Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s visit to Washington last week brought to the fore the dichotomy that lies at the heart of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Leaders on both sides are trying to re-build relations but as long as the U.S. and Pakistan maintain core differences over Afghanistan, any changes will likely be cosmetic and ephemeral.
From the time of partition of the Subcontinent in 1947, Pakistan’s pursuit of ties with the U.S. was predicated on the assumption that befriending the U.S. would help build Pakistan’s capabilities to stand up to India. To this day, Islamabad measures the reliability of the U.S. on the degree to which it is willing to defend Pakistan from a perceived threat from its economically stronger and militarily superior neighbor.
But the U.S. never intended to takes sides with Pakistan in its squabbles with India. Moreover, given Washington’s and New Delhi’s growing geopolitical convergences, mutual interest in fighting terrorism and shared democratic values, Washington would be foolhardy to follow Pakistan’s agenda in the region.
Afghanistan is the starkest example of the lack of commonality of objectives between the U.S. and Pakistan. The U.S. acknowledges Pakistani influence on developments inside Afghanistan and desires that Pakistan use its influence with insurgents to kindle a genuine political reconciliation process. However, Pakistan seems intent on thwarting U.S. goals in Afghanistan. The groups fighting U.S. and coalition forces – notably the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network—are the same groups Pakistan would like to see regain power. On the other hand, individuals who became American allies after 9/11 – members of the former Northern Alliance, President Hamid Karzai and others – are despised by Pakistan’s military.
This dilemma was highlighted in an exchange during a congressional hearing held on Sept. 13, in which the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA), asked the witnesses whether Pakistan is “justifiably afraid that Karzai could be a strategic ally of India and a strategic enemy of Pakistan?” Congressman Sherman argued that Washington should view Indian aid to Afghanistan through the eyes of those concerned with Pakistani national security.
As one of the expert witnesses, I (Lisa Curtis) argued the U.S. should not view Afghanistan simply as a battleground between Pakistan and India but rather strive to make it a stable, democratic country inhospitable to international terrorists. As staging ground for the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan is too important to U.S. vital national security interests to be viewed through the lens of Pakistani fear and paranoia. If Pakistan is worried about Afghanistan getting too close to India, let the Pakistanis engage in normal state-to-state activities to build ties, rather than support violent non-sate actors.
India’s involvement in Afghan reconstruction and economic and democratic development supports the American goal of a stable and economically viable Afghanistan. Pakistan too could benefit if instead of fearing strategic encirclement it sought regional economic integration. What that requires, however, is a strategic change at the top levels of the military-intelligence establishment, not only among certain civilian leaders.
Another Congressman at the Sept. 13 hearing, Jerry Connolly (D-VA), was less sympathetic to Pakistani interests. He declared the Haqqani network “operates with impunity in certain parts of Pakistan with the absolute knowledge of the directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI),” and argued the U.S. needed to “wrestle this issue to the ground if this relationship with the government of Pakistan is to proceed in any kind of healthy, normal fashion.”
Despite the frustration expressed by Congressman Connolly and shared widely throughout the U.S. Congress, there are sound reasons to try to remain engaged with Pakistan. An abrupt cut-off of aid and diplomatic engagement would be counterproductive for U.S. interests. Not only would the U.S. sacrifice leverage with this pivotal nuclear-armed nation, it would lose valuable counterterrorism cooperation. For all of its unhelpful policies, Pakistan has also facilitated U.S. efforts to degrade al-Qaeda’s capabilities and helped capture several key terrorist operatives. Moreover, despite its complaints about drones, Islamabad has never taken direct hostile action to halt the drone program.
Both sides will likely continue dialogue and engagement. But without fundamental changes to Islamabad’s Afghan strategy, they will not solve the basic problem that lies at the center of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Pakistani leaders need to understand that their country does not have an image or a Public Relations problem, it has a policy problem. Without recognition on this obvious point, the U.S. and Pakistan will stumble from crisis to crisis until they eventually reach a breaking point that neither side really wants.