The Next Chapter: The United States and Pakistan

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

September 30, 2008


Pakistan may be the single greatest challenge facing the next American President. The sixth most populous country in the world is suffering its greatest internal crises since partition, with security, economic, and political interests in the balance. With such turmoil, we find U.S. interests in Pakistan are more threatened now than at any time since the Taliban was driven from Afghanistan in 2001. The United States cannot afford to see Pakistan fail, nor can it ignore the extremists operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal (and past nuclear proliferation), al-Qaeda, and the war in Afghanistan keep U.S. national security firmly anchored in Pakistan. Afghanistan cannot succeed without success in Pakistan, and vice versa. As Americans learned to their great sorrow on September 11, 2001, what happens in Southwest Asia can profoundly affect their lives.

In the face of this challenge, Washington needs to rethink its approach to Pakistan. If we genuinely believe that a stable, prosperous Pakistan is in our interest, we must be much smarter about how we work with Pakistan and what sort of assistance we provide. As the September 19th bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad demonstrates, there is little time to waste. Our options in Pakistan are diminishing rapidly.

Political developments in both Pakistan and the United States, however, make this an opportune moment to recalibrate U.S. policy. A new civilian government headed by the Pakistan People’s Party has emerged in Pakistan, and President Pervez Musharraf has departed the scene after nine years of military rule. The upcoming U.S. presidential election will similarly bring a new set of policymakers to power and a potential willingness to consider fresh approaches to managing the difficult but exceedingly important U.S.– Pakistan relationship.

Some of the key recommendations for strengthening U.S. policy toward Pakistan presented in this paper include:

Pakistani Politics and the Challenges for U.S. Diplomacy

  • Exhibit patience with Pakistan’s new democratically elected leaders, while working to stabilize the government through economic aid and diplomacy. But at the same time, emphasize to the Pakistan government that U.S. patience is not unlimited, and that the U.S. is prepared to be patient only so long as the Pakistan government is achieving visible results in its efforts against the extremists in the tribal areas.
  • Develop, invest in, and implement a farreaching public diplomacy program that emphasizes common U.S. and Pakistani interests in combating extremism, creating prosperity, and improving regional relationships instead of highlighting the struggle against extremism in Pakistan as part of the “Global War on Terrorism.”
  • Invest in U.S. institutions and personnel in Pakistan to support long-term engagement in the region. Expand the mission of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Agency for International Development in terms of physical structure and personnel and invest more in training diplomats and other government officials who will dedicate their careers to the region.

Counterterrorism and Internal Security

  • Commission a fresh National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) to form a common operating picture within the U.S. government on what Pakistan and others are doing to counter and/or support militancy and what these actions say about their intent.
  • Develop a strategy based on the NIE findings that seeks to adjust Pakistan’s cost–benefit calculus of using militants in its foreign policy through close cooperation and by calibrating U.S. military assistance.
  • Increase support for civilian institutions that would provide oversight of the military and the Directorate of Inter- Services Intelligence.

Regional Relationships

  • Assign primary responsibility for coordinating and implementing Pakistan– Afghanistan policy to a senior U.S. official with sufficient authority, accountability, and institutional capacity to promote better ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  • Increase diplomatic efforts to encourage the bilateral peace process between New Delhi and Islamabad.
  • Work more closely with our allies and regional countries to encourage Pakistan to stiffen its resolve against terrorism and extremism and to promote greater stability in the country. Raise Pakistan as an issue to a higher level in U.S. bilateral diplomacy, particularly with countries that have good relations with Islamabad, such as China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states.

U.S. Assistance

  • Support the approach to assistance proposed in the Biden–Lugar legislation, S.3263, “Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2008,” introduced July 15, 2008. Commit to including $1.5 billion per year in non-military spending in each of the Administration’s annual budget requests. Such assistance, however, must be performance-based, and must be accompanied by rigorous oversight and accountability. The era of the blank check is over.
  • Enhance access of Pakistani textiles to the U.S. market on favored terms, starting with passage of the long-awaited Reconstruction Opportunity Zone legislation, and consider increasing the number of product lines included in that legislation.
  • Focus the majority of U.S. economic aid on projects in basic education, health care, water resource management, law enforcement, and justice programs, with the goal of developing state capacity to effectively deliver these services to the population.
  • Redirect the focus of U.S. military assistance to providing systems and training that enhance Pakistan’s counterterrorism and counterinsurgency capabilities.

The U.S. and Pakistan share numerous common interests that constitute a firm basis for a long-term, mutually beneficial partnership. At the same time, fundamental differences between U.S. and Pakistan thinking on counterterrorism threaten to overshadow our common agenda and could eventually lead to a hostile relationship between our two countries. To avoid going down this path, Pakistan needs to demonstrate an unambiguous commitment to severing any remaining links to terrorism in the region and to uprooting the al-Qaeda and Taliban safe havens. For its part, the U.S. needs to exercise more patience with Pakistan and effect smarter and more robust diplomacy to reduce regional tensions that fuel support for radical ideologies and terrorism.

Making progress in the U.S.–Pakistan relationship will take a Herculean effort. We should be modest in our expectations and prepared for a long-term effort. Yet for all the difficulties ahead, American desires for Pakistan are not in conflict with what most Pakistanis want for their country. That conviction and reality inform the recommendations presented in this report.

The Pakistan Policy Working Group is an independent, bipartisan group of American experts on U.S.–Pakistan relations. Members include Kara L. Bue, Lisa Curtis, Walter Andersen, Stephen Cohen, Xenia Dormandy, C. Christine Fair, John Gastright Jr., Robert Hathaway, Dennis Kux, Daniel Markey, Polly Nayak, J Alexander Thier, Marvin G. Weinbaum, and Nicholas Hamisevicz. This report was reviewed and endorsed by Richard Armitage and Lee Hamilton.