The Taliban Are Ready to Exploit America’s Exit
What a U.S. Withdrawal Means for Afghanistan
Washington has not had an easy time managing the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, to put it mildly. For decades, the United States has sought to change Pakistan's strategic focus from competing with India and seeking more influence in Afghanistan to protecting its own internal stability and economic development. But even though Pakistan has continued to depend on U.S. military and economic support, it has not changed its behavior much. Each country accuses the other of being a terrible ally -- and perhaps both are right.
Pakistanis tend to think of the United States as a bully. In their view, Washington provides desperately needed aid intermittently, yanking it away whenever U.S. officials want to force policy changes. Pakistanis believe that Washington has never been grateful for the sacrifice of the thousands of Pakistani military and security officials who have died fighting terrorists in recent decades, nor mourned the tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians whom those terrorists have killed. Many in the country, including President Asif Ali Zardari and General Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, recognize that Pakistan has at times gone off the American script, but they argue that the country would be a better ally if only the United States showed more sensitivity to Islamabad's regional concerns.
On the other side, Americans see Pakistan as the ungrateful recipient of almost $40 billion in economic and military assistance since 1947, $23 billion of it for fighting terrorism over the last decade alone. In their view, Pakistan has taken American dollars with a smile, even as it covertly developed nuclear weapons in the 1980s, passed nuclear secrets to others in the 1990s, and supported Islamist militant groups more recently. No matter what Washington does, according to a growing cadre of U.S. senators, members of Congress, and editorial writers, it can't count on Pakistan as a reliable ally. Meanwhile, large amounts of U.S. aid have simply failed to invigorate Pakistan's economy.
The May 2011 U.S. covert operation in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden brought the relationship to an unusually low point, making it harder than ever to maintain the illusion of friendship. At this point, instead of continuing to fight so constantly for so little benefit -- money for Pakistan, limited intelligence cooperation for the United States, and a few tactical military gains for both sides -- the two countries should acknowledge that their interests simply do not converge enough to make them strong partners. By coming to terms with this reality, Washington would be freer to explore new ways of pressuring Pakistan and achieving its own goals in the region. Islamabad, meanwhile, could finally pursue its regional ambitions, which would either succeed once and for all or, more likely, teach Pakistani officials the limitations of their country's power.
It is tempting to believe that tensions between the United States and Pakistan have never been worse. And to be sure, the public in each country currently dislikes the other: in a 2011 Gallup poll, Pakistan ranked among the least liked countries in the United States, along with Iran and North Korea; meanwhile, a 2012 Pew poll found that 80 percent of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of the United States, with 74 percent seeing it as an enemy. Washington's threats to cut off aid to Pakistan and calls in Islamabad to defend Pakistani sovereignty from U.S. drone incursions seem to represent a friendship that is spiraling downward.
But the relationship between the United States and Pakistan has never been good. In 2002, at arguably the height of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation against terrorism, a Pew poll found that 63 percent of Americans had unfavorable views of Pakistan, making it the fifth most disliked nation, behind Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and North Korea. Before that, in 1980, soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a Harris poll showed that a majority of Americans viewed Pakistan unfavorably, despite the fact that 53 percent supported U.S. military action to defend the country against communism. During the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan did not feature in U.S. opinion polls, but its leaders often complained of unfavorable press in the United States.
Pakistani distaste for the United States is nothing new, either. A 2002 Pew poll found that about 70 percent of Pakistanis disapproved of the United States. And their negativity predates the war on terrorism. The September 1982 issue of The Journal of Conflict Resolution carried an article by the Pakistani civil servant Shafqat Naghmi based on analysis of keywords used in the Pakistani press between 1965 and 1979. He found evidence for widespread anti-Americanism going back to the beginning of the study. In 1979, a hostile crowd burned down the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, and attacks on U.S. official buildings in Pakistan were reported even in the 1950s and 1960s.
From Pakistan's founding onward, the two countries have tried to paper over their divergent interests and the fact that their publics do not trust one another with personal friendships at the highest levels. In 1947, Pakistan's leaders confronted an uncertain future. Most of the world was indifferent to the new country -- that is, except for its giant next-door neighbor, which was uncompromisingly hostile. The partition of British India had given Pakistan a third of the former colony's army but only a sixth of its sources of revenue. From birth, therefore, Pakistan was saddled with a huge army it could not pay for and plenty of monsters to destroy.
