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.


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,

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