The U.S.-Pakistan Realignment

A series of incidents transformed 2011 into a bad year for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. First, Raymond Davis, an American operative, gunned down two Pakistanis in broad daylight on a busy Lahore street, and then a consular vehicle that attempted to extricate him crushed a Pakistani bystander to death and sped away never to be seen again. The incident in its entirety eliminated any chances of a diplomatic resolution and was eventually settled months later in the Pakistani courts – a case that went over poorly with the United States and did not fully satisfy the Pakistanis.

Soon after Davis was released, a drone struck a gathering of tribal elders, killing and wounding a large number of people. The strike did not meet the criteria for high value target elimination and to most Pakistanis it was seen as retaliation for the Davis fiasco and the acrimony that accompanied it.

This was followed in May by the killing of Osama bin Laden and its inevitable fallout—a consequence that the United States had factored into its decision making process but that Pakistanis, especially the government, the military and the intelligence community, had a hard time swallowing and an even harder time explaining especially when it was discovered that Pakistanis had been recruited to assist in locating bin Laden.

Then the retiring U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, whom the Pakistanis regarded with respect, stated that the ‘ISI was a veritable arm of the Taliban.’ He said much more, and not all of it was negative, but this sentence shocked Pakistan and was interpreted as a deliberate media bashing of its military and intelligence services. Behind the statement, Pakistanis also perceived a convergence of interests among the United States, the Afghan government and India.

In October came the American attack on a Pakistani border post that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, including an officer. This time Pakistan reacted by boycotting the Bonn conference and blocking all NATO logistics through Pakistan, a ban that persists but is being debated by Parliament on the basis of recommendations from the Parliamentary Committee on National Security, a process that may be overtaken by political rivalry. This is significant because it underlines that the ban was a joint civil-military decision endorsed by Parliament and that Parliament will choose whether to extend or end it, thereby setting the tone for the future U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Current indicators suggest that there will be new conditions for a U.S.-Pakistan re-engagement, underwritten by negotiations on drone strikes, a tax on logistics, and other written agreements.

Finally, in February 2012, U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher introduced a resolution to the House of Representatives that asserted the “historic right to self-determination” of the Baluchi people and called for Baluchistan’s independence from Pakistan. The measure, though it enjoys virtually no support in the U.S. Congress, has nevertheless angered Islamabad, which is sensitive on issues of ethnic identity and sovereignty. Pakistani lawmakers have condemned it as yet another American attempt to interfere in internal Pakistani affairs.

So if there are negative vibes about Pakistan in the United States and about the United States in Pakistan, and if the much touted strategic relationship is in disarray, then there are good reasons to point to. The strategic relationship never really gained traction because of the great asymmetries between the two countries and was, perhaps, flawed as a concept – a transactional relationship seems a more realistic description.

Pakistan cannot ignore the ring of other strategic relationships in the region – the U.S.-India relationship, the India-Afghanistan relationship, the U.K.-Afghanistan relationship, and the U.S.-Afghan relationship. In spite of this environment, the vehemence of the Pakistani response to the border post incident seems to have surprised the United States. Just as the Koran burning incident in Afghanistan let loose the pent up fury built over a series of humiliating episodes, the Pakistani decision was a response to the cumulative impact of the events of the previous year. And just as the recent killing spree by an American soldier has badly frayed the already shaky U.S.-Afghan relationship, with the Taliban suspending the Doha talks, another incident on the border, or by a non-state actor linked to Pakistan, could put the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in jeopardy once again.

It is this fragility in the relationship that is dangerous, and this has to do with perceptions on both sides. The United States thinks that Pakistan is harboring and even supporting the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan and that some al Qaeda leaders either live in Pakistan or visit and transit unhindered across the border. The United States also thinks that Pakistan is not doing anything to rein in militant groups linked to international terror and, in fact, believes that its intelligence agencies are supporting them. It also has concerns over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets because of the unstable internal environment.

