When Chaos Equals Opportunity: The U.S.-Pakistan Relationship in Turmoil
June 5, 2012
In a rare moment of solidarity, on May 24 the members of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously voted to dock $33 million worth of aid to Pakistan, a million dollars for each year of Dr. Shakil Afridi’s jail sentence. Although it has recently been revealed that Dr. Afridi was officially charged for alleged links with militant group Lashkar-e-Islam, it is widely understood that he was arrested for providing clandestine assistance to the U.S. government in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Dr. Afridi’s conviction is the latest in a series of antagonistic tactical events that have defined the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as of late.
Q1: What has happened between the United States and Pakistan over the last year?
A1: Prior to the bin Laden raid, the alliance between the two countries had been growing increasingly and alarmingly turbulent. Events since May 2011 have accelerated the deterioration of the relationship to the point where many in both nations see little benefit to continued cooperation. The Pakistanis’ feelings of embarrassment and anger after Operation Neptune Spear were exacerbated by Admiral Mike Mullen’s final congressional testimony, where he alleged that Pakistan’s establishment provided support to militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Furthermore, a heated exchange between the two countries reached the boiling point in November, when a NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at checkpoints in Salala, within Pakistani borders. Three days after the incident, Pakistan shut down vital transport routes used to carry NATO supplies to Afghanistan, forcing the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to utilize suboptimal routes through Central Asia. The arrest of Dr. Afridi is indicative of the deeply anti-American sentiment within Pakistan, and the U.S. reaction to the incident has highlighted the frustrations felt by Americans regarding their relationship with a so-called ally.
Q2: Given the antagonism between the two countries, where is the U.S.-Pakistan relationship headed in the short term?
A2: The current situation does not bode well for U.S.-Pakistan relations, with both nations engaged in what can best be characterized as a highly political catfight. The U.S. Senate has threatened further cuts in aid if Pakistan does not reopen its NATO supply routes, yet Pakistan no doubt will continue to keep the supply routes closed until the United States apologizes for the Salala incident. The United States is angry with Pakistan for its hesitation to cut ties with the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, while Pakistan condemns continued U.S. strikes within its sovereign territory. U.S. approval ratings in Pakistan hover around 10 percent, with almost 75 percent of the Pakistani population viewing the United States in an “unfavorable” light. In the United States, things seem equally bleak; only 2 percent of the population sees Pakistan as an ally, while 63 percent view it as either “unfriendly” or as an “enemy.” Such negative public opinions will only force the further, and perhaps irreparable, politicization of the relationship. The lack of any positive exchange between the two countries as of late suggests bleak prospects for any near-term improvements to the partnership.
Q3: Do Pakistan and the United States really need each other?
A3: Yes. Although arguments have been made in both countries against a continued relationship with the other and few pundits see any natural alignment between U.S. and Pakistan interests, the two countries share a desire for regional stability that is too large to ignore and too difficult to execute without a continued alliance. While relations between the two nations have become so polarized and so politicized that many in each country desire nothing more than to wipe their hands of the other, this is simply not a viable option.
The United States has security goals in the region that it cannot fulfill without assistance from Pakistan. The United States needs a stable Afghanistan as it withdraws its troops from that country, and it will be unlikely to achieve that goal without Pakistani support. Furthermore, without the help of the Pakistani government, the United States will find it difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate the remnants of al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups hiding in the tribal areas of western Pakistan. Additionally, if the United States wishes to minimize any possibility of “loose nukes” in Pakistan—the country with the fastest growing nuclear stockpile in the world—it cannot disengage from the nation completely. Finally, by abandoning Pakistan, the United States may weaken any hope for normalized, if not amicable, relations between Pakistan and India.
