Rethinking the US-Pakistan “Friendship”

After a long wait following a request from a joint session of the Pakistani parliament in May 2011, the Pakistani parliamentary committee looking to reset relations with the United States has come out with its recommendations.

The Pakistan National Assembly begins debate on this issue today and will likely continue discussions for the next three days.  No major surprises in the report’s recommendations. In a decision that seems guided by domestic politics, the report and its current “debate” in the parliament will not produce better understanding among the people of Pakistan of what their country’s policy is toward the United States or what it should be. Rather, it seems destined for a marginal adjustment of issues that have bedeviled this tenuous “friendship” for years.

Pakistan seeks to stop drone attacks, renegotiate the terms under which the US and coalition troops can be supplied through the currently closed Ground Lines of Communications (GLOC) into Afghanistan and simplify the means of reimbursing Pakistan for deploying its troops in the border region. It also draws red lines regarding boots on the ground in Pakistan (translation: no more Osama Bin Laden-type raids). Underlying all these demands is the desire for mutual respect and understanding, beginning with an apology or a reasonable facsimile thereof from the United States for the attacks on Pakistani border posts. But is there a Plan B? As parliament convenes next week to “debate” this issue, we shall see what Pakistan really wants and what is attainable.

All this comes at a time when the coalition is preparing for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan faces the prospect of an unruly Afghanistan with its negative spillover effects: millions of new refugees if fighting breaks out in Afghanistan, and the scary prospect for Pakistan of reverse sanctuary for Pakistani Taliban and other anti-state actors. The Air Lines of Communication that allowed the coalition to continue to prosecute the war, though at much higher costs, remained open. Not a word on those from Pakistan, or the United States. Codependency seems to be working, to some extent.

The parliamentary review is a good sign of putting a civilian face on decision making in Pakistan, though the script may well have come from the military, as many suspect. But the review is silent on a number of issues. There is no word on why the Pakistani authorities, both civil and military, were mum for nearly a decade on the drone issue; in fact they abetted and encouraged them, according to Wikileaks, among other sources. There is also no word on why the government of President General Pervez Musharraf failed to get written agreement  on the understandings reached with the United States after 9/11 and hastily accepted a reimbursement scheme to receive Coalition Support Funds that made the Pakistani military an army for hire, on a marginal cost basis.

The basic assumptions of this “deal” were faulty. They seem to have miscalculated the length of the expected conflict, its effects on the tribesmen of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (resulting from the birth of the Tehreek-e-Taliban of Pakistan), and the real costs of the ensuing fighting for the Pakistani military and civil population. Now, after 36,000 deaths, along with the degradation of infrastructure, arms, equipment, and morale, Pakistan is seeking just recompense. Too little, too late. Even if they get the enhanced prices in the final stages of the Afghan conflict, the amounts will not adequately cover the real costs of the war to Pakistan, estimated at more than $60 billion. Who is going to be held accountable inside Pakistan for these miscalculations?

Pakistan is also missing an opportunity to cancel the CSF, something it should have done years ago, and replace it with a written agreement on U.S. military aid rather than a cash-for-services program that apparently became a bad habit the military leadership could not shed, until the U.S. Congress and Administration made it a weapon to castigate and penalize Pakistan. Pakistan never had the capacity to track and account for the detailed expenditures that the United States needs to justify payments. Why continue down that rocky path?

What if the hard line positions captured by the committee’s laundry list of demands fail to get immediate satisfaction? Who then will be responsible for Pakistan’s next move? Will it be the civilian government, the military, or parliament, the shield behind which the government seeks to hide most of the time? Pakistan does not seem to have a viable Plan B, unless its recent thaw with India becomes a permanent shift. China is a friend but will not go to the wall in a fight against the United States. Indeed, it has sought to work with the United States in the Middle East and Central Asia. The United States does not have a Plan B either.

Ideally, to keep the relationship going, the U.S. would need to work out some kind of joint approach to drone targets, using the Border Coordination Centers perhaps as a means of insulating targeting decisions from others in the Pakistani chain of command, and thus avoiding the past embarrassment of leaked information to targets. So long as fighting continues in Afghanistan, it is difficult to imagine the United States giving up on drone attacks entirely. Pakistan will want greater controls on ground lines of communication. In addition to seeking additional payments to cover its real costs, it will need to regulate the traffic to avoid jams in its port and at the borders.

In other words, the transactional relationship becomes more tightly regulated. But the U.S. development approach to Pakistan also needs a huge shift, toward longer-term development projects and short-term efforts to win hearts and minds. Borrowing from the British playbook might be a good idea. Finally, and over time, the United States must end its primary focus on the military-to-military relationship, and make it subordinate to the political relationship with the government of Pakistan and a direct relationship with Pakistani civil society. That is what President Barack Obama promised in his December 2009 speech. Now he must deliver.

Don’t expect miraculous results from this review or its demands. Election fever is upon us in the United States. President Obama is in a difficult position on whether to accept wholesale the Pakistani demands. Whatever he concedes gives fodder to his opponents on the Hill and on the campaign trail. Inside Pakistan, an election may also be looming. The rising nationalistic forces of anti-Americanism will excoriate any politician who makes deals with the United States. Yet, a conflict between these two difficult allies is not what is needed in the volatile region at this time. It will take cool heads on both sides to emerge with reputations and egos unscathed. It is said that in Washington people eschew a Plan B since it very soon becomes Plan A. The same may be true of Pakistan. But both sides need that Plan B today, or they will risk the turmoil of the counterfactual. Time for a rapid rethink on both sides on how to move forward. Tardiness spells failure.

Shuja Nawaz is Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council and author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its army, and the wars within (Oxford 2008/9). This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy’s The AfPak Channel.