On September 22, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Admiral Michael Mullen, said that the United States had "credible evidence" that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directly supports the Haqqani network. It was the first time that such a high-level official publicly evoked Pakistan's double game. Many analysts interpreted the speech as a warning that the United States intended to reassess its partnership with Pakistan. In a radio interview a few days later, however, U.S. President Barack Obama suggested that U.S. policy toward Pakistan would not change all that much. The intelligence about the relationship between the ISI and terrorist groups, he said, "is not as clear as we might like."

The decision to opt for continuity is based on a few major U.S. regional strategic goals and assumptions about Pakistan's internal dynamics (flawed though some of them may be).

In terms of regional goals, the United States still believes that it gets something valuable from putting up with Pakistan. The administration publicly touts Pakistan's help -- providing intelligence cooperation, arresting important terrorist leaders, and allowing the United States to step up its drone campaign -- in the fight against al Qaeda. Most of the United States' achievements were made possible by on-the-ground intelligence provided by the Pakistanis. (Pakistani cooperation led to the 2003 capture, among others, of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of Osama bin Laden's lieutenants and the architect of 9/11.)  Meanwhile, the number of drone strikes in Pakistan has increased from 9 between 2004 and 2007, to 33 in 2008, 53 in 2009, 118 in 2010, and 57 over the first eight months of 2011. According to Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, these strikes "killed somewhere between 1,435 and 2,283 people, of whom between 1,145 and 1,822 were described as militants in reliable press accounts." In public, the Pakistani army laments that the drone attacks violate national sovereignty, but, as is evident from many WikiLeaks cables, in private, they call the strikes  useful because they save them the pain of deploying troops to some of the most difficult terrain on earth.

The administration has also indicated that it cannot fight the Afghan war without Pakistan's supply routes to deliver military and nonmilitary supplies to troops in Afghanistan. Obama and Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan, are in the midst of negotiations over an alternative supply route through Uzbekistan. Even if the U.S. Congress makes such an agreement possible, by suspending sanctions on military aid that were placed on Karimov's regime in 2006 in response to its human rights records, it will take some time before Uzbekistan can replace Pakistan in terms of supply routes -- if it ever does.

In addition, the Obama administration seems to believe that China would step in if the United States abandoned Pakistan. Washington has frequently tried to convince Beijing to put pressure on Islamabad, to no avail. Last October, Chinese diplomats even told their American counterparts that "Pakistan is our Israel," by which they meant, right or wrong, they would support it. For the United States, Chinese involvement complicates the regional balance of power and risks making Pakistan another North Korea, a nuclear pariah locked in the orbit of the Chinese big brother.

But the China factor is more complex than it seems. Beijing is certainly Pakistan's all-weather friend. But it is unlikely that China is prepared to support its protégé (at least financially) as much as the United States currently does. In 2008, when Islamabad almost went bankrupt, Beijing refused to bail it out. And recently, China stopped aid for a project in Sindh because of deteriorating security. At home, China leverages its relationship with Pakistan as a way to control the Muslim Uighur activists, but Beijing is coming to resent Pakistan's refusal to stop supporting militant groups that may train Uighurs in Pashtun regions or elsewhere. Since an August attack by Pakistan-trained Uighur militants in Xinjiang, Beijing has been even cooler to Pakistan. Realistically, China's involvement in Pakistan would be more worrying if its relationship with India deteriorated at the same time, but so far it has not. Even so, the United States tends to be wary of any hint that China is becoming more active in the region.

Last but not least, perhaps the main strategic reasons Washington is not prepared to sever its links with Pakistan has to do with the country's nuclear status. Islamabad wanted the bomb in order to reach parity with India and have a greater say in world politics. It has reached that goal. The United States cannot ignore the risk of Pakistan using weapons of mass destruction against India, distributing them to the United States' enemies, or even losing control of them to terrorists. Washington prefers, at almost any cost, to maintain some level of cooperation with and presence in the country.    

These good reasons aside, many U.S. officials wrongly believe that continued engagement with Pakistan has utility in terms of the country's domestic politics. But this is far from certain. First, some officials assume that because Pakistan badly needs U.S. support aid and cooperation, it will eventually change its ways. In 2010, U.S. aid to Pakistan totaled $3.5 billion, 55 percent of which went to the army. That means that U.S. aid made up one-fourth of the army's official $6 billion budget. But as Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, noted in 2009, Pakistan's army and ISI covertly sponsor several militant groups "and will not abandon them for any amount of U.S. money." Two years later (and even after the United States suspended $800 million in military aid in retaliation for Pakistan's support for terrorists), Patterson's point still holds. The military continues to sponsor those groups, and will do so as long as it believes that India is its major strategic enemy.

This introduces another -- and probably the most problematic -- assumption about Pakistani domestic politics. Obama has repeated several times that, with continued friendly engagement, the Pakistanis are bound to eventually realize that they share interests and enemies with the United States and become a better partner. But so far, this has not happened. The Pakistani army and some politicians continue to believe that India is enemy number one (or at least pretend to do so to justify the military's influence over the country and the size of the army's budget). According to them, while the United States cooperates with Pakistan to achieve its short-term goals in Afghanistan, just as it did in the 1980s, it now considers India as its major long-term regional partner. Obama's visit to India last year, which was not accompanied by a stopover in Pakistan, reinforced this somewhat reasonable impression. As evident in any number of Pakistani Web forums and newspapers, a faction of Pakistani officials and citizens is even convinced that one of the core U.S. objectives in Pakistan is to take control of the very nuclear arsenal they see as their life insurance against India. And even those leaders who are opposed to sponsoring jihadis think that eradicating them would be prohibitively costly and could result in devastating reprisals similar to those that followed the 2007 assault on the Red Mosque in Islamabad, which killed 154. They prefer not to interfere with terrorist safe havens so as not to escalate the "war that is not theirs." Pakistan claims that terrorism and counterterrorism have killed 35,000 Pakistanis since 2001. And the yearly totals have only gotten higher -- 907 in 2006 and 12,600 in 2009.

For all its strategic reasons, the United States will probably continue to ask Pakistan to "do more" (one of Obama's key phrases) but will not go for broke to force it to do so. And for all its domestic political reasons, Pakistan's behavior will likely stay much the same. "Engaging Pakistan" will remain the order of the day, as the United States strikes terrorist networks there -- by itself, since Islamabad will not help, and without deploying troops on the country's soil, which would be perceived as a casus belli. In the short term, the only change in the relationship might be some token decrease in aid, not only to make a point but also because of financial constraints. Realistically, this decline will concern civilian more than military aid. The 2009 Kerry-Lugar bill was supposed to give priority to the socioeconomic dimension of U.S. aid. So far, nothing of the sort has materialized.

In the long run, the United States will have to get realistic about the region -- and what engagement can and cannot do. It might just have to admit that the Pakistanis do not believe that the two countries share interests, even if Washington continues to pretend that they do, if only to maintain its costly channel of communication. 

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  • CHRISTOPHE JAFFRELOT is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research at Sciences Po, in Paris.
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