The Magazine

Our Pakistan Problem

The nuclear armed, insurgent-plagued, swing state of South Asia.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By CHRISTIAN D. BROSE and DANIEL TWINING
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A better approach would deal with Pakistan as it is, not as we might want it to be. This means accepting that those calling the shots in Pakistan are not our natural allies. Nor can we change their worldview directly through our actions and appeals or top-down dictates. Rather, we must work from the bottom up, creating incentives that could lead Pakistan's leaders to make new choices. Call it the indirect approach. The focus is less on sweeping initiatives to change Pakistani thinking in one master stroke (like an elusive Kashmir deal) than on incremental steps to create new realities, new facts on the ground, to which Pakistan's leaders would be forced to adapt.

This is as much a problem of psychology as policy. Few nations are as paranoid as Pakistan--where it is a widespread belief that India is behind every setback, that the United States plans to seize Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, that America is out to undermine Pakistani democracy, and that Washington can't be trusted. This paranoia explains many of Pakistan's policies: why America is treated as both ally and adversary in national security planning, for instance, or why Pakistan sponsors the Taliban in Afghanistan as a hedge against both New Delhi and Washington.

Some of this paranoia is baseless; some less so, especially considering past U.S. support for Pakistani dictators. But this misses the point: Pakistani paranoia is real in the minds of the country's leaders, so we must deal with it as a fact whether we like it or not. We should not dismiss Pakistani insecurity or try to disabuse the country's leadership of it through rational discourse. Rather, we should take Pakistan's paranoia as the point of departure for our policies and pursue incremental but sustained actions to create new facts on the ground that might lead Islamabad to alter its strategic calculus. This would be a slow, systematic, and evolutionary--not revolutionary--approach to changing the strategic context of Pakistani decision-making and so nudging Pakistan in a direction more favorable to American interests in South and Central Asia.

What would the elements of such a strategy be?

First and most important would be defeating Pakistan's terrorist proxies in Afghanistan--and, as much as possible, in Pakistan. Despite new and welcome Pakistani pressure on militants fighting within the tribal regions, there is still little evidence that Pakistan's military has broken its longstanding Faustian bargain with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, viewing their fight instead as the ideal path to Pakistan's own security. The best chance to end Pakistani support for terrorism in Afghanistan--and India--is to demonstrate in a visceral way that its allies are losing and that if Islamabad does not stop backing them, it will end up with little influence in Afghanistan and less security as a result. Only once the facts on the ground change might Pakistani policies follow suit.

This suggests an opposite way of thinking about the "Af-Pak" challenge from the one the Obama administration has presented. We should not assume that Pakistani cooperation holds the key to progress in Afghanistan, and that the former is a prerequisite for the latter. To the contrary, the United States and its Afghan and NATO allies can make significant gains in Afghanistan without the Pakistani military choosing to fight cross-border militancy rather than support it--a choice it likely won't make anyway.

What's more, the benefit of defeating the Pakistani-backed enemies of Afghanistan goes beyond its value as a prerequisite for Afghanistan's stabilization and development, as important as that is. Defeating the Taliban would help secure the greater U.S. goal: fostering a realization among the Pakistani military that their terrorist allies, washing in waves over the Pakistani border, are breaking against a hardened Afghan state, and that to continue backing violent extremists will only leave Pakistan isolated, insecure, and weakened. Ending Afghanistan's status as a playing field for Pakistan's military-intelligence forces will also weaken the security establishment's influence in Pakistani politics, advancing the U.S. objective--shared by most Pakistanis--of strengthening civilian rule.