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 between 1959 and 1990 show just how thoughtful Pakistan policy was in the past and how frustrated U.S. policymakers remained nonetheless. 

The United States first sought Pakistan's support against the Soviet Union during the 1950s, only to conclude in 1965 that "it has become increasingly clear that Pakistan's chief aim in aligning with the West was to gain support against India," as one State Department memo put it. Another memo from the State Department to the CIA listed all the ways Pakistan had fallen short of U.S. expectations.

In 1971, the Nixon administration debated cutting off aid but did not because it believed it needed to keep Pakistan on its side during the Cold War. Nixon's continuing limited support of Pakistan yielded no great benefits, but Pakistan did play an important role behind the scenes in opening U.S.-Chinese relations. 

In 1979, the United States cut off aid entirely due to concerns about Pakistan's burgeoning nuclear program and tried its hand at sanctions. Applied only briefly, those sanctions did little to advance U.S. interests. Pakistan was already committed to pursuing a nuclear program, and its distrust of U.S. intentions drove the countries even further apart. The December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan changed Washington's priorities. The aid tap was quickly turned back on in return for Pakistan's help in training the mujahideen to fight the Communists.

Then came the 1990s. A deep chill set in after Pakistan tested a nuclear weapon in 1998. Islamabad, like New Delhi, which had tested a fusion weapon the same year, was now subject to fresh U.S. sanctions. That decade had already seen a cooler relationship following the end of the Cold War, and U.S. policies disconnected a generation of Pakistani military officers from their American counterparts. In the process, the United States lost several opportunities to encourage Pakistani democracy. 

Finally, as the Bush administration's blanket support for General Pervez Musharraf's regime after 9/11 demonstrated, working with the generals alone proved to be no solution, either. Pakistan's army might be a competent institution, but part of the challenge in U.S.-Pakistani relations is Pakistan's posture toward India, which the army itself determines. Washington is not able to change that, and cutting ties with the army altogether would only inflame Pakistani nationalism.

Now, Washington is frustrated with Pakistan because once again, wooing it has not worked. If history is any guide, Krasner's threats wouldn't, either. As in the 1990s, tough talk could push Pakistan further away, making its already nationalist elite even less cooperative. An angry, isolated Pakistan could undermine the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Washington's efforts to forge a new consensus on regional security. As long as NATO forces depend on Pakistan's supply line, Washington will need to maintain a functioning relationship with Islamabad. 

Even after the drawdown, it will make sense to stay polite. As history has shown, U.S.-Pakistani relations have been repeatedly mugged by events. Two episodes from 2011 are just the latest examples: the Raymond Davis affair, in which a CIA contractor killed two men in Lahore, and "Memogate," the uproar over a murky letter purportedly from senior Pakistani politicians to Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asking for the United States' help in reducing the military's influence over the government. Whether a diplomatic crisis, a terrorist attack, a nuclear showdown, or even an opportunity to forge peace in Afghanistan, surprises require direct lines of communication for their management. If the United States lets things with Pakistan deteriorate too far, the administration could find itself boxed in, particularly if Pakistan decides to be deliberately uncooperative.

Without Islamabad, Washington would have little ability to protect its other interests in South Asia, which include regional stability, security, and development. And advocates of actively isolating Pakistan need only reflect on the country's international ties. It enjoys good relations with China and Saudi Arabia, even if neither partner is quite as giving as the Pakistanis suggest, and has close ties to Malaysia, Oman, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Thus, were Washington to cut it off, Islamabad would likely find itself with less financial assistance but no shortage of friends. 

Richard Holbrooke, the late U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, invested time in building relationships with senior Pakistani officials. He was diplomatically dexterous and could warn as well as woo. He showed that the United States could be tough with Pakistan, as long as Washington also had a credible, sustained relationship with senior Pakistanis. The Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, a deal that was signed in October 2010, will strengthen trade and trust between those two countries. It was nurtured through Holbrooke's active diplomacy with both Pakistani civilians and Pakistan's military. Holbrooke also understood that it is necessary to engage both top military officials in Pakistan, because of their outsized role in Pakistani strategy and politics, and civilian politicians, because the United States should keep pushing Pakistan to democratize. This is never an easy balance, but it can be done: the United Sates must properly respect Pakistan's civilian leadership while being pragmatic about the role of its military leaders. 

