Why the United States Needs to Make Nice with Pakistan

Washington has long dealt with Pakistani malfeasance out of the public eye, on the assumption that private pressure is more productive than public shaming and that stability in U.S.-Pakistani relations is necessary if the United States is to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan and against al-Qaeda. But the revelations last week of Pakistani involvement in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul have led Washington to abandon all talk of alliance and partnership.

Breaking with Pakistan at this juncture is risky. Chances are slim that doing so will change Pakistani behavior. The far more likely outcome is that the stakes will be raised in Afghanistan.

Security gains in southern Afghanistan over the past year were made possible by generous American aid and intense engagement that improved U.S. and Pakistani relations, and the U.S. military was able to leverage that momentum to its advantage. When the Obama administration decided this year on an exit strategy from Afghanistan, officials were assuming that those conditions would hold.

The U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in May changed all that. Convinced of Pakistani duplicity, Washington kept the mission a secret, and that humiliated and angered the Pakistani military. Relations then spiraled downward as Washington demanded more cooperation on fighting terrorism and Pakistan provided less. The embassy attack finally pushed the relationship over the edge.

Yet Pakistan’s cooperation is still critical to U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, and a breach in U.S.-Pakistan relations could put peace and security in Afghanistan beyond reach.

That cooperation looks less likely. Anti-Americanism is on the rise in Pakistan. Even the mood in the military is dark. That leaves the Pakistani army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, very little room to maneuver. Now that Washington has made its private complaints public and is threatening direct military action, the generals in Pakistan will have little choice but to dig in their heels. For now, Pakistani leaders see the political cost of buckling to open American pressure as higher than the price their country will ultimately pay for intransigence.

Pakistan’s military leaders think they can do without American aid in the short run and absorb U.S. diplomatic pressure long enough to realize their own interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan sees Afghanistan through the prism of its regional rivalry with India; it fears that a strong and independent Afghanistan will take India’s side and would then lay claim to Pakistan’s Pashtun areas. For the past two decades, Islamabad has used the Taliban to avoid that outcome. Pakistan’s strategic calculus is too deeply entrenched and the stakes in Afghanistan are too high for Islamabad to change course over the threat of curtailed U.S. aid.

Confrontation with Pakistan presents Washington with a dilemma that will make leaving Afghanistan harder. If the United States truly wishes to change Pakistani behavior for the greater good of the region, then Washington has to be prepared to do what it takes to get that job done. That includes potentially keeping large numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely to protect that country against the fallout from our policy and to convince Islamabad that it is futile for Pakistan to pursue its own goals in Afghanistan.

But if our goal is to leave Afghanistan in short order, then the prudent course of action is a return to stability in U.S.-Pakistan relations. That would have to start with ending the recent public acrimony but also confronting head-on what Pakistan is after in Afghanistan.

The administration is hoping that by 2014 the combination of a strong Afghan military and a peace deal between the Karzai government and the Taliban will create the conditions for U.S. troops to finally leave Afghanistan. Pakistan, worrying about the sort of government that would next rule Afghanistan, is eager to be part of the planning for what is to follow the U.S. exit. In particular, Islamabad wants control over when and how the Taliban will engage Kabul and Washington. Afghans oppose this, and given Pakistan’s track record, Washington has not included Islamabad in decisions on the future of Afghanistan. But this is ultimately the price for Pakistan’s cooperation.

Still, even if the United States allows Pakistan to play a role in shaping a future Afghanistan, Washington should make any Pakistani role conditional on Islamabad taking concrete measures against groups such as the Haqqani network and the Taliban.

American policy will be most effective if it flows from a clear understanding of our objectives and the resources we are willing to commit to their pursuit. The recent change of policy toward Pakistan does not reflect this.