Tough Talk Is Cheap

Washington’s Real Options in Islamabad

An anti-U.S. protest in Quetta on June 1, 2012. (Naseer Ahmed / Courtesy Reuters)

Alexander Evans

The estrangement between the United States and Pakistan is deepening, and it threatens the interests of both countries. After 25 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a cross-border incident involving NATO forces in November, a furious Pakistan reduced its cooperation with the United States to a bare minimum. It even closed its borders to convoys taking supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan. 

Although Washington continues to acknowledge the importance of the bilateral relationship, it, too, seems to have little appetite left for engaging Islamabad. Stephen Krasner ("Talking Tough to Pakistan," January/February 2012), director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department in 2005-7, argues that "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," including through malign neglect or active isolation. 

Krasner seems to assume that the United States has options when it comes to Pakistan today and that the Obama administration could manage the consequences of taking a tougher line. But the reality is that for the moment at least, Washington is highly constrained and the repercussions of a major falling-out would be too disastrous to countenance.

That is because the United States currently relies heavily on the land route through Pakistan to supply its troops in Afghanistan, and this need will not disappear in the next year. With the route now closed, supplies are piling up in Karachi. U.S. troops need those goods. As the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan falls, of course, a wider array of policy options will open up. Even then, however, President Barack Obama might not have the levers he expects. After all, the United States has tried almost every tactic with Pakistan before -- and none of them have worked. A series of now-declassified National Security Council, State Department, and CIA papers from

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