British officials and scholars, such as Sir Olaf Caroe, who was the pre-partition governor of the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), and Ian Stephens, the editor of The Statesman, encouraged Pakistan's founding fathers to keep the country's large army as a protection against India. Lacking financing for it, though, Pakistani leaders turned to the United States, reasoning that Washington would be willing to foot some of the bill given Pakistan's strategically important location at the intersection of the Middle East and South Asia.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country's founder and first governor-general, and most of his lieutenants in the Muslim League, Pakistan's main political party, had never traveled to the United States and knew little about the country. To fill the role of ambassador to the United States, they chose the one among them who had, Mirza Abol Hassan Ispahani, who had toured the United States in the mid-1940s to drum up support for an independent Muslim state in South Asia. In a November 1946 letter to Jinnah, Ispahani explained what he knew of the American psyche. "I have learnt that sweet words and first impressions count a lot with Americans," he wrote. "They are inclined to quickly like or dislike an individual or organization." The Cambridge-educated lawyer tried his best to make a good impression and became known among the Washington elite for his erudition and sartorial style.
Back in Pakistan, Jinnah attempted to befriend Paul Alling, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador in Karachi, then Pakistan's capital. In one of their meetings, Jinnah complained about the sweltering heat and offered to sell his official residence to the U.S. embassy. The ambassador sent him a gift of four ceiling fans. Jinnah was also at pains to give interviews to U.S. journalists, the best known of whom was Life magazine's Margaret Bourke-White. "America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America," Jinnah told her. "Pakistan is the pivot of the world, the frontier on which the future position of the world revolves." Like many Pakistani leaders after him, Jinnah hinted that he hoped the United States would pour money and arms into Pakistan. And Bourke-White, like many Americans after her, was skeptical. She sensed that behind the bluster was insecurity and a "bankruptcy of ideas . . . a nation drawing its spurious warmth from the embers of an antique religious fanaticism, fanned into a new blaze."
The visceral anti-Americanism among many Pakistanis today makes it difficult to remember how persistently Jinnah and his ambassadors lobbied the United States for recognition and friendship in those earlier years. Yet the Americans were not convinced. As a State Department counselor, George Kennan, for example, saw no value in having Pakistan as an ally. In 1949, when he met Pakistan's first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, Kennan responded to Khan's request to back Pakistan over India by saying, "Our friends must not expect us to do things which we cannot do. It is no less important that they should not expect us to be things which we cannot be." Kennan's message was reflected in the paltry amount of U.S. aid sent to the new country: of the $2 billion Jinnah had requested in September 1947, only $10 million came through. That dropped to just over half a million dollars in 1948, and to zero in 1949 and 1950.
Pakistan finally got what it wanted with the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. His secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, embraced the idea of exchanging aid for Pakistani support of U.S. strategic interests. He saw Pakistan as a vital link in his scheme to encircle the Soviet Union and China. The aggressively anticommunist Dulles also relished the thought of having a large army of professional soldiers with British-trained officers on the right side in the Cold War. Influenced by earlier descriptions of Pakistanis, Dulles believed them to be especially martial: "I've got to get some real fighting men in the south of Asia," he told the journalist Walter Lippmann in 1954. "The only Asians who can really fight are the Pakistanis."
Muhammad Ali Bogra, who had taken up the post of Pakistani ambassador to the United States in 1952, was also eager to cement the friendship. He was as successful as his predecessor at cultivating American elites, especially Dulles, who was already leery of India's leaders due to their decision to stay nonaligned during the Cold War. Bogra ensured that his own anticommunist sentiments were well known to Dulles, as well as to the journalists and politicians with whom Bogra went bowling in Washington. Meanwhile, Eisenhower tasked Arthur Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with earning the respect of powerful Pakistanis -- particularly the military commander General Muhammad Ayub Khan, who would rule the country by the end of the decade. Ayub Khan was instrumental in installing Bogra as Pakistan's prime minister in 1953, after a palace coup, in the hope that Bogra's friendship with the Americans would expedite the flow of arms and development assistance to Pakistan. Indeed, military and economic aid to Pakistan began to rise rapidly; it would hit $1.7 billion by the end of the decade.
