Talking Tough to Pakistan

How to End Islamabad's Defiance

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Late last month, after a NATO engagement in Pakistan went wrong and left 25 Pakistani troops dead, the West scrambled to get its story straight. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary-general, quickly called the battle a “tragic unintended accident.” The White House waffled; President Barack Obama later expressed regret over the incident but did not apologize. Islamabad, meanwhile, castigated the United States for violating its sovereignty, closed the Torkham border crossing, and announced it would sit out the recent Bonn conference on Afghanistan.

Whether the attack was entirely unintended or a pointed provocation, the Pakistani reaction offered yet further proof that current U.S. policy toward Pakistan has failed.

On November 28, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney noted that the relationship with Pakistan “continues to be an important cooperative relationship” but added that it “is also very complicated.” In fact, the relationship is not cooperative, and U.S. policy is not complicated. It is incoherent. As I recently wrote in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs (below), Pakistan does not heed even overt U.S. threats and censure, because Washington has time and again backed down from them, believing that Pakistan's policies, though unhelpful, could get much worse.
Only by credibly threatening to end all assistance to Islamabad can Washington convince Pakistan’s leaders that genuine cooperation is in their best interest.

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On September 22, 2011, Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, made his last official appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. In his speech, he bluntly criticized Pakistan, telling the committee that "extremist organizations serving as proxies for the government of Pakistan are attacking Afghan troops and civilians as well as U.S. soldiers." The Haqqani network, he said, "is, in many ways, a strategic arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency [ISI]." In 2011 alone, Mullen continued, the network had been responsible for a June attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, a September truck-bomb attack in Wardak Province that wounded 77 U.S. soldiers, and a September attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

These observations did not, however, lead Mullen to the obvious conclusion: Pakistan should be treated as a hostile power. And within days, military officials began walking back his remarks, claiming that Mullen had meant to say only that Islamabad gives broad support to the Haqqani network, not that it gives specific direction. Meanwhile, unnamed U.S. government officials asserted that he had overstated the case. Mullen's testimony, for all the attention it received, did not signify a new U.S. strategy toward Pakistan.

Yet such a shift is badly needed. For decades, the United States has sought to buy Pakistani cooperation with aid: $20 billion worth since 9/11 alone. This money has been matched with plenty of praise. At his first press conference in Islamabad following his 2007 appointment as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mullen called Pakistan "a steadfast and historic ally." In 2008, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even said that she "fully believed" that Pakistan "does not in any way want to be associated with terrorist elements and is indeed fighting to root them out wherever [Pakistani officials] find them." Meanwhile, U.S. leaders have spent an outsized amount of face time with their Pakistani counterparts. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton has made four trips to Pakistan, compared with two to India and three to Japan. Mullen made more than 20 visits to Pakistan.

To be sure, Mullen was not the first U.S. official to publicly point the finger at Islamabad, nor will he be the last. In 2008, the CIA blamed Pakistan's ISI for aiding the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. In July 2011, two months after U.S. Navy SEALS raided Osama bin Laden's compound near the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy, Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "Pakistan is a very, very difficult partner, and we all know that." And in an October press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Clinton noted that the Obama administration intended to "push the Pakistanis very hard," adding, "they can either be helping or hindering."

Washington's tactic -- criticism coupled with continued assistance -- has not been effectual. Threats and censure go unheeded in Pakistan because Islamabad's leaders do not fear the United States. This is because the United States has so often demonstrated a fear of Pakistan, believing that although Pakistan's policies have been unhelpful, they could get much worse. Washington seems to have concluded that if it actually disengaged and as a result Islamabad halted all its cooperation in Afghanistan, then U.S. counterinsurgency efforts there would be doomed. Even more problematic, the thinking goes, without external support, the already shaky Pakistani state would falter. A total collapse could precipitate a radical Islamist takeover, worsening Pakistani relations with the U.S.-backed Karzai regime in Afghanistan and escalating tensions, perhaps even precipitating a nuclear war, between Pakistan and India.

WEIGHING OF DEEDS

The U.S.-Pakistani relationship has produced a few modest successes. Pakistan has generally allowed NATO to transport supplies through its territory to Afghanistan. It has helped capture some senior al Qaeda officials, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind. It has permitted the United States to launch drone strikes from bases in Baluchistan.

