U.S.-Pakistan ties: Shift the focus, not the urgency
By Whitney Kassel
Monday, June 4, 2012
NATO’s plan to transition Afghanistan to Afghan security control by the end of 2014 offers an unexpected but potentially golden opportunity for the United States and its allies to rectify, or at least improve, their strategy towards Pakistan. In the midst of major budget cuts and a reorientation of our global footprint away from Iraq and Afghanistan, Western leaders — and particularly the U.S. Congress — are already tempted to reduce support to a country that can at best be considered a fair-weather friend. But over the next several years, the United States and NATO will be offered a chance to help Pakistan establish a functioning civil society without the complications of a Western-led counterinsurgency campaign across the border.
One benefit of reducing NATO’s military presence in Afghanistan is that it will make it easier for the U.S. and allied governments to support entities in Pakistan in addition to the Government of Pakistan itself, particularly non-governmental organizations. At the same time, it will make accepting that assistance more palatable to Pakistanis, many of whom believe NATO’s war has wrought violence and destruction upon their country. While foreign aid is far from guaranteed to achieve its intended results in Pakistan (or anywhere), effective assistance to Pakistan’s civil society, in combination with increased access to foreign markets and improvements in security, is the tool most likely to help Pakistanis slow the slide toward failed nuclear statehood. With a fast-growing population of disenfranchised and radicalized youth, that scenario represents a clear threat to Western interests as well as Pakistan itself.
Over the course of a ten-year war in Afghanistan, the United States and allied governments steadily increased assistance to the government of Pakistan, reducing it only after the death of Osama bin Laden and Pakistan’s indignant response. From the United States alone, direct overt aid and military reimbursements ballooned from $1.99 billion in 2002 to $4.29 billion in 2010. This number dropped to $2.37 billion in 2011 following a slow deterioration of relations that hit rock-bottom with the bin Laden raid on May 2 and has continued to slip over issues like NATO supply lines and cross-border incidents. The majority of this decrease has been made up of security assistance, and specifically Coalition Support Funds (CSF), which are used to reimburse Pakistan for military operations undertaken in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the United States was explicit in its statements of expectations for Pakistani cooperation, and confidence in Pakistan’s support for U.S. efforts ran high through early 2002. By early 2003, however, President Karzai was intimating that Pakistan might be behind some Taliban attacks inside Afghanistan, or at least that Pakistan harbored those who were conducting them. The U.S. press was regularly reporting such accusations – including cryptic quotes from anonymous U.S. officials — by mid-2004, and in July 2008, U.S. officials were all but confirming that Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) was supporting Taliban groups.
Thus, the majority of U.S. assistance was ultimately provided in spite of what many perceived as a contradiction between what Pakistan said (“we’re on your side in Afghanistan; your terrorists are our terrorists”), and what their actions seemed to convey (“we are primarily concerned with our terrorists and may go as far as supporting those who attack your soldiers if it will protect our interests in Kabul”). These misgivings were felt broadly inside the U.S. government, reaching as high as former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen who, after years of staunch support for Pakistan, famously called the Haqqani Network a “veritable arm of the ISI.” But Pakistan’s military cooperation along the border combined with critical assistance on counterterrorism made providing almost anything worth the cost, even while many knew the assistance relationship was deeply flawed.
This calculus must shift as NATO reduces its footprint in Afghanistan. The United States and NATO will still need the Government of Pakistan’s cooperation on certain issues, particularly counterterrorism, but also ensuring supplies reach the Special Operations and intelligence personnel remaining in Afghanistan after the bulk of the forces withdraw. Maintaining good relations with the military and civilian leadership is critical, because they are important regional actors and arbiters of access for personnel, official and otherwise. Improving the Pakistan military’s ability to control its territory will also remain important as long as insurgent groups – not to mention al-Qaeda – continue to use it as a safe haven. But overall the United States and its allies will need those entities less, making it easier to diversify who receives aid in the country. Certainly it will be a challenge to maintain these relationships while diverting assistance from the military and/or civilian government to other groups within Pakistan. But as long as we are careful to avoid supporting groups that the Government of Pakistan views as active threats (i.e., opposing political parties, Christian groups, or organizations associated with India), there is no reason the United States, its allies, and private aid organizations cannot provide assistance to groups outside the formal government structure and/or military. In fact, this is the United States’ foreign assistance model in many other countries around the world.