In return, the United States got Pakistan to join two anti-Soviet security arrangements: the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, in 1954, and the Baghdad Pact (later called the Central Treaty Organization), in 1955. But there were already signs of trouble. Any notion that Pakistan would join either alliance grouping in a war was quickly dispelled, as Pakistan (like many others) refused to contribute much money or any forces to the organizations. Dulles traveled to Pakistan in 1954 looking for military bases for use against the Soviet Union and China. On his return, he tried to conceal his disappointment in the lack of immediate progress. In a memo he wrote for Eisenhower after the trip, he described U.S.-Pakistani relations as an "investment" from which the United States was "not in general in a position to demand specific returns." According to Dulles, the U.S. presence in Pakistan meant that the United States could expand its influence over time, leading to "trust and friendship."
Ayub Khan, for his part, assumed that once Pakistan's military had been equipped with modern weapons -- ostensibly to fight the Communists -- it could use them against India without causing a major breach with the United States. In his memoirs, he acknowledged that "the objectives that the Western powers wanted the Baghdad Pact to serve were quite different from the objectives we had in mind." But he argued that Pakistan had "never made any secret of [its] intentions or [its] interests" and that the United States knew Pakistan would use its new arms against its eastern neighbor. Still, when Pakistan tested Ayub Khan's theory in 1965, by infiltrating Kashmir and precipitating an all-out war with India, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson suspended the supply of military spare parts to both India and Pakistan. In retaliation, in 1970, Pakistan shut down a secret CIA base in Peshawar that had been leased to the United States in 1956 to launch U-2 reconnaissance flights. (Although Pakistan had made the decision to shut down the base right after the 1965 war, it preferred to simply not renew the lease rather than terminate it prematurely.)
U.S.-Pakistani relations were scaled back after the suspension of military aid, but neither side could give up on trying to find some common ground. Ayub Khan's successor as president, General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, agreed to serve as an intermediary between the United States and China, facilitating the secret trip to Beijing in 1971 by Henry Kissinger, then U.S. President Richard Nixon's national security adviser. Later that year, Nixon showed his gratitude for Pakistan's help by favoring West Pakistan against separatist East Pakistan and its Indian supporters during the civil war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. The United States played down West Pakistani atrocities in East Pakistan, and Nixon tried to bypass Congress to provide some materiel to West Pakistani forces. But that did not stop the country from dividing. As a civilian government led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto picked up the pieces in the new, smaller Pakistan, the United States and Pakistan maintained some distance. During a 1973 visit by Nixon to Pakistan, Bhutto offered Nixon a naval base on the coast of the Arabian Sea, which Nixon declined. By the time the relationship had started to warm again, when Washington lifted the arms embargo on Pakistan in the mid-1970s, Pakistan had already sought economic support from the Arab countries to its west, which were by then growing flush with petrodollars.
The next time the United States and Pakistan tried to work together, it was to expand a relatively small Pakistani-backed insurgency in Afghanistan at the United States' request. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in 1979, the United States saw an opportunity to even the score following its poor showing in the Vietnam War and bleed the Soviet army dry. The Afghan mujahideen, which had been trained by Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and funded by the CIA, would help. Pakistan's military ruler, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, made his sales pitch: "The Soviet Union is sitting on our border," he told an American journalist in a 1980 interview. "Has the free world any interest left in Pakistan?" Later, Zia even surprised the U.S. State Department counselor, Robert McFarlane, with a sweetener: "Why don't you ask us to grant [you] bases?"
The United States was no longer interested in bases in Pakistan, but it did want to use Pakistan as a staging ground for the Afghan insurgency. So Washington not only funneled arms and money to the mujahideen across the border but also quadrupled its aid to Pakistan. Islamabad had been repeatedly asking for F-16 fighter aircraft in the late 1970s and early 1980s; the Reagan administration found a way to grant them, even urging Congress to waive a ban on military and economic aid to countries that acquire or transfer nuclear technology. James Buckley, then undersecretary of state for international security affairs, rationalized in The New York Times that such American generosity would address "the underlying sources of insecurity that prompt a nation like Pakistan to seek a nuclear capability in the first place." In 1983, the first batch of the fighter jets arrived in Rawalpindi.
But as did the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, so the Soviet decision to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in 1989 exposed the tensions beneath the surface of the U.S.-Pakistani alliance. Differences between Washington and Islamabad over who should lead a post-Soviet Afghanistan quickly emerged and unsettled the two countries' unspoken truce. Pakistan, of course, wanted as much influence as possible, believing that a friendly Afghanistan would provide it with strategic depth against India. The United States wanted a stable noncommunist government that could put Afghanistan back in its place as a marginal regional power.
