Stilling a Stormy Relationship

With the word “sorry,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently opened the door for the United States to continue to supply its forces in Afghanistan through Pakistan.  Getting to this word took months of effort on both sides but “sorry” may not be enough to keep the relationship on an even keel for too long. It will need a sustained effort on both sides. The auguries are not good.

Many factors militate against a stable relationship. A lack of clearly defined aims on both sides works against a lasting solution to the mistrust that pervades the US-Pakistan relationship. Moreover, there does not appear to be a center of gravity to decision making in either side to lead the building of a lasting relationship. The United States seeks a compliant ally that will help an orderly exit from Afghanistan in the waning days of a difficult conflict, and help guarantee peace and stability after the US and coalition forces leave. Its aims inside Pakistan are unclear, as is the  role it wishes Pakistan to play on Afghanistan. Attack the Afghan Taliban or bring them to the table? The US military is focused on getting the Pakistanis to attack the Haqqani Network, for example, while the Department of State is trying to get them to the negotiating table.

Pakistan does not appear to have a clear end goal either.  It has a persistent paranoia built on an anti-American historical narrative that influences its leadership and civil society. In their view, the United States is a fickle friend and mercurial master. It comes and goes from the region. And now even its longer term presence in Afghanistan is suspect, since those troops are believed by some to have been designated to take out Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Moreover, the United States is seen cozying up to India, Pakistan’s traditional rival to the east, and giving it a greater role in Afghanistan.

Now, that the supply routes to Afghanistan are opening up, and a separate agreement is likely to emerge on compensating Pakistan for its infrastructure damage over the past decade or so, a number of fault lines remain. What will it take to restore balance to this relationship?

First, Pakistan needs to clarify its positive role in the Afghan reconciliation rather than rely on hedging its support while continuing to allow Afghan Taliban to use its territory to attack Afghanistan and coalition forces there. Is its military still betting on a Pakhtun alliance that includes the Haqqani Network to run Afghanistan in the future?  North Waziristan, the Haqqani base in Pakistan, has become a magnet for not only Afghan Taliban but also local Pakistani Taliban as well as Punjabi militants who pose a real threat to Pakistan’s own stability.

Pakistan could either persuade the Haqqanis to exit North Waziristan and take their war into Afghanistan proper. Or, it can risk a long-promised military offensive that may end up consolidating all the insurgents in that territory, and opening a new front that may extend into the Punjab in the Pakistani hinterland.  Pakistan also needs to reach out to non-Pakhtun elements in Afghanistan and help all Afghans create a stable polity and economy after the coalition ceases its major operations in 2014. Otherwise, it risks fomenting fissures inside Afghanistan and creating a reverse sanctuary for its own insurgents on the Afghan side of the border. Without a friendly government in Kabul, it faces the prospect of continued insurgent attacks from across the Durand Line.

For its part, the United States needs to recognize that its unfettered use of drones to attack targets inside Pakistan has knock-on effects inside Pakistan that lead to widespread fear and hatred. Persistent use of drone techno logy has elevated an instrument of war to virtual policy status in the United States. This may be the time to reopen discussions on practicable ways of involving senior Pakistani military officers based in border coordination centers in targeting decisions and rebuilding the intelligence cooperation that netted many al-Qaeda leaders in the past.

The United States must also find better and faster ways of getting its promised Kerry-Lugar-Berman development assistance into the hands of project planners at the provincial level inside Pakistan. In order to do this it will need to invest in helping build Pakistan’s intellectual and physical infrastructure, and restore access to energy while enhancing Pakistani textile exports to the United States. There is no silver bullet remedy for Pakistan’s problems. The United States must work with Pakistan on a broad front but in a more coordinated manner than before.

Internally, apart from a divided and dysfunctional polity, with the civil, military, and judiciary authorities sniping at each other, Pakistan faces a serious economic challenge. Rampant domestic borrowing, a shattered energy sector, inflation, and a low tax-to-GDP ratio have put it in an economic hole. It will need help from the United States and other allies to garner financial assistance from international financial institutions. Most important, it will need to muster the political will and courage to change the structure of its rentier state economy. Until Pakistan takes the actions necessary to fix its economy, international aid will be hard to get. Pakistan’s age-old game is based on the assumption that it is too important to be allowed to fail, so the United States and others will come to its assistance, despite its lack of action on its own behalf. This approach has been nurtured by the US giving in to Pakistani demands in the past and therefore is likely to persist.

Pakistan, like the United States, is in election mode, as the government and other political parties position themselves for a fresh mandate perhaps in early 2013. So, expect no bold decisions. It will take hard work and persistence to mend the misalliance between the United States and Pakistan. How both countries address the issues that constantly threaten their relationship will determine the success or failure of the current rapprochement. Another crisis may well be lurking around the corner.

Shuja Nawaz is the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. 

This piece was originally published on Foreign Policy.