Why the U.S. Still Needs Pakistan

Pakistan US Trade

When Pakistan’s first military ruler Field Marshal Mohammed Ayub Khan soured on the relationship with the United States, he released his memoirs in 1967 entitled “Friends not Masters” to describe what Pakistan sought in this relationship. Two years later and in the middle of celebrating his “Decade of Development,” he was forced out of office by street power, the victim of his own hubris.

Now is not the time to pitch the U.S.-Pakistan relationship into the dust bin.

The killing of Osama Bin Laden deep in the heart of Pakistan by a Navy Seal team has exposed the deep mistrust that bedevils the relationship between the United States and Pakistan today. Many in Pakistan will be reviving the Ayub Khan message. The Pakistani military especially was stung that the U.S. action took place without any approval by the local army and air force. It has also been hurt by public criticism that it was unable to protect Pakistan’s borders against a blatant military incursion.

Its first object of blame will be the United States. If the hard-liners win the internal debate in army headquarters in Rawalpindi, another split may be in the works sooner rather than later. The civilian government has ceded major policymaking on security issues to the military: Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani decamped to Paris right after the raid. This week, President Asif Ali Zardari takes off for Russia. Even the army chief reportedly complained of the lack of direction from the government on counter-terrorism efforts inside the country. Some in the U.S. Congress, meanwhile, are threatening to cut off aid to Pakistan.

Both countries’ responses would be disastrous. The U.S. would lose primary access via Pakistan for its supplies to fight the war in Afghanistan at a critical stage in that conflict. The Pakistanis would lose the $2 billion to $3 billion of aid, including cash from the Coalition Support Funds that the U.S. provides Pakistan’s military to cover the costs of its operations in the western half of the country.

It is not clear where Pakistan would find the money to finance the war against terrorism and the Pakistani Taliban. Its only option may be further deficit spending that would plunge it deeper into an economic hole, and fuel inflation and public unrest. The aid cut-off would extend to economic assistance as well, designed to build ties with the Pakistani people. If that aid ends, the people of Pakistan, who stand to benefit most from economic development, will feel the United States has left them in the lurch yet again.

The spy-versus-spy games reminiscent of MAD magazine also continue to fuel recriminations in this dysfunctional alliance. The leaking of the name of the C.I.A. station chief in Pakistan, who was involved in planning the Abbottabad raid, raises the ante yet again.

Yet something must be done to restore the damaged relationship, especially prior to the resumption of the ”strategic dialogue” that Secretary Hilary Clinton was preparing to attend in Islamabad in the next few weeks. So why not agree on the broad objectives for the region, and then identify the issues on which the United States and Pakistan’s interests diverge and see how both sides can live with those differences.

Both countries will need to slowly rebuild trust in each other. Pakistan will need to reorder its priorities to eliminate terrorists inside its boundaries, local and foreign, and end any ambiguities involving its regional interests and the use of proxies in neighboring countries. It has suffered much from the blowback of past adventures involving non-state actors who have gone rogue or become anti-state. The Coalition Support Funds should be replaced with a written agreement on what Pakistan needs and what the United States can realistically supply.

It took some effort to rebuild the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in the past few years. Now is not the time to pitch it in the dustbin.

Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. This essay is part of the New York Times "Room for Debate" on "Should the U.S. Cut Off Aid to Pakistan?," and includes pieces by Karl F. Inderfurth, Seth G. Jones, George Perkovich, Parag Khanna, Aqil Shah, Reza Nasim Jan, and Lisa Curtis.