For the first time, the issue of Pakistani support for terrorist groups also became a sore point. In a 1992 letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Nicholas Platt, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, warned that the United States was close to declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism: "If the situation persists, the secretary of state may find himself required by law to place Pakistan in the U.S.G. [U.S. government] state sponsors of terrorism list. . . . You must take concrete steps to curtail assistance to militants and not allow their training camps to operate in Pakistan or Azad Kashmir [the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir]." That threat was hollow, but the United States did find other ways to punish its erstwhile ally. In 1991, Washington cut off military aid to Pakistan after President George H. W. Bush failed to certify to Congress that Pakistan was adhering to its nuclear nonproliferation commitments. Between 1993 and 1998, the United States imposed strict sanctions on Pakistan because of its continued nuclear progress and tests. And it imposed more sanctions between 2000 and 2001 in response to the 1999 military coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power. Civilian aid, meanwhile, bottomed out.
Acrimony continued to color the relationship until 2001, when, after the 9/11 attacks, Washington once again sought to work with Islamabad, hoping that this time, Pakistan would fix its internal problems and change its strategic direction for good. But there was little enthusiasm among Pakistan's public or its military elite, where the country's decision-making power lay, for an embrace of the United States or its vision for the region. Meanwhile, Pakistani diplomats in the United States spent most of their time responding to Congress' criticism of Pakistan's double-dealing in regard to terrorists. The role of ambassador during this period was first held by a former journalist, Maleeha Lodhi, and then by a career foreign service officer, Ashraf Qazi. They worked to build the case that Pakistan was the frontline state in the war on terrorism by reaching out to the U.S. media and lobbying Congress with the help of the growing Pakistani American community. With support from the George W. Bush administration, the ambassadors were able to fend off criticism and get huge aid packages approved. But skeptics, such as the journalist Selig Harrison, pointed out that Pakistan was selling "bad policy through good salesmen." These particular salesmen were succeeded by two retired generals, Jehangir Karamat and Mahmud Ali Durrani, who attempted to work more closely with U.S. military officers, assuring them that reports of continued Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban were exaggerated. On the U.S. side, Anthony Zinni, who had been commander of the U.S. Central Command at the time of Musharraf's coup and remained in touch with Musharraf after his own retirement, spoke publicly of the benefit of being able to communicate "soldier to soldier." Still, the soldier-ambassadors were unable to overcome the negative press about Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan.
U.S. ambassadors to Pakistan during this period focused on forging close ties with the country's leader, Musharraf. When Musharraf's control weakened toward the end of the decade, Anne Patterson, who was U.S. ambassador between 2007 and 2010, tried to reach out to civilian Pakistani politicians by meeting the leaders of all of the country's major political parties. To cover the waterfront, Admiral Mike Mullen, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pursued a personal friendship with Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. Mullen held 26 meetings with Kayani in four years and often described him as a friend. But by the end of his tenure, Mullen expressed frustration that nothing had worked to change Kayani's focus: "In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan, and most especially the Pakistani army and ISI," he said in a speech to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2011, "jeopardizes not only the prospect of our strategic partnership but Pakistan's opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence."
In the end, during Patterson's and Mullen's tenures, Musharraf's regime crumbled and a civilian government took office. From the start, the new administration, led by Zardari, sought to transform the U.S.-Pakistani relationship into what he called a strategic partnership. Zardari wanted to mobilize popular and political support in Pakistan for counterterrorism, as the United States made a long-term commitment to Pakistan through a multiyear foreign assistance package including more civilian aid. At the same time, the two countries would work together to devise a mutually acceptable Afghan endgame.
As Pakistan's ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011, I tried to carry out this agenda and serve as a bridge between the two sides. I arranged dozens of meetings among civilian and military leaders from both sides. Senior U.S. officials, including James Jones, the national security adviser; Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state; and Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA and later secretary of defense, were generous with their time. Senators John McCain, Diane Feinstein, and Joseph Lieberman hashed out the various elements of a strategic partnership, and Senator John Kerry spent countless hours constructing models for Afghan negotiations. Richard Holbrooke, who was the Obama administration's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan before his death in 2011, shuttled between the capitals, seeking to explain U.S. policies to Pakistani officials and secure congressional support for Pakistan. Over several weekends, when our spouses were away from Washington, Holbrooke and I spent hours together, going to the movies or meeting for lunch in Georgetown. We spoke about ways to secure a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan with Pakistan's support. Convinced that the Pakistani military held the key to stability in the region, President Barack Obama conveyed to Pakistan that the United States wanted to help Pakistan feel secure and be prosperous but that it would not countenance Pakistan's support for jihadist groups that threatened American security.
