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US strategic interests in South Asia: what not to do with Pakistan

13 June 2012
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The early June visit of US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to India and Afghanistan, but not Pakistan, may be seen as just another example of the ongoing shift in American attention toward India, but it also highlighted the immense diplomatic damage that America continues to inflict on itself regarding Pakistan. Speaking from New Delhi, Panetta indicated that the US is “reaching the limits of their patience” with Pakistan and publicly pushed for the one thing that was guaranteed to stoke Pakistani anger: greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan. A quick glance at the reaction in the Pakistani media reveals what should have been foreseen by Washington before Panetta’s statement: Pakistan is now even less disposed to meet US demands than they were before. Panetta’s rhetoric merely hardens Pakistani resolve to protect their freedom of manoeuvre and reduces the capacity of the US to play a positive role in Pakistan’s democratic consolidation. As the US sensibly pursues a stronger strategic partnership with India, it should avoid the temptation of adopting India’s long-standing approach of isolating and containing Pakistan. Despite continuing serious disagreements between Pakistan and the US, the two countries have in fact seen a gradual convergence of views on many issues over the last decade. Given the current lack of leverage that the US has over Pakistani decision-making, patient, diplomatic engagement remains the best option for continuing this convergence.

Rather than expending energy on handling problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US would prefer to direct more effort towards rising powers India and China. Such a shift, however, need not involve a zero-sum trade-off between improved relations with India and continued partnership with Pakistan. Pakistan, for its part, has been a difficult country to work with. Its military misadventures in Kashmir, its support for militant groups, and its choice of the Taliban as their partners in Afghanistan have all backfired quite spectacularly. Despite these errors, Pakistan has its own strategic priorities that it pursues reasonably clearly and that the US should take into account when shaping its regional strategy. Pakistan seeks to protect its national integrity against any potential (read: Indian) threat, move toward strategic parity with India on the global stage, prevent the entrenchment of a New-Delhi friendly regime in Afghanistan, and seek a favourable resolution to the Kashmir issue. It is no coincidence that all four of these priorities involve India.

With the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan approaching fast, the US should not exacerbate its already difficult relations with Pakistan by encouraging Pakistan’s existential enemy to involve itself further in Afghanistan. India is currently a relatively minor player in Afghanistan and for the sake of stability in that country it should remain so. As a repeated victim of terrorist attacks from the extremist groups that have thrived in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, India has a legitimate interest in preventing the return of another Taliban-style regime in Afghanistan that could provide a secure base for these groups. Considering that Pakistan has been accused of being the launch pad for practically every externally-organised militant attack on India, however, Afghanistan should be of secondary importance for India. Asking India to engage further in Afghanistan will only increase Pakistani paranoia and make it more difficult to win Pakistan’s support for a constructive political solution in Afghanistan. John Schmidt of George Washington University, who worked for years in Islamabad, argues that ‘U.S. options are also limited by Washington’s long-standing unwillingness to bring pressure to bear on India. U.S. soldiers are dying in Afghanistan in part because India has established a substantial presence there, this despite the fact it has no convincing strategic interests in the country other than to threaten Pakistan on its western frontier.’[1] India has been accused of being acutely aware of the threats it faces, but blind to the potential danger it poses to its inescapable neighbour and competitor. India has generally sought to stigmatise, delegitimise and isolate Pakistan. This approach, reciprocated by Pakistan, has clearly been unsuccessful in resolving their mutual differences. The US may not be able to quickly bring the two sides together, but it can still make better efforts to be an approachable partner for either side.

From a Pakistani perspective, the US has spent the last decade offering Pakistan things of second order importance, such as cash and military supplies, while demanding in return offerings of first order importance, including changes in how Pakistan protects its sovereignty and defines its strategic interests. Year after year, Pakistan has accepted the second order offerings (what, after all, is to be gained by rejecting them?) while rolling their eyes at the idea that they should change their strategic interests to match those of the US. With their temporary American neighbours busy counting down the days until they go home in 2014, American leverage over Pakistan is at its lowest point. If the US possessed real leverage over Pakistan, then maybe tough talk could succeed in bringing Pakistan to clamp down on the militants using its territory to launch attacks in Afghanistan. The power of economic leverage has been discussed, and the idea of potentially losing US aid is a matter of concern for Pakistan’s government. Decades of experience have shown, however, that economic leverage has never been useful in changing Pakistan’s strategic calculus in a major way.[2] The threat of pursuing some sort of drone-monitored, gloves-off containment has also been proposed.[3] Such a tactic, however, is likely to provoke a reaction that will frustrate American efforts in Afghanistan and make the long-term pursuit of Pakistan-based terrorists more difficult.