The United States and its allies will also have more leeway to negotiate access for personnel who can oversee implementation and increase transparency. For example, the Government of Pakistan has been circumspect about allowing U.S. and other foreign personnel to directly implement assistance programs and military training, with obvious effects on donors’ ability to verify how and where money is spent. Past efforts to use assistance as leverage to gain necessary access have been somewhat successful, but have floundered during periods of escalated tensions. If the United States and NATO are less dependent on Pakistan to support operations in Afghanistan, and if Afghanistan-related tensions are even partially diffused, they will be better positioned to require access and transparency in return for aid.
The future stability of Pakistan is reliant on a viable civilian leadership capable and willing to address the needs of its people. With a population of more than 180 million growing by 50 million over the next 15 years, the political elite’s inability to address a chronic lack of education and basic services is setting the conditions for major civil unrest accompanied by sectarian violence and instability. Current efforts to remedy these problems are underfunded and plagued by administrative and logistical problems, making the likelihood of effective progress slim without outside help. And in a country with rampant Islamic extremism and a fast-growing nuclear arsenal, the current trajectory makes Pakistan – already a dangerous place – even more ominous on the world stage.
Western nations’ ability to change Pakistan’s overall course is limited. There is, however, reason to be hopeful. There were an estimated 100,000 non-profit organizations operating in Pakistan as of 2009, a large percentage of which are locally-funded and could have greater impact with the help of foreign funding. In a less contentious future environment, the United States and its allies could provide assistance to some of these groups, as well as work through international organizations and encourage foreign investment and private donations. While the U.S. Congress and allied governments are justified in remembering Pakistan’s indiscretions over the course of the Afghan war, it is the responsibility of those nations’ leaders to win over lawmakers and their constituents on why an unstable Pakistan only means more turbulence for the region and beyond.
These non-profit organizations and other parts of Pakistani civil society, including its long-stifled but not non-existent private sector, may have a chance of improving conditions in the country, drawing on the support of the moderate majority. Pakistani and international charitable organizations are making a small dent in the massive problem set Pakistani confronts, particularly in the realm of education. But there is one fact that Western policy-makers are going to have to accept: many of these players hold Islamist and anti-Western views. As we learned in Egypt and other Arab Spring nations, we cannot expect entities to represent the people of a Muslim nation and not embody some Islamic values. This fact in itself does not make that group extremist or an enemy of the West.
Policy-makers should apply this new understanding to future engagement with Pakistan, while remaining aware of both the sensitivities of the Government of Pakistan and those of the U.S. Congress, who remain the stewards of U.S. tax-payer dollars. If the United States, NATO, and Pakistan can use the Afghan drawdown to reduce tensions and improve security, if only marginally, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has the potential to more closely resemble the peace-time relationships maintained with other nations in South Asia and elsewhere. This would encompass a balance of international assistance (both through government structures and non-profits, keeping in line with host nation priorities), free and balanced trade relationships, and help in developing a dynamic political and economic environment.
Conveniently, the drawdown in Afghanistan also makes it easier for many Pakistani groups to work with Western groups and governments. Many Pakistanis are quick to blame Pakistan’s domestic problems on the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s participation in it. Whether or not this is based in reality, those perceptions drive politics within Pakistan. As the United States and NATO reduce their military presence in the region, Pakistani officials will be less able to blame Western actions for their domestic problems. At the same time, the population will increasingly focus on day-to-day survival rather than regional matters, and non-profits will increasingly seek civilian assistance for their country. The West can meet those calls and gain much good will at a reasonable cost.
Based on its own national and strategic interests, Pakistan has been a tentative ally in the Afghan war. But the United States and its allies cannot write off the population of Pakistan for the shortcomings of its political system. In fact, to do so poses much greater long-term risks, the mitigation of which requires a nation moving towards economic viability whose problems are not spilling into the world around it. Failure to maintain international support to Pakistan means discarding a real chance for progress by walking away before the real work has begun.
Whitney Kassel is a former Assistant for Counterterrorism Policy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASD SO/LIC), and now serves as a director at The Arkin Group.