The U.S. and Pakistan: Shaping a Way Ahead

By James Durso

Shortly after the U.S. evacuated Afghanistan in August 2021, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, noted, “America used to be very friendly to Pakistan, but when they thought Pakistan was useless, we were abandoned by America.”

The relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan has alternated between partnership and estrangement since Pakistan’s founding in 1947. Part of the friction is because each country considers itself an exemplar: America sees itself as a “shining city upon a hill;” Pakistan was founded to be the home for all Muslims in South Asia and “the citadel of Islam.”

Pakistan’s sense of exceptionalism was reinforced by a feeling of entitlement from the very beginning. In 1947, Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, told Life Magazine, “Pakistan needs America. America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America…Pakistan is the pivot of the world, as we are placed…(on) the frontier on which the future position of the world revolves.”

According to Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to  Washington, Pakistan adopted, as the foundation of the country’s security, a “policy tripod. India as Pakistan’s eternal enemy, Islam as the national unifier, and the United States as the country’s provider of arms and finances.

The obsession with India motivated the development of nuclear weapons to deter Delhi, and relations with extremist groups as an unconventional weapon. Islamabad was amenable to relations with extremist Muslims that the security services felt could be used against the state’s enemies. Pakistan’s polices on Islam and India thus affected relations with the U.S. as the preferred security provider.

“Washington has repeatedly withdrawn or limited security cooperation via sanctions in response to Pakistan’s actions to develop nuclear weapons (in response to the Indian threat) and nurture Islamist terror groups (to be used against enemies in Central and South Asia.) In effect, two legs of the tripod kicked away the third.”

U.S. policy towards Pakistan (and many other countries) has been based on sanctions, for punishment and coercion, instead of negotiation and engagement. This has caused start-and-stop relations that make Pakistan regard the U.S. as an inconstant suitor.

For example, in April 1979, “President Carter imposed unilateral military and economic sanctions against Pakistan after discovering that Islamabad was secretly constructing a facility to enrich uranium;” in December 1979, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan and the U.S. scrambled to remove sanctions, a process that was complete by 1982.

In 1990, President George Bush was unable to certify that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear explosive device, triggering sanctions. As the Cold Was, for all intents and purposes, over, the U.S. looked to be sanctioning Pakistan once its help was no longer needed to on the front line of the fight against the Soviet Union. Immediately after the 9-11 attacks by Al-Qaeda, the U.S. moved quickly to waive sanctions on Pakistan in response to its decision to side with the U.S. in the Global War on Terror.

The sanctions have failed to change Pakistan’s polices regarding nuclear weapons and support for bad actors, proving that even a vastly stronger distant actor may lack the ability to influence a smaller country with an active concern about a local threat, which is exacerbated by America’s short attention span.

The U.S. retreat from Kabul in August 2021 enforced Pakistan’s sense that the U.S. could not be counted on as a patron or security partner, which will slow future engagement while Islamabad determines what will trigger the next American departure and front-loads the benefits in anticipation of the inevitable bug-out.

That attitude across Pakistan’s leadership strata will make future engagement with the U.S. difficult, as Washington has some unfinished business in the region: the food emergency in Afghanistan, Chinese penetration of economies in Central and South Asia, and resurgent terror groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What can Washington do?

First, promote regional trade and connectivity. Connectivity between Central Asia and South Asia is needed if the regions are to escape the gravitation pull of Russia and China. This will increase local incomes and will strengthen Pakistan vis-à-vis China as Islamabad will have a stronger hand and may be less likely to take on loans it may someday regret. Central Asian countries will be able to use new trade routes to seaports in Iran (Chabahar) and Pakistan (Gwadar) and reduce their reliance on the Russian market and routes.

Though it is U.S. policy to discourage all trade with Iran so to reduce the standard of living and increase citizen discontent with the regime, increased trade with Iran will ensure a “soft landing” for Iran if regime change turns violent and food security is an issue for Iranian citizens, causing them to migrate. Pakistan hosts over 1.4 million Afghan refugees so any policy that keeps neighbors well fed and at home will be welcome.

Regional trade and connectivity will be facilitated by several capital projects that are now underway.

In February 2021, representatives of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan agreed to a roadmap for the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway project, a 600-km track to be built over five years. The rail project will run alongside regional power projects – the 1,000-megawatt Surkhan-Puli-Khumri high-voltage power line and the 1,300-megawatt CASA-1000 energy project – that supply power to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The final key project is the 1,100-mile Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline that can ship 33 billion cubic meters of gas annually.

The challenge for the U.S. will be to signal it has no objection to these projects moving ahead with the participation of the Taliban rulers in Kabul. Hopefully, Washington will consider that regional instability, which it did much to cause, will be attenuated by a project that may provide a benefit to the citizens ruled by an odious regime.