Pakistan has an equal stake in continued mutual support, given the relentless attacks on Pakistani civilians and armed forces by homegrown militants such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as well as the nation’s dire economic situation. Pakistan’s attempts to “ride the tiger” of state-sponsored militancy have backfired, and the nation’s armed forces and police now find themselves in the position of desperately needing to build up their capacity to contain the violence. At the same time, the country is experiencing a severe economic and energy crisis: news sources (The News, Express Tribune, and The Nation) declare that Pakistan committed its first sovereign default in the country’s history, while large portions of the country now suffer from power outages up to 18 hours a day with the summer months ahead. Without U.S. security and economic support, the prospects for a stable and prosperous Pakistan are grim.
If the United States and Pakistan cannot work together to address these challenges, their collective weight may plunge the region into chaos, affecting not only Pakistan and the United States, but India, China, Russia, and the Gulf nations as well. The shared goal of regional stability cannot be achieved without the United States and Pakistan cooperating with one another.
Q4: How can the United States and Pakistan improve their relationship?
A4: The U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan represents a unique opportunity to reset the relationship between the United States and Pakistan. Afghanistan is the issue at the core of the two countries’ turbulent relationship and has been the primary source of friction for the past decade. As the United States withdraws, this friction will likely begin to decrease. Rather than disengaging from one another, the United States and Pakistan must take this opportunity to refocus around shared strategic concerns rather than the tactical antagonism that has defined recent years.
There are a number of steps that the United States and Pakistan can take to begin rebuilding this vital relationship. Rather than focusing primarily on intractable issues such as India-Pakistan antagonism, the United States and Pakistan can make progress by working toward manageable, mutually beneficial goals. Key among these is the economic development of Pakistan. Pakistan’s economy could receive a much-needed boost if the United States allowed Pakistan access to its textile market—a sector encompassing 40 percent of urban manufacturing jobs in Pakistan—by easing the current tariffs in place on Pakistani textile imports. Further, the United States could assist in enhancing trade between Pakistan and India, potentially improving both economics and security. Continued U.S. humanitarian assistance to flood victims and internally displaced people in Pakistan represents another opportunity to foster closer cooperation between the two nations. Pakistan, on the other hand, can turn its economic and security difficulties around if it actively cooperates with the United States and other regional partners on initiatives to open new trade and energy supply routes linking Central Asia to the Indian Ocean by way of Afghanistan. The routes would go through Baluchistan and FATA, potentially sparking unprecedented growth and opportunity in the most underdeveloped and disenfranchised areas of Pakistan. Additionally, the Pakistani government should heed the United States and the international community and focus its attention on the humanitarian crisis in Baluchistan. Years of neglect and dubious governance are bringing the province to the brink of civil war, which may be mitigated if Pakistan cooperates with U.S. aid agencies and manages aid in a more equitable way rather than saturating politically relevant constituencies with it. U.S. aid workers might be able to play a bigger role on the ground if the Pakistani government eases travel restrictions and facilitates access in remote or dangerous areas. These initiatives may then provide space for greater cooperation on a host of issues.
The United States and Pakistan must commit to ongoing dialogue and remain invested in this important strategic relationship, rather than allow themselves to be buffeted by the political winds. Knee-jerk reactions from both nations will do nothing but inflame tensions and impede progress. Jailing a doctor who helped bring the most-wanted terrorist in the world to justice has no benefit for Pakistan in the long term, and cutting off aid to Pakistan does nothing to advance U.S. interests. The United States and Pakistan have a chance to move beyond squabbling over tactical issues to address larger questions of stability, yet this cannot occur if both nations continue to seek to score short-term political points by antagonizing one another.
If the two nations are unwilling to commit to one another and instead continue to treat each other as adversaries, then they may as well openly declare themselves to be so. In this case, Pakistan will likely continue on its current course of exporting terrorism and even proliferating nuclear technology, while the United States focuses its military, economic, and political resources on supporting India and other regional powers. Neither nation would benefit from this dynamic, yet it is the only alternative if the United States and Pakistan are not able to find common ground in advancing long-term regional stability.
Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Hijab Shah is a research assistant with the CSIS Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.