Pakistan has clearly not been an easy partner to work with, but American and Pakistani perspectives are actually more closely aligned today than at any other time in the last decade. Since the end of the Cold War, Pakistan has become a nuclear weapons state, started a border war with India that led to a nuclear standoff, hosted the world’s worst nuclear proliferation network, supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and harboured extremist groups responsible for terrorist attacks around the world. It could be argued, however, that for all of these issues, the worst is now past. Now a nuclear weapons state, Pakistan cannot go nuclear again. Worries over the security of Pakistan’s weapons and the reliability of their nuclear command and control systems will not disappear soon, but significant progress has been made on these issues in recent years.[4] Though the first horses may have bolted, the barn door of nuclear proliferation is now shut and is under the watchful and paranoid eye of the international community. Following their nuclear weapons tests in 1998, India was quickly forgiven and welcomed back into the international nuclear community, while Pakistan continues to be castigated for proliferation activities which were shut down over a decade ago. This is not to say that Pakistan should be considered a responsible nuclear partner any time soon, nor that it has earned equivalence to India in any nuclear negotiations. It is, however, no longer the same country that gave A.Q. Khan free rein over his nuclear bazaar of the 1990s. This transformation, however grudging, should be acknowledged, as it sends the helpful diplomatic message to Pakistan that the international community recognises the steps they have taken on the issue.

While some parts of the Pakistani security apparatus still support the Afghan Taliban, they are forced now do so in a limited and clandestine manner. No Pakistani official in a position of authority, military or civilian, has called for the reinstatement of the old Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Instead, they call for the inclusion of Taliban and wider Pashtun interests in plans for the future of Afghanistan. With belated US attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, and Pakistan having slowly recognised the futility of expecting to wield full power over the Afghan state through pliable proxies, Western and Pakistani views on Afghanistan, though still divergent, are actually closer than they ever have been over the last decade.

Pakistani reticence to effectively tackle militants operating on its territory is related as much to domestic security as to the power game in Afghanistan. The Pakistani military is worried that a clamp down could initiate a new round of violence within Pakistan of the kind that exploded with the growth of the Pakistani Taliban in 2009-10. This poses a serious problem for three main reasons: the Pakistani armed forces are generally not trained for counter-terrorism operations, the commitments for these operations pull troops away from the Indian border, and the Pakistani population is strongly opposed to operations that have the appearance of being driven by American demands.

Engaging cooperatively and patiently with a democratic Pakistan remains the only option for the US. This should involve both enhanced diplomatic contact with the civilian leadership and continued military partnership with the military that still dominates national security policy. Though relations will continue to be strained, working with Pakistan can now be done with fewer bitter pills to swallow or inconvenient facts to ignore than was the case a decade ago. Unfortunately, Panetta’s recent remarks about US patience wearing thin were accurate, though this reflects just as badly on the American lack of patience as it does on Pakistan’s capacity to frustrate. Musharraf’s military dictatorship was supported by Washington for eight years without it leading to a resolution of the war in Afghanistan or the successful containment of Pakistani militants. Four years into an uneasy period of democratic consolidation, what Pakistan needs is patience and partnership from Washington, not empty threats.

Gerald Stang is currently a Visiting Fellow at the EUISS. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.

[1] Schmidt, John, The Unravelling – Pakistan in the Age of Jihad, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, p.16.

[2] See Birdsall, Nancy, Milan Vaishnav and Daniel Cutherell, ‘Pakistan and the IMF,’ Foreign Policy, 4 November 2011; and Yusuf, Moeed, quoted in Northam, Jackie, ‘Conditional Aid For Pakistan: Change Not Guaranteed,’ NPR, 1 Oct, 2011;

[3] See Krasner, Stephen, ‘Talking Tough to Pakistan - How to End Islamabad's Defiance,’ Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2012.

[4] Kerr, Paul K. and Mary Beth Nikitin, ‘Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and Security Issues,’ U.S. Congressional Research Service, RL34248, 30 November 2011.