But in the end, these attempts to build a strategic partnership got nowhere. The civilian leaders were unable to smooth over the distrust between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries and intelligence agencies. And the lack of full civilian control over Pakistan's military and intelligence services meant that, as ever, the two countries were working toward different outcomes. Admittedly, however, things might not have been all that much better had the civilians been in full control; it is easier for strongmen to give their allies what they want regardless of popular wishes, whether it be U-2 and drone bases or arming the Afghan mujahideen. My own tenure as ambassador came to an abrupt end in November 2011, just weeks after an American businessman of Pakistani origin falsely accused me of using him as an intermediary to seek American help in thwarting a military coup immediately after the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden. The allegation made no sense because as ambassador, I had direct access to American officials and did not need the help of a controversial businessman to convey concerns about the Pakistani military threatening civilian rule. The episode confirmed again, if confirmation was needed, that supporting close ties with the United States is an unpopular position in Pakistan and that there is a general willingness in Pakistan's media, judicial, and intelligence circles to believe the worst of anyone trying to mend the frayed partnership.
Given this history of failure, it is time to reconsider whether the U.S.-Pakistani alliance is worth preserving. At least for the foreseeable future, the United States will not accept the Pakistani military's vision of Pakistani preeminence in South Asia or equality with India. And aid alone will not alter Islamabad's priorities. Of course, as Pakistan's democracy grows stronger, the Pakistanis might someday be able to have a realistic debate about what the national interest is and how it should be pursued. But even that debate might not end on terms the United States likes. According to 2012 poll data, for example, although most Pakistanis would favor better ties with India (69 percent of those polled), a majority of them still see India as the country's biggest threat (59 percent).
With the United States and Pakistan at a dead end, the two countries need to explore ways to structure a nonallied relationship. They had a taste of this in 2011 and 2012, when Pakistan shut down transit lines in response to a NATO drone strike on the Afghan-Pakistani border that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. But this failed to hurt the U.S. war effort; the United States quickly found that it could rely on other routes into Afghanistan. Doing so was more costly, but the United States' flexibility demonstrated to Islamabad that its help is not as indispensable to Washington as it once assumed. That realization should be at the core of a new relationship. The United States should be unambiguous in defining its interests and then acting on them without worrying excessively about the reaction in Islamabad.
The new coolness between the two countries will eventually provoke a reckoning. The United States will continue to do what it feels it has to do in the region for its own security, such as pressing ahead with drone strikes on terrorist suspects. These will raise hackles in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, where the Pakistani military leadership is based. Pakistani military leaders might make noise about shooting down U.S. drones, but they will think long and hard before actually doing so, in light of the potential escalation of hostilities that could follow. Given its weak hand (which will grow even weaker as U.S. military aid dries up), Pakistan will probably refrain from directly confronting the United States.
Once Pakistan's national security elites recognize the limits of their power, the country might eventually seek a renewed partnership with the United States -- but this time with greater humility and an awareness of what it can and cannot get. It is also possible, although less likely, that Pakistani leaders could decide that they are able to do quite well on their own, without relying heavily on the United States, as they have come to do over the last several decades. In that case, too, the mutual frustrations resulting from Pakistan's reluctant dependency on the United States would come to an end. Diplomats of both countries would then be able to devote their energies to explaining their own and understanding the other's current positions instead of constantly repeating clashing narratives of what went wrong over the last six decades. Even if the breakup of the alliance did not lead to such a dramatic denouement, it would still leave both countries free to make the tough strategic decisions about dealing with the other that each has been avoiding. Pakistan could find out whether its regional policy objectives of competing with and containing India are attainable without U.S. support. The United States would be able to deal with issues such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation without the burden of Pakistani allegations of betrayal. Honesty about the true status of their ties might even help both parties get along better and cooperate more easily. After all, they could hardly be worse off than they are now, clinging to the idea of an alliance even though neither actually believes in it. Sometimes, the best way forward in a relationship lies in admitting that it's over in its current incarnation.