"The Evolving US-Pakistani Relationship"
Rachel Fairclough Zirkle
SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer 2010)
Note: This article was written before the recent massive flooding in Pakistan. Also, the article uses in-text citations; full references are provided at the end of the article.
“the use of Taliban terrorist training areas in Afghanistan by Pakistani-supported militants in Kashmir, as well as Pakistan’s covert effort to supply Pashtun troops from its tribal regions to the Taliban cause in Afghanistan – effectively forging and reinforcing Pashtun bonds across the border and consolidating the Taliban’s severe form of Islam throughout Pakistan’s frontier region” (Elias, 2007, par. 3).The creation of the Taliban sealed the current fate of the FATA of Pakistan even though at the time it was only a minimal concern. In January of 1997, a cable was sent from the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan that noted “for Pakistan, a Taliban-based government in Kabul would be as good as it can get in Afghanistan” and even though “the Taliban brand of Islam…might infect Pakistan,” it was “apparently a problem for another day” (Elias, 2007, par. 5). As seen by the current instability caused by the Taliban, which has led to the exporting of terrorism worldwide, it has now become that “other day.” After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Pakistan denounced support of the Taliban and agreed to assist the U.S. in the war against terrorism, leading to a waiver of former sanctions and resumed military assistance, culminating in the now existing partnership (Background Note: Pakistan, 2009).
On March 27, 2009, official remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama were released describing a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan (Obama, 2009). By opening his remarks with an ominous reminder that al-Qaeda is still active from its safe haven in Pakistan and still has hopes for reclaiming Afghanistan, Obama fuses Afghanistan and Pakistan into a paired endeavor that demands U.S. support (Obama, 2009). While the President calls for increased resources in civilian and military efforts to provide training, funding, and support in both countries, it is clear that Afghanistan is viewed as a problem that needs fixing and Pakistan is to be portrayed as a partner that needs strengthening. Obama encourages this perspective through rhetoric such as, “Pakistan needs our help in going after al-Qaeda” as well as by describing the annual five year financial aid package of 1.5 billion dollars as a way to make Pakistan “a stronger partner in destroying these [terrorist] safe havens” (emphasis added; Obama, 2009, par. 16, 20). This direct support to the people of Pakistan is designed to strengthen their democracy, a tactical move by the U.S. to stabilize Pakistan and achieve success in Afghanistan through partnership.
Weaknesses of the Current Policy
While partnership is meant to be positive, sometimes the relationship is more parasitic. Several weaknesses that plague the current policy include its lack of support, funding, reliability, and effectiveness, as well as the presence of different agendas. Perhaps the largest weakness of this policy is the Pakistani people’s own rejection of it. A survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (a U.S. government financed group), revealed in September 2009 that “more Pakistanis – an overwhelming majority – [continue] to reject the United States as a partner to fight militancy in their country” (Perlez, 2009, par. 1). Similarly, “80 percent of the respondents said they were opposed to the United States assistance in Pakistan’s fight against terrorism” (Perlez, 2009, par. 10). This poll highlights the anti-American attitude that is held by the majority of Pakistani citizens. Partnering with the U.S. has not boded well for Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zaradi, who received only a 25% approval rating in the survey (Perlez, 2009). In another survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2009, they found that “64% of the public regards the U.S. as an enemy, while only 9% describe it as a partner” (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009, par. 3).
The dislike of the Pakistani people for the U.S. is not mitigated by the aid Washington proudly offered Pakistan in its new strategy remarks at the end of March 2009. A sum of 1.5 billion dollars annually for five years was received with disdain by Pakistani politicians and news media as being far too little (Perlez, 2009). Pakistanis vehemently feel the sympathy sum should be larger, especially when the price they have paid for helping the U.S. has accumulated in 1,500 dead soldiers, thousands of wounded soldiers, and an unnumbered amount of killed and wounded civilians (Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, 2009). In comparison to the Pakistani soldier total casualties, the U.S. Department of Defense shows the total of U.S. military casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom - as of March 29, 2010 - as 942; this number is comprised of all U.S. military casualties in and around Afghanistan, including casualties in Pakistan and Uzbekistan (OEF Casualty Status, 2010). The discrepancy in casualties does little for lessening the Pakistani contempt for American meddling.