Pakistan, on the other hand, thinks the United States has extended its war on terror into Pakistan and is carrying out destabilizing covert operations and that India and the Afghan government are exploiting this situation. Pakistan also believes that its multiple domestic problems and the constraints that they impose on policies are not understood beyond its borders and it is being pushed into taking steps that could create a far more serious internal situation. It must also consider other possible developments such as the United States rapprochement with India, plans to contain China, the ‘new Silk Road’ concept, the idea of an ‘international corridor’ through Baluchistan, the exploitation of its Northern Areas, and international pressure on Iran as well as on Iran–Pakistan energy cooperation. Past American think-tank studies have also suggested a grim future for Pakistan, and many think that these predictions are now turning into reality.

These perceptions, no matter how outlandish they may seem, are not going to change any time soon. However, what can start improving the regional environment is an end to the turmoil in Afghanistan. This is where the United States and Pakistan interests must finally converge. The question is: can they?

Such a convergence may seem difficult, but it is possible. The United States has a clear timeline for its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan has serious concerns about insurgency in its FATA areas, its economy and its internal security situation. Both the United States and Pakistan consider the reconciliation track the best option in Afghanistan and both want stability and zero external interference in Afghanistan after the American pull-out. They also agree on the need to develop state capacity in Afghanistan, especially that of Afghanistan’s security forces. The problem, however, is that U.S. policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially over the last decade, have skewed local attitudes and policies towards the United States quite negatively. In Afghanistan this reaction is reflected in the attacks by members of the Afghan security forces on U.S. and NATO personnel – 15 have been killed so far in 2012 in these ‘green on blue’ attacks. It is also evident in the Afghan rage against acts like urinating on Afghan corpses, the Koran burning episode, collateral damage in air strikes, night raids, kill teams, prisoner abuse and the recent killing spree by a U.S. soldier. So when President Karzai asks for an end to night raids, transfer of detention centers and a quicker transition to Afghan security forces he is really speaking as an Afghan for Afghans.

Pakistan, as a U.S. ally, delivered on its pledge to fight al Qaeda in the critical early stages of the intervention in Afghanistan, but the country was never developed as a bulwark against incursions from Afghanistan across a border that should have been more clearly defined and substantially manned on both sides. This, more than anything else, created the Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in FATA. When the so-called Pakistan Taliban – the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – started the insurgency in FATA, Pakistan had to act to regain losses and marginalize them. To a large extent Pakistan has done this, but it continues today at an enormous human and material costs.

Pakistan may well have ventured into the Waziristan area had the U.S./NATO military strategy been focused, consistent and successful after the surge. But the shift to Iraq, followed by a drawdown and the well publicized exit strategy created different dynamics altogether. Pakistan could not risk attacking the Afghan Taliban while fighting the Pakistan Taliban because this would have created a far bigger problem given the potential for retaliation in its urban areas and the situation evolving in Baluchistan.

Pakistan therefore continuously advocated a reconciliation strategy and a focus on a positive end result. The notion of strategic depth or a friendly Afghanistan gave way to a more pragmatic push for an ethnically balanced Afghanistan that could lead the reconciliation process, take control, and formulate its own policies. This seems to be the preferred direction now, especially as the United States has given up on the very ambitious Afghan transformation and nation-building venture. By understanding its concerns about a post-reconciliation and post-U.S. presence in its neighboring country, Pakistan can and should be brought on board now, without reservations.

The need of the hour is a sound U.S. transition policy in Afghanistan and a realigned U.S.-Pakistan relationship. For this to result, both Pakistan and Afghanistan have to be accepted as they are – warts and all – because neither of them is going to undergo a transformation any time soon. Once this happens, Pakistan could then open channels with the Northern Alliance-dominated Afghan government to allay fears that it will use the Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan. It will be in Pakistan’s interest to do this if it wants to pacify its FATA area and Baluchistan and it will also be in Afghanistan’s interests to reciprocate because Kabul would not want a resurgent Taliban. There could also be agreement on the U.S. status beyond 2014, especially if early doubts about the capacity of Afghan security forces are correct and if by 2014 the situation has not changed for the better.

Afghanistan will evolve internally at its own pace and in its own way provided that it continues to get international economic support. Pakistan is quite capable of resolving its internal problems and conflicts as well as defending itself. Pakistan needs long-term economic support and technological help to overcome its domestic energy, health care and education problems. American help in these areas could not only quickly change public opinion but also lay the foundation for a viable U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Pakistan is already moving to improve relations with India and Iran because only an economically viable, politically stable and globally connected Pakistan will meet the threats and challenges that confront it.