Yet these accomplishments pale in comparison to the ways in which Pakistan has proved uncooperative. The country is the world's worst nuclear proliferator, having sold technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea through the A. Q. Khan network. Although Islamabad has attacked those terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, that target its institutions, it actively supports others, such as the Haqqani network, the Afghan Taliban, and Hezb-i-Islami, that attack coalition troops and Afghan officials or conspire against India. Pakistan also hampers U.S. efforts to deal with those groups; although many Pakistani officials privately support the drone program, for example, they publicly exaggerate the resulting civilian deaths. Meanwhile, they refuse to give the United States permission to conduct commando raids in Pakistan, swearing that they will defend Pakistani sovereignty at all costs.

A case in point was the raid that killed bin Laden. Rather than embrace the move, Pakistani officials reacted with fury. The police arrested a group of Pakistani citizens who were suspected of having helped the United States collect intelligence prior to the operation and delayed U.S. interrogations of bin Laden's three wives for more than a week. Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of the ISI, condemned the U.S. raid before a special session of parliament, and the government passed a resolution pledging to revisit its relationship with the United States. Of course, the operation was embarrassing for the Pakistani military, since it showed the armed forces to be either complicit in harboring bin Laden or so incompetent that they could not find him under their own noses. But Pakistan could easily have saved face by publicly depicting the operation as a cooperative venture.

The fact that Pakistan distanced itself from the raid speaks to another major problem in the relationship: despite the billions of dollars the United States has given Pakistan, public opinion there remains adamantly anti-American. In a 2010 Pew survey of 21 countries, those Pakistanis polled had among the lowest favorability ratings of the United States: 17 percent. The next year, another Pew survey found that 63 percent of the population disapproved of the raid that killed bin Laden, and 55 percent thought it was a bad thing that he had died.

Washington's current strategy toward Islamabad, in short, is not working. Any gains the United States has bought with its aid and engagement have come at an extremely high price and have been more than offset by Pakistan's nuclear proliferation and its support for the groups that attack Americans, Afghans, Indians, and others.

RATIONAL CHOICE

It is tempting to believe that Pakistan's lack of cooperation results from its weakness as a state. One version of this argument is that much of Pakistan's civilian and military leadership might actually want to be more aligned with the United States but is prevented from being so by powerful hard-line Islamist factions. Its advocates point to the fact that pubic officials shrank from condemning the bodyguard who in January 2011 shot Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who had spoken out against Pakistan's blasphemy law. Similar silence followed the March assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the minorities minister and only Christian in the cabinet, who had also urged reforming the law. Presumably, the politicians held their tongues out of fear of reprisal. Another explanation of the weakness of the Pakistani state is that the extremists in the government and the military who support militants offer that support despite their superiors' objections. For example, the May 2011 terrorist attack on Pakistan's naval air base Mehran, which the top military brass condemned, was later suspected to have been conducted with help from someone on the inside.

Still, there is a much more straightforward explanation for Pakistan's behavior. Its policies are a fully rational response to the conception of the country's national interest held by its leaders, especially those in the military. Pakistan's fundamental goal is to defend itself against its rival, India. Islamabad deliberately uses nuclear proliferation and deterrence, terrorism, and its prickly relationship with the United States to achieve this objective.

Pakistan's nuclear strategy is to project a credible threat of first use against India. The country has a growing nuclear arsenal, a stockpile of short-range missiles to carry warheads, and plans for rapid weapons dispersion should India invade. So far, the strategy has worked; although Pakistan has supported numerous attacks on Indian soil, India has not retaliated.

Transnational terrorism, Pakistanis believe, has also served to constrain and humiliate India. As early as the 1960s, Pakistani strategists concluded that terrorism could help offset India's superior conventional military strength. They were right. Pakistani militant activity in Kashmir has led India to send hundreds of thousands of troops into the province -- as many as 500,000 during a particularly tense moment with Pakistan in 2002. Better that India sends its troops to battle terrorists on its own territory, the Pakistani thinking goes, than march them across the border. Further, the 2008 Mumbai attack, which penetrated the heart of India, was a particularly embarrassing episode; the failure to prevent it, and the feeble response to it, demonstrated the ineffectuality of India's security forces.

