Pakistanis are looking for who helped the CIA find bin Laden, not who helped hide him for 10 years. Congress increasingly sees Pakistan as a bad investment gone sour. The White House rightly won’t give up the drones when Pakistan coddles terrorists like Saeed.

The broken relationship has been brewing for decades. American presidents from both parties embraced Pakistan’s military dictators to carry out great secret projects from U2s to fighting al Qaeda. The generals took American arms and aid to build up a nuclear arsenal to fight India; now that arsenal is the fastest-growing in the world. Washington talks about democracy, but does little to help Pakistani progressives. It is a deadly embrace that is heading toward disaster.

The most divisive issue today is Afghanistan. Obama has signed a long-term strategic pact with Kabul to give the U.S. access to Afghan bases until at least 2024 to fight terror. We know we can’t count on Pakistan to do that job. NATO and the U.N. back the Kabul government as the legitimate and elected authority in Afghanistan. Pakistan harbors and helps the Taliban. Interrogations of 4,000 captured insurgents in Afghanistan show that the ISI guides its strategy, finds it funds, and keeps in tight contact with its leaders, including Mullah Omar. Without Pakistani safe havens and ISI assistance, the Taliban would be a much less formidable enemy.

Ironically, Afghanistan also could be the way out of the deadly embrace. If the ISI would use its leverage to push the Taliban to resume a political process with the U.S. and, more important, start one with Kabul, then a way forward would open. The process is likely to be slow and difficult but it could make possible a ceasefire and a decentralized Afghanistan finally at peace with itself. The regional players could disengage from the great game in Central Asia. Pakistan would be a big beneficiary of peace and trade into the Central Asian “stans.”

American diplomacy can make this case to Islamabad, but only the Pakistanis can decide to take charge and act. If they don’t, then the U.S. should encourage India to play a larger role in Afghanistan. India already has a major aid program and is considering building a railroad to link Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea via Iran. India could help build and pay for the Afghan army. If the Pakistani generals see that encouraging Taliban intransigence is creating their worst nightmare—an Afghan-Indian-American alliance—then they may finally wake up to the foolishness of their policies.