“Pakistan is the hardest challenge facing U.S. policy… harder than even China” was one of the first things Ashley J. Tellis, guest lecturer at CERI on the 24th of October, said as he opened up his speech on the Pakistan-US relationship, “Managing Frenemies: What should the United States do about Pakistan?”
But why so? Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace[i], provided three reasons for why Pakistan is such a challenging actor to contend with: 1) Pakistan’s “viciously reinforcing” deep-rooted problems; 2) the dual nature of its state – the civilian side which is better motivated but lacks the resources vs. the military that is much stronger but has had a history and tendency to take “wrong decisions”; 3) the U.S., “intimately involved in Pakistan’s affairs”, is greatly dependent on the country and given the above two factors, a strong element of fear is involved.
But why this dependency and fear in the first place? Currently, as the speaker identified, USA has three vested interests in the country: 1) securitization of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal; 2) support for counter-terrorism operations and Afghanistan; 3) a broad stability and development of democratic institutions.
Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal
To secure the increasingly destabilised country’s nukes is the “first and foremost priority” of the U.S., particularly considering the seemingly looming danger of nuclear terrorism. What leverage does it have in this respect?
To answer the question, Tellis develops two aspects. First, the character of the Pakistani army, which also has “autonomous interest” in protecting what it itself perceives to be the “crown jewels” of Pakistan. It therefore has as great an interest in protecting its arsenal as does the international community, if not more. It is not only a matter of pride and prestige, but its safety also serves the Pakistani army’s interests. U.S. aid and assistance in the first Bush administration was primarily geared towards this aim, which Islamabad enthusiastically lapped up. But, as Tellis surmises, the U.S. has done what it could; it now has nothing more to offer with regards to helping Pakistan keep its nuclear arsenal safe.
Secondly to take into account is the character of Pakistani state. What is critical here is the challenges long-term prospects of the state pose. If the country maintains stability, despite current domestic upheavals, there is limited threat; if growing tensions lead to the state’s deterioration, then loss of control increases potential of extremism in institutions which in turn raises the risk of nuclear weapons falling in the hands of undesirable non-state actors. What is a problem for the U.S. is that this potential demise is difficult to detect, as it is slow and incremental: “akin to cancer”, as Tellis puts it.
The bottom line? In peace time, the Pakistani nuke arsenal is reasonably safe; but given the long-term security of the country, there is a potential danger of its security during times of conflicts (a recurrence of the “Zia problem” with nukes thrown into the equation isn’t exactly amenable to U.S. interests… or the interests of others in South Asia for that matter.) What leverage does the U.S. then have? “Quite modest” is the reply Tellis gives. Pakistan will only accept that assistance or aid which is helpful to its vision of itself; anything it perceived to be intrusive in its affairs will not find any takers in Islamabad.
Counterterrorism and the transition in Afghanistan
From the above, it is clear Pakistani leaders have domestic interests they are pursuing in their own foreign policy. This is again apparent when it comes to counterterrorism efforts, for which the U.S. desperately needs Pakistan’s assistance. Tellis breaks down the ‘enemy’ into three groups: terrorist groups that like the TTP and Al-Qaeda which are against Pakistan’s interests; groups such as Al Qaeda, Afghanistan Taliban, and the Haqqani network which are against American interests; and the jihadi groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed acting against India. It is evident Pakistan will have a different approach to these different categories; indeed, Pakistan has been very selective since 2001 about targeting the various groups, accepting assistance to target the first segment but a marked half-heartedness with regards to the latter two.
As for the security transition in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is “strongly convinced of a political settlement with armed insurgents” – in which Pakistan is seen as the principal leverage, given several leaders are sheltered in Pakistan (not to say anything of the support they receive from Islamabad).
But will such reconciliation efforts be successful? Pakistan and the U.S. both have visions “at odds with one another” of what the transition will yield. The former’s fear of encirclement will compel Islamabad to deny Afghanistan complete independence by any means possible. Could the U.S. change Pakistan’s “calculus”? If it had been actually successful, Pakistan would have had no other choice but “to come round”; if it had been “willing to endure” a long-run commitment to Afghanistan, Pakistan’s calculations would have differed: the withdrawal clearly dismisses both these scenarios. Considering Pakistan believes it has “greater stakes” and has “sacrificed much more than the United States”, America again has a “modest leverage” here as well.