Pakistan has successfully arbitraged its location by supporting the U.S. in two wars in Afghanistan and reaping significant financial benefits in the process. It is a partner with China in the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the largest project in the Belt and Road Initiative. Now Pakistan may be Central Asia’s partner linking the region to maritime trade routes via the ports of Karachi and Gwadar, and Pakistan’s large internal market of over 200 million, 60% under the age of 30.

Pakistan’s population was over 213 million per the 2017 census, and may double to more than 400 million by 2050 according to the United Nations (UN). The country ranks 154 of 189 in the UN Human Development Index and must grow its economy to arrest a fall in the parlous quality of life.

U.S. support for regional trade and connectivity will make plain Washington’s support for Pakistan’s “National Security Policy 2022-2026.” The formal policy, the first in Pakistan’s history has a goal of “expanding economic resources such that Pakistan can simultaneously strengthen its traditional and non-traditional security,” the latter being “elements that impinge on a country’s economic health and citizen well-being.” The U.S. should welcome policy that seeks organic economic growth instead of the previous policy of supplementing government coffers  by means of Coalition Support Funds and transit fees for cargo bound to coalition forces in Afghanistan.

And the U.S. should encourage Pakistani trade outside the region also. In 2012, the U.S. and Pakistan concluded a Bilateral Investment Treaty  that has not been signed “due to reservations from Pakistani stakeholders” according to the U.S. International Trade Administration. The U.S. side should consider if there are any time-limited accommodations or incentives it can make to get Islamabad’s signature, but make clear that its patience is not endless.

Second, improve governance. Civilian governments have been ousted by the military and security service due to their inability to govern competently which gave the military the excuse to seize power. Though good governance requires setting realistic priorities that can advance the country into the future – the job of the legislators and the chief executive – it also requires doing better at the nuts-and-bolts of administering the state.

One path to better governance may be the establishment of an assistance mission based on the U.S.-Saudi Arabian Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation in operation from 1974 to 1999. The “joint commission” focused on the nuts and bolts of governance and public administration, like how to compile a consumer price index and take an accurate census, financial data collection, agriculture and water research, and accounting standards.

The U.S. isn’t the best candidate for this, given its checkered history with Pakistan, but Turkey might do the job as it is an upper-middle income Muslim country with a high human development index. In addition, the two countries have close relations as Turkey recognized Pakistan shortly after its 1947 independence and supported its bid to enter the United Nations, and the countries were joined by common opposition to Communism in the 1950s.

What the U.S. can do is lobby the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, and Islamic Development Bank to fund this long-term effort for improved governance that improve the country’s economic prospects and quality of life for long-suffering Pakistanis, improving regional stability.

Last, use intelligence sharing and security cooperation to test the relationship.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. and Pakistan were on the same battlefield but weren’t fighting the same war. U.S. officials have accused Pakistan of a “double game” but Islamabad was eyeing the “next game” – the conflict with India. The U.S. anticipated a formal end of hostilities after it defeated the Taliban and restructured Afghan society, but Pakistan knew even if the U.S. departed in victory, it would still have India to contend with and war in Afghanistan was just a way to position itself for the next phase of the struggle.

Pakistan could use the Taliban to build “strategic depth,” recruit fighters it could deploy against India in Kashmir, and be paid for helping Uncle Sam. The Pakistani generals were channeling Paul von Hindenburg who, when he recommended the annexation of the Baltic Provinces into the German Empire said, “I need them for the maneuvering of my left wing in the next war.”

Future security cooperation should be tailored to helping Pakistan counter the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and ensure it isn’t repurposed to the fight against India or destabilizing political currents in Afghanistan that Pakistan (actually its generals and spooks) opposes. The cooperation can take the usual shape of joint exercises, mil-to-mil exchanges, and intelligence sharing. As to the last, the U.S. should, first, again ask the Afghan Taliban to restrain the TTP.

If the Taliban fail to do so, the U.S. should provide targeting information to Pakistan’s security service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in order to pursue the TTP. The ISI, however, may consider any losses inflicted by the TTP, best known for the 2014 Army Public School massacre that saw the deaths of 132 schoolchildren, to be the price to pay to maintain some influence with the Afghan Taliban to secure “strategic depth” against India. Whatever the results, they will clarify  ISI’s intentions.

Though many in official Washington (and their tax-paying constituents) would prefer to “move on,” the region still requires U.S. attention as it is the home of two (soon three) nuclear weapon-capable states, and is an exporter of terrorism, so encouraging economic growth and promoting good governance are in America’s best interest.

But Washington should indemnify against political risk by focusing on things, like improved public administration, and not favored personalities, (such as former prime minister Benazir Bhutto or General (and former president) Pervez Musharraf both of whom are now hors de combat) whose utility can evaporate with a bad by-election, whereas the goodwill generated by serious business and people-to-people ties will last.

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters.

Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Featured Graphic: Credit: Bigstock