There is no silver bullet for improving relations between the two countries, but Washington and Islamabad do have shared interests. They both want Pakistan to succeed. They both want to secure its nuclear weapons, maintain regional stability in South Asia, and moderate the extremism that lurks within Pakistani society. The overlaps may not easily translate into joint action, but the two countries' recognition that some of their goals are complementary could be the basis for a better bilateral dialogue.

To be sure, Washington should not hand Islamabad a free pass. But it should use the window between now and the moment when the United States is no longer dependent on the Pakistan-Afghanistan supply line to restructure their bilateral relations. An open discussion of what the relationship could look like in the future could focus minds in Islamabad. Public threats, however, run the risk of pushing Pakistan further away and making core U.S. interests even harder to defend.

ALEXANDER EVANS is a Senior Fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a member of the British diplomatic service. In 2009-11, he was Senior Adviser to the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The views expressed here are his own.


The United States cannot succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistan's genuine cooperation. And Pakistan will not cooperate unless the United States credibly threatens to isolate and sanction it if it does not. Such warnings will work only if it is clear to all that the United States would be better off carrying out these threats than continuing to tolerate the status quo. Clarity requires that the United States make three things obvious: the United States does not need Pakistan's land route to supply its troops in Afghanistan, Pakistan would not be able to effectively retaliate if the United States did cut ties, and U.S. sanctions would not affect Pakistan's domestic stability in any predictable way.

Alexander Evans rejects this argument for several reasons. First, he contends that the International Security Assistance Force's need to use the land route through Pakistan to supply its troops "will not disappear in the next year." He is correct if troop levels stay steady at 120,000. But a drawdown is under way, with the United States moving to a leaner counter-terrorism strategy, which requires fewer troops. Besides, almost 60 percent of NATO supplies already come through Central Asia. Sooner than Evans expects, the United States could sustain its soldiers in Afghanistan without Pakistan's help.

Evans also notes that putting pressure on Pakistan has not worked in the past. That is true. But in those cases, it was not in Pakistan's interest to fold. The clearest example is the failure of U.S. sanctions to disrupt Pakistan's nuclear program. Nuclear weapons work for Pakistan: they are a deterrent against a much larger and stronger India. Islamabad's arsenal has left India with no good military options to respond to Pakistani-supported terrorist attacks. Nothing the United States could do would change that. 

Evans assumes that Pakistan could rely on its regional allies, namely, China and Saudi Arabia, if the United States tried to isolate and sanction it. Pakistani leaders would not share this assumption. Saudi Arabia is dependent on U.S. security guarantees and would be loath to alienate the United States. And although Pakistan does mean something to China, it does not mean that much: Beijing might find a close alliance with another pariah unattractive. 

Finally, Evans maintains that Washington needs to keep open good lines of communication with Islamabad, both because their relationship is fraught with surprise and because they share interests, including securing Pakistan's nuclear weapons, maintaining regional stability, and countering extremism. In fact, the two countries do not share these goals. To deter Indian retaliation against low-level attacks, Pakistan's nuclear posture "leaves something to chance," as the game theorist Thomas Schelling would say. The more India worries that Pakistan's dispersed arsenal and weak command-and-control structure could cause something to go awry, the less likely it is to attack. 

The United States' and Pakistan's interests are not aligned when it comes to Islamic extremism and transnational terrorism, either. Pakistan's military supports groups that have carried out attacks in Afghanistan and India. It did not adopt such policies in a fit of absent-mindedness. Terrorism has kept New Delhi off balance, and by undermining the NATO mission in Afghanistan, it might give Islamabad more influence in Kabul, as well. 

The sorry state of U.S.-Pakistani relations is not the result of communication failures. (Would it have been wise to inform Pakistan in April 2011 about the impending raid on Osama bin Laden's compound?) Pakistani leaders have their own interests. The United States cannot change that. What it can change, however, is their behavior. If the United States credibly threatens to treat Pakistan as it does Iran, Pakistan's leaders would find it best to cooperate in Afghanistan.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ALEXANDER EVANS is a Senior Fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a member of the British diplomatic service. In 2009-11, he was Senior Adviser to the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The views expressed here are his own.
  • More By Alexander Evans
  • More By Stephen D. Krasner