Broader stability of the Pakistani state
Recognized as a “precarious objective”, some consider this to be for Pakistan’s own sake. Others propagate the policy of living “with the Pakistan you have rather than the Pakistan you want”, seeing as the costs are not non-negligible for creating democratic institutions and spreading development. In Tellis’ view, the US. needs Pakistan as a “robust democracy”; military domination and its consequences would not be too accommodating of American interests. Yet the “odds of the U.S. succeeding… are even more bleak” here, for the reasons already identified in the very beginning and further because the US is currently dependent on the very forces it ideally seeks to reform.
U.S. Policy Options
Three primordial realities need to be recognized before exploring U.S. policy options with respect to Pakistan:
First, the U.S. strategy of “bribing Pakistan” for the past 10 years has failed. The Musharraf years were conducive to a strong US-Pak rapprochement, since there was a sincere belief in Washington that Musharraf would walk along a course desirable to the U.S. Yet events have led us to the current situation where “no fundamental changes” have occurred.
Second, the character of Pakistani state is very difficult to ‘change’ – it can only occur through a “dramatic defeat of the military” (which has happened before but to no avail); a revolution (unlikely since there is still the bare minimum of a democratic setup, just enough to prevent a mass uprising à la Arab Spring); a real collapse of state authority (again, not so likely: perhaps the question isn’t of the Pakistani military being weak but too strong vis-à-vis Pakistani state).
And third, US-Pakistani co-dependency is not going anywhere anytime soon. What is pertinent to the discussion is the acknowledgement that it is fear of Pakistan that drives current U.S. policy, since the latter is in no way seated in the power position to be able to dictate terms and conditions.
What choices then, does the U.S. have? To treat Pakistan as a friend is increasingly becoming difficult and to position the country as an enemy is a “frightening and horrifying possibility”, which leaves the only option of treating Pakistan as a ‘frenemy’.
Tellis further outlines three strategic policy options. The first involves “giving hope a chance” that “Pakistan may still see the light”. The second path to take would be to conclude change isn’t on the cards but to persist with the same relationship balance as there isn’t any other option. These two, if followed, would only a continuation of current policies. But to what end? In the short-run, current aid and assistance to Islamabad only help in further entrenching the military in the state, which in turn further weaken civilian institutions. This is only accelerating the deterioration of the state with minimal short-term benefits. Are such modest gains and potential long-term havoc the way to go? The U.S. congress “holds the same view” – ten years of “cutting very big cheques” has yielded but the most modest of gains.
The only option left, as per Tellis, is the third one – establishing a U.S.-Pakistani relationship that is a “straight-forward, focused transaction” instead of an open-ended commitment:
- provide targeted assistance for specific counter-terrorism targets
- reconfigure coalition funds: instead of ‘reimbursements’, a specific allocation from the start
- cut off financial aid for high-end military equipment
- move away from financial aid, which is simply a euphemism for “disaster aid” in the long-run
One, such an increase in support of the civilian government would reduce attention and recognition of the Pakistani military. Two, given that Pakistan is the “poster-child of unproductive and counterproductive aid”, a policy of no blank cheques would be more effective. The “need for credible threats” is paramount – there isn’t any point in having a big stick if you aren’t going to wield it. If this “relationship on probation” yields positive results, then it can become more broad-based.
Having said that, Tellis also recognizes the need for the U.S. to be prepared for failure – “we don’t have the luxury anymore of NOT thinking about it”.
What the U.S.-Pakistan relationship clearly shows is that it isn’t about who has the greatest power, but who has the greatest resolve with respect to respective visions and aims.
[i] Ashley J. Tellis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security, defense, and Asian strategic issues. While on assignment to the US Department of State as senior adviser to the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, he was intimately involved in negotiating the civil nuclear agreement with India. Previously he was commissioned into the Foreign Service and served as senior adviser to the ambassador at the US Embassy in New Delhi. He also served on the National Security Council staff as special assistant to the President and senior director for Strategic Planning and Southwest Asia. He is the author of India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture (2001) and co-author of Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future (2000). He is the research director of the Strategic Asia program at NBR and co-editor of the seven most recent annual volumes, including this year’s Strategic Asia 2010-11: Asia’s Rising Power and America’s Continued Purpose. (http://www.ceri-sciencespo.com/reunion_affiche.php?id=793)