The Magazine

The Pakistan Illusion

The friend of our enemies is not our friend.

Oct 24, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 06 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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Despite assertions by many experts in Pakistan and the West that later generations of generals​—​not just Kayani but Musharraf before him​—​are more reform-minded and anxious to get the Islamist elements back under control, it’s hard to detect any significant change of strategic or domestic political course. The Islamist genie has, if anything, increasingly turned on its sponsors. Pakistan has never given up its investment in the Afghan Taliban, either in its Mullah Omar-Quetta shura guise or its regional strongman-Haqqani network manifestation. Proxy groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba conduct spectacular attacks on American, Indian, and other international targets as well as in Pakistan proper; whether such groups are always operating under direction of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency is beside the point. It was the ISI that created them in the first instance. And Pakistan has lately accelerated and expanded its nuclear program, stockpiling materials and building new missiles and warheads. Islamabad likes to live dangerously.

What is to be done?

The temptation for Americans to walk away from Pakistan in frustration and disgust or, alternatively, to administer a stiff spanking is strong, particularly in Congress. But the effects of such acts​—​most notably the 1985 Pressler Amendment​—​are at best partial and at worst counterproductive. In the absence of a long-term, coherent strategy for Pakistan, this amendment pretended to deal with Pakistani nuclear proliferation by banning economic and military aid​—​unless the president “certified” that Pakistan had no nukes. Which President George H.W. Bush proceeded to do annually, despite complaints that it was all a fiction. This had the effect of driving Pakistan into the arms of the Chinese, who were happy to help with sales of ballistic missiles.

The highly touted Lugar-Biden-Kerry “Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009” represents the other congressional extreme. Offering $1.5 billion of economic aid a year for five years, the bill was an effort to help Pakistan’s civilian government and provide an alternative to the strictly military aid that had been offered after 9/11. However, it was so loaded with intrusive “oversight” measures​—​just good government in Washington, but portrayed as an affront to sovereignty in Islamabad​—​that it soured relations even more. 

The alternative policy, deeply embedded in the Washington establishment, is that the United States must continue to work with the Pakistani military, because it’s the only institution in Islamabad that works or because Pakistan’s politicians are weak and corrupt. As Richard Haass, former policy director for the State Department and now head of the Council on Foreign Relations, once explained, “The coup that brought Army Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf to power .  .  . should not be condemned out of hand. And it well may bring stability to a country and a region where stability is in short supply.”

Both these attitudes betray Washington’s lack of long-term interest in Pakistan, and that is the first thing that needs to change. Pakistan’s problems are deep; indeed, they are embedded in the country’s very identity. But our strategic interests are equally deep. The war in Afghanistan and the rise of India are indicators that the balance of power in South Asia​—​like the balance of power in Europe, the Persian Gulf, or Pacific Asia​—​is emerging as a core security concern of the United States and an increasingly important test of the international system.

A coherent American strategy rests on convincing Islamabad of three things: that the United States has come to South Asia to stay; that India’s rise should be met with strategic cooperation, not competition; and that playing a “China card” won’t work.

Long experience has convinced Pakistani leaders that the United States will lose interest in them and in South Asia, and that they will be left with what they see as an existential crisis​—​these were the lessons of 1965, 1971, the Cold War, and after. The Obama administration’s plans to draw down and “transfer the lead” in Afghanistan to Kabul fits Pakistani preconceptions perfectly; and they’re making plans accordingly. But the greatest strategic reward of Operation Enduring Freedom, well beyond killing Osama bin Laden, disrupting al Qaeda, or suppressing the Afghan Taliban, would be to begin to curb Pakistan’s longing for “strategic depth” in Central Asia. That requires retaining a substantial military presence and developing a strategic partnership with the Afghans.

Relieving Pakistan’s paranoia about India will take even longer. But the cost of this paranoia has been devastating to Pakistan, militarizing the state, politicizing the faith of its people, debilitating civilian political and economic development. This is the “declining glide slope” that Admiral Mullen lamented. Pakistan does not need to achieve eternal enlightenment, just a rational policy that would put things like economic cooperation above recovering Kashmir. The United States needs to follow two principles to improve the prospects for success: continue to develop its strategic partnership with India​—​to slowly convince Islamabad that its traditional strategies can no longer work​—​and demand that military-to-military ties take a back seat to civilian diplomacy. We must cure ourselves of the “Tommy Franks syndrome.”

Convincing Pakistan that the Chinese won’t be the sugar daddy who makes up for their mistakes won’t be easy. In response to Mullen’s accusations, the Pakistanis reaffirmed their love for China as, in the words of Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani, “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel, sweeter than honey.” The Chinese, however, prefer more tangible expressions of regard, such as material resources, the deep-sea port at Gwadar, and an expansion of the Karakoram highway into western China. China’s presence in the Indian Ocean is growing, but part of U.S. strategy for Asia is to preserve a favorable maritime balance there. India shares that interest; one of its prime strategic directives is to stymie a China-Pakistan axis.

In sum, there’s a lot that the United States can do when it comes to Pakistan, but none of it can be done quickly. Nor can it be done without facing, as Admiral Mullen did at last, the truth about the Pakistani Army.

Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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