U.S.-Pakistan: Bad Union, No Divorce

The U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 1 underscores the complexity of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

Washington clearly could never have accomplished this combat raid without intelligence gleaned over the years, in part with Pakistan’s help.

Yet bin Laden appears to have been living for an extended period in a compound in a town with many Pakistani military officers and retirees who, at a minimum, should have known enough to be suspicious. And U.S. combat helicopters flew over at least dozens of miles of Pakistani territory without telling Islamabad about it beforehand.

It even seems possible that Pakistan had no interest in helping us find bin Laden in recent years.

We knew Islamabad had mixed views about groups like the Haqqani network and Afghan Taliban, who take sanctuary on Pakistani territory. It tolerated them even as those groups killed Americans and others in Afghanistan.

Washington officials always tried to rationalize these actions away because of Pakistan’s worries that it would need friends in Afghanistan should the North Atlantic Treaty Organization leave the region before the job there was done.

But tolerating bin Laden—or even looking the other way when he was likely close by—has no defense.

We must, however, resist the impulse to denounce Pakistan and distance ourselves further from its military, intelligence services and civilian government. It has been a rough last few weeks—and, in fact, a rough last few decades—in U.S.-Pakistan relations.

Yet we have no choice but to work together. We are stuck in the geostrategic equivalent of a bad marriage—in a land with no allowance for divorce. The relationship must be worked on, and, to the extent possible, repaired.

Success in Afghanistan and Pakistan does not require perfect harmony between Washington and Islamabad. But it does require as much respect and teamwork as possible.

We have faced far more challenging situations with less savory allies before, and managed to cooperate in past wars.

The extreme example is, of course, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union in World War II. At the time, we tried to believe the best about the country that was fighting Adolf Hitler hard on the east front as the U.S. and Britain gradually prepared their attack from the west. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt called him “Uncle Joe.”

We were more than happy to close our eyes when evidence arose about his true character. To work with Stalin was our only choice and it had to be done, even if we perhaps didn’t need to fool ourselves quite as much as we did about the man we were dealing with.

Pakistan today is a very difficult partner—and is a far more humane and serious place than was Stalin’s Soviet Union. Its leaders are also far more creditable than many of our Cold War allies in places like Zaire, South Africa and even the Philippines.

It is clear, however, that Pakistani officials have collective phobias about India that verge on paranoid at times; a cynicism and mistrust in dealing with Washington; a penchant for conspiracy theory, and, in some cases, blood on their hands from terrorist attacks instigated by Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Afghan insurgent groups mentioned above.

Yet their degree of butchery is far less than of many past U.S. allies. Their internal security challenges are enormous as a result of the insurgency they face on their own soil; and their economic and demographic challenges are monumental. Meanwhile, at least a few of their complaints about India are valid.

All this leads to an ineluctable conclusion: It is time for Washington to rethink and restart the relationship rather than walk away from it.

Indeed, Pakistan’s help is needed for any big breakthrough we might hope for in Afghanistan peace talks. Islamabad has been telling Afghan officials to depend on them more, and Washington less, in creating their future security partnerships. This is a blatant effort at bullying—and wrongheaded. But it does not repudiate the fact that Pakistan does have legitimate interests in Afghanistan, and that it can and must be a part of any solution there.

Among the various steps we might consider—even as we also place demands on Pakistan:

  • U.S. aid projects must be accelerated. Pakistan is wrong to be so unappreciative of the Kerry-Lugar aid bill passed a couple years ago. But we are not doing a good enough job helping Islamabad approve and implement projects that aid is designed to make possible.
  • Consider a one-time lump-sum aid payment to Islamabad to help it with debt restructuring and relief, recognizing that the financial crisis—which we did more than any other state to cause—had huge repercussions for Pakistan. This offer would, of course, require Islamabad to do something big for us—like move against the Haqqanis or Afghan Taliban sanctuaries on their soil.
  • Consider a free-trade accord with Pakistan, and bigger energy cooperation. These measures should again be contingent on the Pakistani efforts to rein in Afghan insurgents, plus some constraints on Pakistan’s nuclear buildup. This accord should also focus on expanding Pakistan’s trade relations with Afghanistan and India. We can help here as well, initiating a sort of “EZ pass” for technologies for the Afghan-Pakistan border, if the two countries want the help.
  • We might also encourage Kabul to ask India to shut down its consulates in eastern Afghanistan as part of a peace process. These are innocuous, but Pakistan does not think so. This is a situation where Afghanistan can, at low cost, assuage some Pakistani concerns.
  • We should reduce (though not eliminate) the drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. President Barack Obama was courageous and correct in deciding to go after bin Laden with a raid rather than bombs—partly to reduce the risk of civilian casualties—and we need to build on that smart move. We can also redress the problems we created by recent drone attacks that were less than surgical—with a reduction in the tempo of these strikes.

Today may be a strange time to call for more cooperation with Pakistan. But, as the old saying goes, when you have a problem you can’t solve, sometimes the best answer is to enlarge it. And when you are in a marriage you can’t get out of, the right approach is to try even harder to make it work.