Thinking About US Strategy in Pakistan and Afghanistan
Following the siege on Pakistan’s naval airbase in Karachi, the voices calling for isolating or punishing Pakistan are growing ever louder. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail.
From what has been revealed thus far, it is probably true that the militants penetrated the high-security naval facility with insider information; and perhaps even assistance from ex-servicemen or serving military personnel. This pattern of jihadist activity supported by elements of the Pakistani state is deeply troubling and all too familiar, given the recent killing of Osama bin Laden by American forces less than two miles from a prestigious military academy and sixty miles from the capital. The incident is also worrying because it illustrates that jihadists seem increasingly bent on targeting crucial parts of the Pakistani state, which raises questions about the security of the country’s nuclear arsenal.
Despite all this, those calling for the United States to isolate Pakistan, cut off assistance, or strong-arm Pakistan into ‘neutralizing’ its nuclear arsenal (whatever that means), are wrong. Like it or not, history has shown us that sanctions and isolation towards Pakistan only exacerbate mistrust, increase anti-Americanism and deepen Islamabad’s insecurity and consequent reliance on jihadist groups.
Furthermore, as others have argued, the jihadist strategy in Pakistan is designed to create the perception that the country’s security forces are unable to protect an increasingly failed state, thereby prompting the United States to increase its own military footprint in the country and increase pressure on Islamabad. This would further fan the flames of anti-Americanism, fill the ranks of jihadist groups and commit Washington to yet another quagmire. The United States should not take the bait, even if some hotheads inadvertently are.
A more nuanced strategy for the US in Pakistan needs to begin with a firm grasp of Washington’s interests in Pakistan and South Asia more generally. Washington not only wants to avoid Pakistan serving as a base for terrorist groups to attack the US or an actor in further illicit WMD proliferation, but sees its future economic and political development and further cooperation with India as a crucial part of a stable South Asian region. Realizing these interests requires an approach that achieves balance in geographic focus, time horizon and dimension. If the elements of the strategy outlined below seem trite, that is because they are. Most reports on US-Pakistan relations (see for example here and here) contain roughly the same recommendations, and there is a risk that they oversimplify complex policy problems and complicated ground realities. They are nonetheless worth noting to ensure the right mindset moving forward.
Simply put, the strategy the US should pursue in Pakistan has three parts: contain extremism; construct a long-term relationship with Pakistan; and create the space for regional peace and development.
First, the US should help Pakistan contain extremism to ensure that it does not act as a breeding ground for terrorist attacks in the US, cause a collapse or severe disruption of the Pakistani state, undermine the security of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal, or stoke tensions and potential conflict with India. Given the divisions within the Pakistani state, divergent interests and deep distrust between the US and Pakistan, and the dominance of anti-Americanism in the country, this will likely be pursued through a range of alternatives, including military assistance, information-sharing, targeted drone strikes and and other covert or clandestine operations.
Second, the seeds must be sown for a broader long-term partnership between the US and Pakistan to promote trust and to further the interests of both countries. Potential avenues for cooperation should include new initiatives such as an agreement in US Congress to grant preferential market access to Pakistani textiles, increasing IMET program opportunities for Pakistani military officers, and reforming the way US assistance is disbursed and the programs it targets so that is is more transparent and effective.
Third, since the roots of jihadist extremism lie in Pakistan’s insecurities vis-a-vis other countries in its neighborhood (eg. the potential threat of a two front war with India and Afghanistan), any sustainable solution needs to have a strong regional component. That includes trying to foster peace between India and Pakistan, continuing to forge a strong partnership with India, and encouraging greater regional economic cooperation.
Perhaps most critically, even as it draws down from Afghanistan, Washington must ensure that the Afghan security forces are adequately equipped, and that political reform is sufficiently broad-based, in order to prevent civil war or the return of a Taliban-dominated state that could further destabilize Pakistan and lead to conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad. While policymakers are quick to point out that spending billions of dollars a month in Afghanistan is not sustainable for the United States, they should also remember that neglecting Afghanistan is not a sustainable solution either, since that approach in the 1980s turned the country into a breeding ground for terrorism and led to September 11. And while it is easy to be pessimistic about Afghanistan, there is growing evidence that pursuing negotiation may be a workable option, and that Afghans are feeling more positive about their country than they did in past.
In David Ignatius’ new work of fiction, Bloodmoney, the director general of Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), General Mohammed Malik, muses about how Americans’ specialty is lying to themselves. The seething resentment toward Pakistan and the knee-jerk aversion to further resource commitments in the AfPak region in Washington may prevent the United States from pursuing a multi-dimensional, long-term strategy in Pakistan today. But US policymakers should not mislead themselves into thinking that anything short of such an approach will fix a fraught US-Pakistan relationship and lead to a more stable South Asia tomorrow.