Pakistan's double game with the United States has been effective, too. After 9/11, Pakistan's leaders could hardly resist pressure from Washington to cooperate. But they were also loath to lose influence with the insurgents in Afghanistan, which they believed gave Pakistan strategic depth against India. So Islamabad decided to have things both ways: cooperating with Washington enough to make itself useful but obstructing the coalition's plans enough to make it nearly impossible to end the Afghan insurgency. This has been an impressive accomplishment.

CARING BY NEGLECTING

As Mullen's comments attest, U.S. officials do recognize the flaws in their country's current approach to Pakistan. Yet instead of making radical changes to that policy, Washington continues to muddle through, working with Pakistan where possible, attempting to convince its leaders that they should focus on internal, rather than external, threats, and hoping for the best. For their part, commentators mostly call for marginal changes, such as engaging the Pakistani military more closely on the drone program and making the program more transparent, opening U.S. textile markets to Pakistani trade, helping Pakistan address its energy deficit, focusing on a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute, and developing closer ties to civilian officials. Many of these suggestions seem to be based on the idea that if millions of dollars in U.S. aid has not been enough to buy Pakistani support, perhaps extra deal sweeteners will be.

The one significant policy change since 2008 has been the retargeting of aid to civilians. Under the Obama administration, total assistance has increased by 48 percent, and a much higher percentage of it is economic rather than security related: 45 percent in 2010 as opposed to 24 percent in 2008. The Enhanced Partnership With Pakistan Act of 2009, which committed $7.5 billion to Pakistan over five years, conditioned disbursements on Pakistan's behavior, including cooperation on counter­terrorism and the holding of democratic elections.

Despite Pakistan's ongoing problematic behavior, however, aid has continued to flow. Clinton even certified in March 2011 that Pakistan had made a "sustained commitment" to combating terrorist groups. Actions such as this have undermined American credibility when it comes to pressuring Pakistan to live up to its side of the bargain. The United States has shown that the sticks that come with its carrots are hollow.

The only way the United States can actually get what it wants out of Pakistan is to make credible threats to retaliate if Pakistan does not comply with U.S. demands and offer rewards only in return for cooperative actions taken. U.S. officials should tell their Pakistani counterparts in no uncertain terms that they must start playing ball or face malign neglect at best and, if necessary, active isolation. Malign neglect would mean ending all U.S. assistance, military and civilian; severing intelligence cooperation; continuing and possibly escalating U.S. drone strikes; initiating cross-border special operations raids; and strengthening U.S. ties with India. Active isolation would include, in addition, declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, imposing sanctions, and pressuring China and Saudi Arabia to cut off their support, as well.

Of course, the United States' new "redlines" would be believable only if it is clear to Pakistan that the United States would be better off acting on them than backing down. (And the more believable they are, the less likely the United State will have to carry them out.) So what would make the threats credible?

First, the United States must make clear that if it ended its assistance to Pakistan, Pakistan would not be able to retaliate. The United States could continue its drone strikes, perhaps using the stealth versions of them that it is currently developing. It could suppress Pakistani air defenses, possibly with electronic jammers, so as to limit military deaths and collateral damage. And even if Pakistan shot down some drones, it could not destroy them all. The United States might even be able to conduct some Special Forces raids, which would be of such short duration and against such specific targets that Pakistan would not be able to retaliate with conventional forces. Pakistan might attempt to launch strikes against NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, but its military would risk embarrassing defeat if those campaigns did not go well. Pakistan might threaten to cut off its intelligence cooperation, but that cooperation has never really extended to sharing information on the Afghan Taliban, one of the United States' main concerns in Afghanistan. Moreover, if Pakistan started tolerating or abetting al Qaeda on its own soil, the country would be even more at risk. Al Qaeda could turn against the state and attempt to unseat the government. And the United States would surely begin striking Pakistan even more aggressively if al Qaeda found haven there.

