U.S.-Pakistan Relations: Thinking about the Long Term

It’s Time for a New Smart Power Approach

To chart the deterioration of ties between Washington and Islamabad over the last two years, as well as the conundrums gnawing at Obama administration officials, consider the following: Despite Pakistan’s official designation as a “major non-NATO ally,” its egregious double game in Afghanistan is increasingly fueling talk in U.S. policy circles (here, here, here and here) about the necessity of “containing” it and even launching unilateral military raidsinto its tribal areas.*

Dampening the impulse for a tougher line, however, is the fear that the Pakistani state is in ever-present danger of collapse and vulnerable to a jihadi takeover.  A raft of new books, with such titles as Pakistan on the Brink and The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad , underscore the widely held view that the country is coming apart at the seams.  According David Sanger’s new book, Confront and Conceal, President Obama worries about Pakistan’s disintegration and the resulting dispersion of its nuclear stockpile.  Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta reiterated this concern the other week.

These policy crosscurrents were at display during the recent Republican presidential primary season: When Texas Governor Rick Perry urged a cut-off in aid, Michele Bachman, the Tea Party leader, admonished that the step would be counterproductive and “naïve” because “Pakistan is too nuclear to fail.”

The Obama administration sought to manage the quandary by moving bilateral relations beyond its narrow, transactional basis and onto a broader and more sustainable foundation.  Officials reasoned that the way to elicit reliable Pakistani cooperation in Afghanistan was to address Islamabad’s acute security anxieties regarding India as well as its fears of American strategic abandonment once Washington wound down its involvement in the Afghan war.

Thus, two weeks before the November 2008 presidential election, Mr. Obama declared that resolving the perennially-inflamed dispute over the Kashmir region would be one of the “critical tasks” for his administration.  Once in office, he moved to appoint a high-profile envoy (in the person of Richard Holbrooke) to mediate the Kashmir issue– similar to U.S. efforts to broker the Middle East peace talks.  This initiative proved stillborn in the face of vehement Indian opposition but for several years afterwards the administration sought to minimize New Delhi’s influence in Kabul out of deference to Islamabad’s sensitivities.

In late 2009, as the administration was gearing up its surge of military forces to Afghanistan, Obama wrote to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari offering an expanded strategic partnership, including additional levels of military and economic assistance.  Zardari’s response was largely ambivalent but was adamant that India was waging a “proxy war” using “Afghan soil to perpetrate violence in Pakistan.”

About a year later, shortly before Mr. Obama undertook a state visit to New Delhi, he held a White House meeting with Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to reassure him that American overtures to India were not directed against Pakistan.  Kayani replied by submitting a 14-page note accusing the United States of “causing and maintaining a controlled chaos in Pakistan. The real aim of U.S. strategy is to de-nuclearize Pakistan.”  Indeed, this is a widely-held belief within the Pakistani military establishment.

Another prong of the Obama administration’s strategy was to shore up Pakistan’s development prospects and strengthen its democratization process.  The centerpiece here was the 2009 Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, better known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, which authorized $1.5 billion annually in non-military assistance to Pakistan over a five-year period.

But three years on, it is clear that the Obama outreach to Pakistan has failed.  A major reason, as the Pakistani actions noted above demonstrate, has to do with Islamabad’s skepticism about the longevity of U.S. assurances as well as its deep-rooted Indophobia.  Whatever the conceptual merits of “de-hyphenation” in U.S. policy in South Asia, it has proven difficult in practice to edge closer strategically to New Delhi without heightening suspicions in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Another factor is the dissonance created by the exercise of U.S. hard power – specifically the campaign of drone warfare conducted to great effect in Pakistan’s tribal areas – and the soft power imperative of improving America’s standing in the country.  The difficulties in straddling this gap reportedly led to the resignation of Cameron Munter, the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad. And as a new survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project makes clear, Pakistani public opinion has only grown more hostile in recent years.  Among the survey’s key findings:

  • Three-quarters (74 percent) of Pakistanis regard the United States as an enemy, up from 64 percent in 2009
  • 80 percent hold unfavorable views of the United States in general, an increase from 68 percent three years ago
  • President Obama is held in the same low regard among the Pakistani people as George W. Bush was during his last year in office
  • Not even half (45 percent) of Pakistanis now believe it is important to repair the breakdown in bilateral relations, a figure that is down from 60 percent just a year ago

Nor has the KLB legislation worked out as envisioned, as two new reports issued by the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the Center for Global Development (CGD) highlight.  The ICG report commends the Obama administration’s desire to broaden engagement with Pakistani civilian institutions and civil society groups.  But it also criticizes the administration’s focus on using civilian aid to build large, complex infrastructure projects as a way of winning over public opinion.  This approach, the report argues, does not directly address pressing development priorities and is dependent for its success upon corrupt, opaque and dysfunctional Pakistani government agencies.