Furthermore, the estranged relations between the Taliban and Pakistani government after 9/11 have led to an influx of suicide bombings in Pakistan, which fuels the lack of support for U.S. partnership. Qari Abdullah, a Taliban fighter in Pakistan, describes the situation to an interviewer as, “‘We never used to fight against Pakistan, because we thought the Army were Muslims…But when they [the Pakistani Army] started bombing us, we had to do jihad against them’” (Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, 2009, par. 50). When this same interviewer visited a wounded Pakistani Army soldier, she asked him why there was such hatred between the Taliban and the Army. The wounded soldier’s response pinpointed the “American policies we adopted; that’s why the Taliban are angry at the Army. That’s why we are suffering” (Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, 2009, par. 34). The responses seem to incur the feeling that partnering with the Americans has somehow detracted from the Muslim nature and authority of Pakistan, consequentially attracting terrorist activity toward the state.
An example of an American policy that has been adopted in Pakistan that incites further lack of support is Pakistan’s assistance on missile attacks using American drone aircraft. As reported in April 2009, there were over “30 U.S. missile strikes in the tribal areas [of Pakistan] in the last year” (Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, 2009, par. 28). Then, almost a year later in February 2010, the missile strikes to Pakistan’s tribal regions were reported to have increased to “55 times [over the] last year” (Is Barack Obama Tough Enough, 2010, par. 3). The intensified number of attacks has quantitatively shown an increased cooperation with U.S. forces; Pakistani officials provide intelligence for militant targets and allow U.S. drones in Pakistani territory. The cooperation is not necessarily seen as positive though. A survey by the International Republican Institute reports the lack of support for the American policy on the part of Pakistanis; “76 percent of the respondents were opposed to Pakistan partnering with the United States on missile attacks against extremists by American drone aircraft” (Perlez, 2009, par. 11). The civilian casualties that accompany a missile strike create a stark link to Pakistani rejection of American tactics such as drone strikes. It also does not help that the U.S. is specifically seeking help to track down certain al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban leaders who are less of a priority for the Pakistanis; differing agendas in drone strikes exacerbates Pakistani levels of partnership support (Pakistan's Military Rejects US Aid Bill, 2009).
While some basic principles, like obtaining state security, are the same between the U.S. and Pakistan, on many issues the countries are not on the same page. Nothing is simple, even the exchange of money. Many people in Pakistan see the financial aid as “a sign of growing – and unwanted – U.S. influence” (Pakistan's Military Rejects US Aid Bill, 2009, par. 14). Indeed, the funds have been described by Obama himself as a means to strengthen democracy in Pakistan, which is not a top priority for people within the Pakistan (Obama, 2009). Critics in Pakistan therefore quickly see the details of the partnership as an attempt to safeguard American interests instead of representing equal efforts to eradicate a problem among partners.
Specifically, the aid to Pakistan is for civilian purposes, destined to build roads, schools, and hospitals in an effort to strengthen the government of Pakistan. This plays to U.S. desires to create a strong, stable partner in the government of Pakistan that will help accomplish U.S. national goals such as defeating terrorism. Yet Pakistan is a country that is subject to de facto military rule – despite what the U.S. wishes – and whether attempting to downplay the military’s role in governance will be a strategy that produces stability in the Pakistani government remains uncertain. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that 86 percent of the Pakistani people feel the military is a good influence on the country, while favorable views of President Zardari have dropped to 32 percent (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009). This poll represents the difficulties that face the U.S. as it tries to shift the spot light to governmental power. Some analysts even credit a healthy portion of the rejectionism by the public to the Pakistani Army, saying it is their way of “sending a message to the Pakistani and U.S. governments about the limits of civilian control in a country that has been subject to military rule” for about half its history (Pakistan's Military Rejects US Aid Bill, 2009, par. 6).
Akin to the Pakistani rejection of U.S. partnership, is the American citizens’ own waning support for the war in Afghanistan. Try as the Obama administration might, the majority of Americans no longer see the Afghanistan war worth fighting. In a time of economic crisis at home, few Americans are interested in injecting more capital and resources overseas. In a Gallup Poll taken by USA Today, 89 percent of the U.S. felt it was right to send military forces to Afghanistan in 2001; in 2009 this percentage had dropped to 52 percent, with 42 percent of Americans feeling that the war was a mistake (Brook, 2009). As poverty increases along with the unemployment rate in the U.S. homeland, fewer Americans feel inclined to give away billions of dollars to eradicate poverty and shore up democracy elsewhere.
