February 1, 2009

Allies, not Friends

The following article originally appeared in the February 2009 edition of Pragati-The Indian National Interest.

The US and Pakistan will need to recast their awkward relationship

NO DISCUSSION of Pakistan can be considered complete without an evaluation of the role of the United States. Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks—and before, as described in Steve Coll's meticulously-researched book, Ghost Wars—the United States has played the most influential role in the strategic balance in the north-west Subcontinent. The Obama administration has made it clear that it has no desire to relinquish that role on its watch, a position justified by the drastic deterioration in security in south and east Afghanistan, enabled by a concurrent stabilisation in Iraq, and implicitly endorsed by widespread political support in the United States.

Since 9/11, the bilateral US-Pakistan relationship has been mired in a web of mutual interdependency and suspicion. The first strand of this web, and most immediate from Washington's standpoint, concerns Afghanistan, where two aspects are of utmost importance.

The first is the need for reliable supplies to US and NATO troops fighting the Taliban there. Pakistan accounts for about 80 percent of supplies to Afghanistan. The route from Karachi to the Khyber remains a lifeline for the United States and its allies, and one whose importance has been reinforced by its intermittent suspensions in recent months. In this case, the United States' dependency was largely self-inflicted. "We could play this game a lot better if we were not dependent on Pakistan...for supplies," railed one former senior Bush administration official last November. Washington is belatedly remedying the situation by cobbling together an alternate route across Central Asia.

The other aspect of the Afghanistan muddle involves safe havens for jihadi militants in Quetta,the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and other parts of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), which enable the cross-border militancy that is largely responsible for the recent destabilisation in the border regions of Afghanistan. This problem lacks an evident solution that does not either involve radical changes in Islamabad or a mutually-acceptable settlement of the Durand Line. The latter is something that the Karzai government in Kabul is resisting tooth and nail.

The second strand concerns militancy and terrorism in Pakistan itself. Pakistan is heavily reliant on the United States for both military hardware and military aid. At the same time, recent setbacks in the FATA and areas such as Swat have further exposed both the Pakistani military's inability and unwillingness to seriously tackle militancy. Even if Afghanistan is secured and successfully democratised, prevailing Taliban successes in Pakistan would still provide sanctuaries for international terrorist groups, hardly satisfying the United States' long-term regional goals. As with the problem of cross-border militancy in Afghanistan, whole-hearted support from both Islamabad and Rawalpindi remains a necessary but insufficient pre-requisite for success.

The third strand concerns intelligence. The United States lacks adequate human intelligence resources in the tribal belt, and thus remains almost wholly dependent on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and other Pakistani agencies for local intelligence. The Pakistani government has delivered valuable intelligence at junctures where pressure on it has increased (all the while feigning umbrage) but this unhealthy dependency by the CIA has only enhanced its appeasement of the Pakistani intelligence apparatus despite continuing infractions.

The last strand concerns Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme. As a recent report by the New York Times' David Sanger suggests, the status of Pakistan's nuclear weapons is high on the list of items in President Obama's daily intelligence briefings. The threat of their seizure by terrorists in the event of state failure is as yet a highly exaggerated scenario, but a resumption of state-sanctioned proliferation, similar to the activities of AQ Khan's network, can no longer be considered implausible.

Despite Indian perceptions of gullible American officials being led around by the nose by their Pakistani counterparts, recent US policy towards Pakistan has been premised upon a clear set of priorities that has frequently put it at odds with New Delhi's viewpoint. US officials are fully aware of Pakistan's recent transgressions: its wholehearted support for the Taliban prior to 9/11 and a reluctance to relinquish its influence in Afghanistan since, the blatant proliferation of nuclear equipment and technology by the father of its nuclear bomb with some level of official sanction, the frequent blind eyes cast by its military and intelligence agencies at jihadi militancy within its borders, and its lack of strong democratic institutions.

Where Washington and Delhi differ is in how to respond to these transgressions. For India, laden with a history of enmity with its western neighbour since 1947, the default response is a hostile one, whether aggressive (as in 2001-2002) or passive-aggressive (as in 2008-2009). On the other hand, US policy is premised on a calculation that Pakistan's geography, demographics, military and nuclear arsenal mean that it cannot afford to deal with an overtly hostile Pakistan. This calculation has underlain US policy for so long that recent, sustained calls in the American media and by members of Congress to jettison the Pakistan military alliance have failed to gain much traction in several government agencies. At the same time, though, the US Central Command and the State Department have evidently been reconsidering the wisdom of remaining so vulnerable to Pakistani interests. The compromise strategy has been to postpone the day of reckoning and with it any combination of military aggression, state failure, nuclear weapons and international terrorism that may accompany it.

But there will inevitably come a moment where either Pakistan or the United States will be forced to recast their present, awkward relationship. Either the Pakistani government, including the army and the ISI, will realise that its game is up, and that it must relinquish its current strategy with regards to both Afghanistan and India in exchange for a more docile policy of regional co-operation. The second possibility is that one dramatic event—such as a terrorist attack on American soil with unambiguous Pakistani fingerprints—will force outright hostility between Islamabad and Washington. The United States continues to hope that the former will play out first. India believes—and should fear—that it will be the second.