The U.S.-Pakistan Tango

Kamran Bokhari and
Kamran Bokhari Fellow, George Washington University's Program on Extremism
Muqtedar Khan
Muqtedar Khan Former Brookings Expert, Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations - University of Delaware

March 19, 2007

Are U.S.-Pakistan relations undergoing a significant transformation?

There are clear indications that Washington is dissatisfied with the status quo and is seeking to ratchet up additional pressure to make Pakistan more compliant and responsive to America’s security interests. It is also possible that U.S.-Pakistan relations will become the battleground where Democrats settle political scores with the Bush administration.

Since 2001, when Pakistan abandoned its support for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and began cooperating with the United States, U.S.-Pakistan relations have centered singularly on U.S. demands. Pakistan’s role has been to comply.

Nearly six years after 9/11, Osama Bin Laden is still hiding somewhere in Pakistan, the Taliban has regrouped and reconsolidated—reportedly in Pakistan—and Washington is having second thoughts about the honesty and the utility of Pakistani cooperation.

Following the Democratic Party takeover of the U.S. Congress last November, there has been increasing pressure on the Bush administration to re-evaluate its relationship with Pakistan. The most prominent move in this regard is the bill approved by the House of Representatives in January which stipulates that continued financial assistance to Pakistan be contingent upon a certification from the president of the United States that the state of Pakistan is doing its utmost to contain the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. A milder version of the bill is currently being debated in the Senate.

The thinking behind these moves in the U.S. legislature is informed by two emerging developments. The first relates to the growing debate within the United States over an Iraq exit strategy. The logical consequence of movements pushing to draw down troops in Iraq has been a shift in U.S. attention away from the original focus of the U.S. war against militant jihadism—i.e. Afghanistan and the unfinished business of hunting down the Al-Qaeda leadership.

The second reason pertains to the administration’s visible unhappiness with the performance of its reluctant ally in the so-called “global war on terror,” and the visit by Vice President Dick Cheney himself to Pakistan to tell the General how things stand between them. In public, the administration is still defending President Musharraf as an important ally in the war on terror, but clearly the Mush-Bush pie is turning sour.

It is in this dual-faceted context that the question of Pakistan’s performance (or the lack thereof) comes into play. Given that the Taliban insurgency has exhibited phenomenal growth in recent years, especially in 2006, there is concern that the Musharraf government is allowing Pashtun jihadists and their transnational allies to use Pakistani soil as a launch pad for attacks in Afghanistan and beyond.

Is the Musharraf regime doing all it can in the war against terrorists? How much can and should the United States demand from Pakistan? And perhaps most importantly, what can and should Islamabad do with respect to both issues?

The domestic political climates in both the United States and Pakistan also transform the tone of their relationship. The U.S. government is being pushed to demand more and Pakistan is being cornered into a situation where it can deliver less.

As far as Pakistan’s track-record is concerned, clearly it has significantly aided U.S. efforts to disrupt the Al-Qaeda network’s ability to operate. In this regard, Pakistan has incurred the loss of several hundred of its soldiers as well as the domestic instability that President Musharraf’s government continues to deal with. That said, the Pakistanis have not been able to block Taliban activity within their borders. In fact, the last three years have seen the Talibanization of the Pashtun-dominated areas on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan.

The U.S.-Pakistan alliance is critical to the stability of South Asia, to the success of U.S. objectives in Afghanistan and to the ongoing effort to combat Al-Qaeda. Positive U.S.-Pakistan relations are also important for the United States given its myriad problems and low approval ratings in the broader Muslim world. Pakistan needs U.S. economic and military aid to keep up with a rapidly growing India. Without U.S. support, Pakistan will find its geopolitical interests dangerously exposed; without Pakistani assistance, the United States will find it impossible to deal with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Washington must realize that Pakistan is not just an agent to whom foreign policy tasks can be outsourced. It has its own national interests, its domestic political imperatives and geopolitical concerns. Yes, it must be pressured to do more, but without jeopardizing its domestic stability or long-term utility to the United States. Democrats in particular must not use it as a proxy to attack President Bush, for they may inadvertently do much harm to U.S. interests if they undermine the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

Pakistan, on the other hand, must realize that it has to do more, at home as well as abroad. At home it must step up its efforts at de-Talibanization and re-democratization of its polity. Abroad, it must work to improve the foundation of its relations with Washington, which is critical to its long-term geopolitical and economic well-being. It must work towards the consolidation of U.S.-Pakistan relations and step up its efforts to answer its numerous critics within the Washington Beltway.

It is in the interest of all parties that Pakistan remain a stable country, a strong ally of the United States and a bulwark against extremism in its region.