Lack of confidence in Pakistan’s reliability as an ally is another probable weakness of the partnership policy. As previously mentioned, the Taliban is largely Pakistan’s own Frankenstein. Pakistani support of the Taliban is well documented, including examples such as giving “six million dollars in additional aid to the Taliban” and publicizing a desire expressed by multiple officials and journalists to give up the “‘pretense of supporting the U.N. effort’” to become “unabashedly pro-Taliban” (Elias, 2007, par. 66). Pakistan was one of just a few countries that officially recognized the Taliban as a ruling body in Afghanistan. Only after the events of 9/11, accompanied by international pressure, did Pakistan denounce the Taliban and agree to assist the U.S.
The shift in Pakistani loyalties begs for understanding the motives behind the change. While most were surely sympathetic after the infamous terrorist attacks against the U.S., prevailing anti-American feelings in Pakistan rule out a shift out of sheer sympathy. Likewise, while Obama continues to declare that the war on terrorism is an international problem, the close ties Pakistan has had to supporting terrorist bases in Afghanistan suggests a lax resolve to that cause (Elias, 2007). What does incite further scrutiny, however, is the regional turmoil that has resulted with the recent intensified progress of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. While Pakistan also has nuclear capabilities, the sanctions imposed by the U.S. in consequence of the pursuit of that arsenal have drastically crippled the Pakistan conventional forces (Background Note: Pakistan, 2009). In order to become militarily strong once more, Pakistan needed to get rid of the sanctions that barricaded its growth and production. Holding the chip of the ISI – a necessary component to accomplishing U.S. goals regarding Afghanistan and terrorism – Pakistan has won its spot at the negotiating table as Afghanistan’s fate is determined (Is Barack Obama Tough Enough, 2010). Strategically, this is important for Pakistan to maintain a step ahead of other regional rivals, such as India and Iran.
These facts implicate that Pakistan most likely shifted alliances to the U.S. to shore up military power and gain future protection through the U.S. Once achieving their own agenda, could their loyalties change? The majority anti-American attitude of Pakistan presents this as a significant possibility, especially if an alternative alliance, such as with China, presented itself. A challenge facing all partnerships is the different costs and the different benefits for each partner. The partnership breaks down the more the differences are magnified, questioning the reliability of the bond in the first place.
Another weakness of the current policy is lack of across-the-board effectiveness. For example, a U.S. goal was to be able to end the illicit narcotic production in Afghanistan that funds the Taliban through the help of Pakistan as a partner. However, the drug trade continues to flourish. As the producer of 90 percent of the world’s opium, an estimated 1.4 million households in Afghanistan are supported in some form by the opium trade (Nordland, 2010). While thousands of Afghans stake their living on the poppy harvest, it is the Taliban that really gains from the opium trade; a recent United Nations study estimated “the insurgents had earned as much as 600 million dollars in taxes from farmers and traffickers just from 2005 to 2008” (Nordland, 2010, par. 25). Therefore, the Afghan people’s livelihood continues to be connected to the Taliban in such a way that to destroy the drug trade would be to lose the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
It is interesting to note then that Pakistani support in gathering up Taliban officials through raids and missile strikes has not dented the narcotic issue in Afghanistan. This shows that there are some things the partnership cannot alter. When there are no benefits for a major issue such as the drug trade in Afghanistan, the partnership with Pakistan appears to be ineffective. The situation also reveals the limitations of Pakistan’s ability to rebuild Afghanistan into a stable state, which is arguably equally as important as taking down the bad guys. An “opinion polls show that ordinary Afghans still deeply resent [Pakistan’s] interventions,” which confirms that Pakistan does not hold any special sway over Afghan hearts and minds when it comes to rebuilding (Tickets to the endgame, 2010, par.10). Pakistani meddling, bound to American intervention, leaves many ordinary Afghans suspicious. As the U.S. prepares to lessen its presence in Afghanistan, it needs Pakistan to play a larger role in stabilising the country and rebuilding it. Pakistan’s minimal role in these efforts challenges the effectiveness of the partnership.