These themes are echoed in the CDG report, which contends that U.S. development efforts in Pakistan suffer from a number of self-inflicted wounds.  These include the lack of a coherent overarching strategy, crippling bureaucratic dysfunctions inside the U.S. government, and a short-sighted preference for projects that advertize a “Made in the USA” label over less visible but more worthy ones.

Due to these factors and more, much of the KLB economic development funds remain unspent.  And with frustration with Islamabad rising in Washington, many in the U.S. Congress are ready to pull the plug on assistance to Pakistan altogether.

So where should U.S. officials go from here?  Given the legitimate grievances about Pakistani duplicity, an approach based on containment or benign neglect will no doubt be emotionally satisfying and might even extract short-term concessions relevant to the Afghan endgame.  But in view of America’s enduring regional interests, it is difficult to see how a policy of severing links with Islamabad can be sustained.  Even after the bulk of U.S. troops depart Afghanistan by 2014, a sizeable military posture will stay behind to backstop the government in Kabul.  With Pakistan retaining important leverage over developments in the country, Washington will be unable to turn its back to Islamabad or remain indifferent to its fate.

Broader geopolitical considerations also militate for continued U.S. engagement.  Pakistan is, after all, the world’s sixth most populous country – estimated to soon overtake Brazil to move into the fifth slot; about half of its population is comprised of discontented people under age 25.  Its Muslim community is the world’s second largest and is projected to overtake Indonesia’s in size in the next 3-4 decades.  Pakistan’s internal evolutions will thus exert a major influence on how the global ummah comes to terms with modernity.

Finally, given Islamabad’s great capacity for causing grief in the neighborhood, Washington cannot possibly hope to cement a strategic partnership with New Delhi while leaving the Indians to deal with Pakistan’s instabilities by themselves.

So, if the United States needs to remain engaged over the long haul, how should it do this?  The first is to recognize that for all of the hopes invested in the KLB program, perhaps the most effective mechanism these days for bolstering Pakistan’s economic stability involves India.  As a previous post noted, the past year has witnessed remarkable strides in economic engagement between the countries.  The Pakistani government realizes it is in desperate economic straits and that closer trade ties with India constitute a much needed lifeline.  The military establishment is also said to understand that the eastern border needs to be stabilized so resources can be focused on combating rising internal security threats.

Earlier this month, New Delhi announced that it will allow Pakistani investment into India, and major companies in both countries (here and here) are exploring setting up ventures in the other.  Despite the common civilizational and historical bonds that permeate South Asia, as well as the unified market forged by the British Raj, the region today is remarkably fragmented economically.  If enhanced trade ties were to develop between South Asia’s largest economies, they would produce significant economic and (eventually) security dividends for both countries.  They also would have the benefit of strengthening Pakistan’s civil society vis-à-vis an overbearing military leadership, as well as empowering the country’s liberal-minded elements to combat the rising swell of religious extremism and political violence.

The United States should reinforce these promising dynamics by launching a Marshall Plan-like effort geared toward the expansion of cross-border economic linkages between India and Pakistan.  As I’ve detailed elsewhere, this program would be aimed at helping the two countries, on a joint basis, upgrade and expand the meager transportation infrastructure presenting connecting them.  It would support projects that increase road and rail linkages, as well as the number and capacity of customs posts.  It would help provide resources for modernized seaport facilities that enable more two-way trade.  And with each country plagued by chronic power shortages, it would help bankroll cross-border energy projects such as joint electrical grids or the proposed natural gas pipeline connecting Central and South Asia via Afghanistan.

An austerity-minded U.S. Congress, especially one clearly at its wit’s end with Islamabad, would certainly raise questions about funding this initiative.  But it need only entail a modest level of expenditures – say, $50-75 million per year over a five-year period – and could be paid for by redirecting funding already authorized under the KLB act.

The United States also should liberalize its trade policies toward Pakistan.  With the textile industry employing a huge number of Pakistanis, many observers have suggested – including this recent Council on Foreign Relations task force – that opening up U.S. markets to Pakistani textile imports would energize the country’s economy in a way that no aid program could.

Alas, no American president is likely to expend political capital fighting domestic textile interests to make this happen.  But it should be possible to grant preferential treatment to products made by joint Indian-Pakistani business ventures – that is, Pakistani companies that have received a threshold amount of Indian investment and vice versa.  This would include textile exports but also products generated by Indian information technology and business process outsourcing firms collaborating with their Pakistani counterparts clustered in Karachi.

Obviously, these steps offer no magic bullet for quickly transforming Pakistan’s disquieting internal dynamics or its fraught relationships with India and the United States.  But they would be creative investments in nurturing promising developments already underway in South Asia, as well as promoting Pakistan’s moderates.  There may be long stretches when such efforts appear in vain but they may end up making a good bit of difference.

*Joining these voices, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s immediate past ambassador in Washington who earlier served at a leading DC think tank, declares that both countries should stop pretending they are allies and amicably “divorce.”

This commentary is cross-posted on Chanakya’s Notebook, my blog on South Asia.  I invite you to join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter.

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