Second, the United States must show that it can neutralize one of Pakistan's trump cards: its role in the war in Afghanistan. Washington must therefore develop a strategy for Afghanistan that works without Pakistan's help. That means a plan that does not require transporting personnel or materiel through Pakistan. Nearly 60 percent of the NATO supplies sent into Afghanistan are already routed through the north, through Russia and Central Asia. The U.S. military is hoping to increase that number to 75 percent. Without Pakistan, therefore, the coalition could still support a substantial force in Afghanistan, but not one as big as the current one of 131,000 troops. The basic objective of that force would necessarily be counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency. Counterterrorism is less personnel- and resource-intensive because it aims only to prevent the country from becoming a haven for Islamist extremists, not to transform it into a well-functioning democracy. Given the Obama administration's current plans to withdraw 24,000 U.S. troops by the summer of 2012, with many more to follow, such a strategy is already inescapable.

Finally, Washington must shed its fear that its withdrawal of aid or open antagonism could lead to the Pakistani state's collapse, a radical Islamist takeover, or nuclear war. Pakistanis, not Americans, have always determined their political future. Even substantial U.S. investments in the civilian state and the economy, for example, have not led to their improvement or to gains in stability. With or without U.S. aid to Pakistan, the Pakistani military will remain the most respected institution in the country. In a 2011 Pew poll of Pakistanis, 79 percent of respondents said that the military was having a good influence on the country's direction, compared with 20 percent who said that the national government was.

As for the possibility of an Islamist takeover, the country's current power centers have a strong interest in maintaining control and so will do whatever they can to keep it -- whatever Washington's policy is. It is worth remembering that Pakistan has already proved itself able to take out the terrorist networks that threaten its own institutions, as it did in the Swat Valley and the district of Buner in 2009. Moreover, government by radical Islamists has not proved to be a popular choice among Pakistanis. In the last general election, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of Islamist parties, won only seven out of 340 seats in the National Assembly.

The possibility that nuclear weapons could wind up in the hands of terrorists is a serious risk, of course, but not one that the United States could easily mitigate whatever its policy in the region. Pakistan's nuclear posture, which involves rapid dispersion, a first-strike capability, and the use of tactical weapons, increases the chances of the central government's losing control. Even so, Pakistan will not alter that posture because it is so effective in deterring India. Meanwhile, previous U.S. efforts to help tighten Pakistan's command-and-control systems have been hampered by mutual distrust. Any new such efforts would be, too. Finally, since India has both a first- and a second-strike capability, Pakistan would not likely strike India first in the event of a crisis. In any case, even if things did escalate, there is not much that the United States, or anyone else, could do -- good relations or not.

From a U.S. perspective, then, there is no reason to think that malign neglect or active isolation would make Pakistan's behavior or problems any worse.

HEADS I WIN, TAILS YOU LOSE

Even as the United States threatens disengagement, it should emphasize that it would still prefer a productive relationship. But it should also make clear that the choice is Pakistan's: if the country ends its support for terrorism; works in earnest with the United States to degrade al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Haqqani network; and stops its subversion in Afghanistan, the United States will offer generous rewards. It could provide larger assistance programs, both civilian and military; open U.S. markets to Pakistani exports; and support political arrangements in Kabul that would reduce Islamabad's fear of India's influence. In other words, it is only after Pakistan complies with its demands that the United States should offer many of the policy proposals now on the table. And even then, these rewards should not necessarily be targeted toward changing Pakistan's regional calculus; they should be offered purely as payment for Pakistan's cooperation on the United States' most important policies in the region.

A combination of credible threats and future promises offers the best hope of convincing Islamabad that it would be better off cooperating with the United States. In essence, Pakistan would be offered a choice between the situation of Iran and that of Indonesia, two large Islamic states that have chosen very different paths. It could be either a pariah state surrounded by hostile neighbors and with dim economic prospects or a country with access to international markets, support from the United States and Europe, and some possibility of détente with its neighbors. The Indonesian path would lead to increased economic growth, an empowered middle class, strengthened civil-society groups, and a stronger economic and social foundation for a more robust democracy at some point in the future. Since it would not directly threaten the military's position, the Indonesian model should appeal to both pillars of the Pakistani state. And even if Islamabad's cooperation is not forthcoming, the United States is better off treating Pakistan as a hostile power than continuing to spend and get nothing in return.

Implicit in the remarks Mullen made to the Senate was the argument that Washington must get tough with Pakistan. He was right. A whole variety of gentle forms of persuasion have been tried and failed. The only option left is a drastic one. The irony is that this approach won't benefit just the United States: the whole region, including Pakistan, could quickly find itself better off.

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