Are Pak-US relations repairable?
Another rupture, another sense of betrayal. US-Pakistan relations have once again reached a low point with the Trump administration’s decision to withhold most funding for military assistance. This announcement has generated even deeper antagonism toward the United States within Pakistan, where the consensus view holds that Islamabad is being scapegoated for Washington’s difficulties in Afghanistan. Within the United States, the consensus view holds that Pakistan has been playing a double game – accepting US counter-terrorism funding while supporting the Afghan Taliban and The Haqqani Network – for long enough.
Is this rift more significant than before and is it repairable? My short answer to these questions is ‘yes’, and it will remain so until there is a major shift in either Pakistani or US policies or until another jolt on the Subcontinent or elsewhere mandates policy change. Absent changes in policy toward Afghanistan – which means changed conceptions of acceptable outcomes – in one or both countries, the quagmire will continue and losses in blood, treasure and international standing will mount.
The recurrence of diplomatic ruptures, like dread diseases, takes a cumulative toll. Every rupture makes it harder to generate the political support needed to undertake repair work. The last US initiative for a new start in bilateral relations was the 2009 Kerry-Lugar-Berman initiative. This initiative gained traction because Washington wanted to help Pakistan in the transition from a military to a civilian-led government. Before that, and because of the 9/11 attacks, Washington agreed to lift sanctions imposed after the 1990 Pressler Amendment and 1998 nuclear tests. Washington suddenly needed Pakistan’s help to take on Al Qaeda and was willing to pay for that help. Pakistan needed help to remove the stain for backing the Taliban government in Afghanistan which gave Osama bin Laden shelter and to avoid the downside risks of rejecting the Bush administration’s not-so-veiled threats.
According to the apolitical Congressional Research Service, since 2001, the US Congress approved 20 billion dollars in non-military assistance to Pakistan, of which 15 billion dollars was disbursed. In addition, the Congress appropriated 14.6 billion dollars in military assistance. These sums are considered generous in the United States, but not in Pakistan, which claims it has spent over 120 billion dollars countering domestic terrorism. Pakistan’s sacrifices and successes in countering groups like the Pakistani Taliban are appreciated in the United States, but credit is discounted because these groups were nurtured by Islamabad before they became a threat to Pakistani sovereignty.
This latest rupture in US-Pakistan ties was preceded by numerous warnings, including by this author, that Pakistan’s national security policies placed it on a collision course with changing US attitudes. The credit Pakistan gained by joining the United States in taking down Al Qaeda leaders soon after the 9/11 attacks helped to erase previous missteps toward the Taliban.
Pakistan began to lose US support after these initial collaborative successes when its decision makers turned their primary focus on securing equities in Afghanistan and blocking Indian inroads there. The presence of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and his killing by US Special Forces created large trust deficits that grew with subsequent incidents.
At the official level, Pakistani frustrations were muffled by the desire to avoid a complete rift and by the influx of fungible US military assistance, which equaled one-eighth of the Pakistan military’s public budget. US government’s frustrations were muffled by a significant troop presence in Afghanistan dependent on Pakistan’s logistical support and by other important agenda items, including helping Pakistan’s armed forces in their belated action against the Pakistan Taliban.
Even so the writing was on the wall when, ten years after the 9/11 attacks, Admiral Mike Mullen, who worked assiduously to alter Pakistan’s Afghan policy during his tenure as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, publicly acknowledged failure at a Congressional hearing. “The Haqqani Network,” he concluded, “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.” This was an oversimplification, but hardly anyone was in the mood to offer qualifications.
For the subsequent five years of the Obama administration, US officials struggled to convince Pakistan to take specified, observable steps to demonstrate a changed approach toward the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis. These efforts, like those before, came aground because of fundamental differences over who should wield real power in Afghanistan’s future (power sharing not having a great track record in Kabul.) As the Obama administration struggled to make headway, the Congress, increasingly frustrated by Pakistan’s tactics and messaging, weighed in. Influenced by pro-India legislators and Pakistan bashers, Capitol Hill proposed that the executive branch impose penalties by withholding funding for military assistance. At this point, it was deemed, there were no good reasons for business as usual with respect to Coalition Support Funds.
Great care is now needed to avoid cratering and worst cases. Donald Trump is as averse to diplomatic nuance as Barack Obama was inclined towards it. Those with expertise and influence surrounding Trump on this matter are deeply invested in an outcome favourable for the US. US policies were not succeeding, so penalties have become greater. This step is likely to make a favourable outcome more remote since Pakistan’s decision makers are unlikely to change course after Trump’s public dictation. As with Pervez Musharraf’s response to the demands of the Bush administration after 9/11, smart bettors are now placing their chips on tactical adjustments rather than strategic recalculation.
Joseph Nye, a Harvard-based academic who coined the term ‘soft power’ writes, “Power sometimes depends on whose army or economy wins, but it can also depend on whose story wins.” Neither the United States nor Pakistan has a winning formula for Afghanistan. Despite its military and economic might, the United States cannot succeed in Afghanistan unless others have the will and capacity to help. Pakistan’s current formula is alienating Afghans and its story – partially true, partially untrue – doesn’t help advance its cause.
When two unsuccessful strategies lock horns, the deciding factor can be the passage of time. Rawalpindi can play a long game, however unwise, counting on Washington’s likely inability to do so. Steve Coll unearthed a pertinent quote in researching his extraordinary book, Ghost Wars. The speaker was Yuri Andropov, the head of the Soviet KGB and a powerhouse in the Soviet Politburo. The occasion was the beginning of the jihad against the Kremlin-backed Afghan government — an uprising in Herat in 1979, followed by the city’s indiscriminate bombing by Russian pilots. “We will be labeled as an aggressor,” Andropov told his comrades, “but in spite of that, under no circumstances can we lose Afghanistan.”
Pakistani and American policy is no doubt motivated by the same sentiment. Why does a land-locked, impoverished country, the place where military campaigns of grand conquest in antiquity got bogged down, a land that continues to teach the same brutal lessons to nuclear-armed states, a stepping-stone to nowhere amidst perpetual factionalism and ingrained corruption, still hold “deciders” in Washington and Pakistan in its grip? The fear of losing, not the anticipation of significant gains, drives