Strengths of the Current Policy
Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “I destroy my enemy when I make him my friend.” Recent experience has shown fundamentally-unilateral military invasion has made a lot of American enemies; Obama has sought to turn such enemies into friends through engagement. Global confidence in the image of the U.S. and its leadership has improved with Obama’s election, but with it comes expectations for greater multilateralism and a more globally considerate U.S. foreign policy (Kohut, 2009). Partnering with Pakistan has offered a way to accomplish U.S. national security goals such as defeating terrorism and stabilizing the area, soften the global image of the U.S., and make an ally in one of the most anti-American regions in the world. The partnership realizes these initiatives in a way that a unilateral approach never could.
A major strength of the current policy is that it is tailored to the primary U.S. national interests in the Afghani conflict. Stephen Biddle, the top defense policy expert for the Council on Foreign Relations, offers that the primary national interests in this conflict are that “Afghanistan never again become[s] a haven for terrorism against the United States, and that chaos in Afghanistan [does] not destabilize its neighbors, especially Pakistan” (Biddle, 2009, par. 8). Biddle acknowledges that the U.S. cannot sweep the world of every possible safe haven, but Pakistan represents more than just an average safe haven, granting it status as a critical national interest. Besides sharing a fluid border with Afghanistan and supporting the Taliban in the past, Pakistan also has “a population of 173 million (five times Afghanistan’s), a GDP of more than $160 billion (more than ten times Afghanistan’s), and a functional nuclear arsenal” (Biddle, 2009, par. 12). Biddle further argues that Pakistan becoming a state-sanctuary for al-Qaeda through governmental collapse is the likeliest scenario of al-Qaeda becoming nuclear. In Biddle’s opinion, “ the single greatest U.S. interest in Afghanistan [is] to prevent it from aggravating Pakistan’s internal problems,” which could lead to a potential state-sanctuary for al-Qaeda that is considerably more dangerous than Afghanistan (Biddle, 2009, par. 16). These reasons highlight Pakistan as an essential partner to have and keep close versus other countries in the region that could potentially have been a U.S. partner instead.
While other tactics besides partnership could have been undertaken to try and stabilize Pakistan, the dislike of all things American in Pakistan severely limits what is effectively feasible. For example, in a Pew Research Center poll, Pakistanis expressed a dislike of U.S. drone strikes because they felt like they were killing too many civilians and were planned without the consent of Pakistani government (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009). To address these issues, drone strikes could be scaled back, but that would require more soldier involvement and interventions. Increased interventions would surely increase soldier casualties and anti-American hatred. However, if the U.S. confirms a healthy partnership with Pakistan, Pakistani government is able to be more involved, which would allow increased intelligence for more accurate targets and hopefully assuage civilian suspicions. The idea of working with instead of impeding upon holds sway with Pakistani civilians; the Pew Research poll also found that there is an “openness to improving relations with the U.S. and considerable support for the idea of working with it to combat terrorism” (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009, par. 4). Feelings that relations between the two nations could improve were reflected by a margin of 53 to 29 percent of Pakistanis (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009).
Beyond trying to create stability in a way that is acceptable to the people, partnering with Pakistan is a huge strength, for it offers the US access to the intelligence assets of the ISI. The U.S. knows, from previous contact with the ISI in situations such as the Soviet-Afghan war, that they hold incredible amounts of information. As stated by a former CIA official, “‘if you want to do anything in the region, you have to have the ISI on your side. These guys speak the languages, wear the clothes, and walk the streets…No one knows Afghanistan like the ISI’” (West, 2001, par. 22). What the U.S. lacks in regional credibility and ability to track insurgents in the barren mountains, the ISI has. Pakistan is said to have better links and access to the Taliban than any other source in the world (West, 2001).
Despite qualms about the partnership, there is tangible evidence that Pakistani assistance equals progress. Such progress has come in form of “821 army posts on the Afghan-Pakistan border, as opposed to just 112 manned by NATO and Afghan forces on the other side”( O'Hanlon, 2010, par. 5). Other steps forward include Pakistan increasing its brigade size operations to 209 (doubling operations from the previous year) and cutting down on lost convoy shipments. Because of Pakistani improved security, NATO convoys now lose only about 0.1 percent of goods shipped across Pakistan (O'Hanlon, 2010). Important personnel in the al-Qaeda/Taliban regime have also been caught at the beginning of 2010 thanks to Pakistani officials; these arrests include Afghan Taliban’s military chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and several of the Taliban’s ‘shadow governors’ operating in Pakistan (O'Hanlon, 2010). Leon Panetta, the CIA director, announced that increased cooperation from Pakistan has made it so “drone strikes along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are ‘seriously disrupting al-Qaeda’” (O'Hanlon, 2010, par. 2). Because of increased intelligence sharing for drone strikes on militant targets, enemies like Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud have been eliminated and both sides have benefitted (Pakistan's Military Rejects US Aid Bill, 2009).
While Pakistani motives for the partnership may lack complete transparency, the country’s current regional position and mounting casualties speak to its commitment. While not knowing Pakistan’s true motives is certainly a downside, understanding their priorities and offering incentives that play to their concerns can promote progress. The more Pakistan believes it is being encircled by regional enemies and rivals, the greater their support for the U.S. partnership has become. This encirclement is created by “a rising India to the east, uncertain relations with Iran to the west, and growing Indian influence in Afghanistan to the north-west” (Tickets to the endgame, 2010, par. 3). Iran’s progress in nuclear weaponry has most likely further sealed the partnership for both the U.S. and Pakistan, for both seek stability and power in a troubled region. Pakistani and Indian relations, which sometimes appears a nuclear trigger just waiting to be pulled, is a relationship of world significance.
The Pew Research poll reports that “more Pakistanis judge India as a very serious threat to the nation (69%) than regard the Taliban (57%) or al-Qaeda (41%) as very serious threats” and a margin of 54 to 4 percent feel the U.S. favors India over Pakistan (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009). This feeling gains credence when similar polls indicate that India is one of seven countries where the majority feels that the U.S. takes into consideration their country’s interests when making foreign policy. India was also one of two countries in the poll that felt the U.S. impact is positive (Kohut, 2009). These dynamics have not gone unheard among officials in Pakistan: the country has had much to gain by allying with the U.S., primarily a seat at the negotiating table for Afghanistan. This seat is particularly prized because of Pakistani fears that what is happening in Afghanistan is due to “Indian conspiracies” that will eventually trap them “between their longtime nemesis on one side and an Indian puppet on the other” (O'Hanlon, 2010, par. 12).
Therefore, despite the costs, partnership has provided Pakistan a chance to “control policy towards India and Afghanistan” with the help of the U.S. after proving their worth by capturing critical U.S. targets (Rashid, 2010, par. 16). Because of Pakistan’s sway with Taliban senior leadership and the international community’s desire to negotiate with that leadership, Pakistan has gained a “major voice in the internal Afghan negotiations” (Kagan & Kagan, 2010, par. 4). While U.S. connections to India could drive Pakistan to renounce all U.S. affiliations, history is showing that U.S. support can be a means to gaining regional power. Without sincere Pakistani commitment to rein in Afghanistan, other countries such as India, Iran, Russia, and the Central Asian republics could easily step in and set up their own “Afghan proxies to oppose the Afghan Taliban” (Rashid, 2010, par. 23). Crossing Pakistan out of the equation would leave their government in a more precarious and unstable position than it currently is. Approached in these terms, the cost/benefit analysis to support the disliked-U.S. partnership clearly trumps the loss of position and power within the region that would result from rejecting it. The U.S. can therefore be assured of Pakistan’s long-term commitment as that nation grasps for increased strength among looming regional powers.
Pakistan does not stand alone in hoping to benefit regionally from the partnership. As previously mentioned, the U.S. has much to gain in softening its image in the global kaleidoscope through multilateral efforts. Especially in the Middle East, friendship for the U.S. is hard to come by. But nudging its way into the region through Pakistan is not all the U.S. has to gain by means of a Pakistani partnership. It may seem to be a stretch, but it would be foolish to discount the ties Pakistan has to China and what implications that could have for the United States.
During the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, Pakistan and China formed an initially-feared axis that deflated when China failed to actually provide substantial assistance to Pakistan. The axis later came to be scoffed at as the real “paper tiger” (India's First Bomb: 1967-1974, 2001, par. 15). However, relics of history aside, Pakistanis continue to express positive opinions about China – 84 percent view China favorably and 80 percent consider China as a partner (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009). These results come from the same Pew Research poll that found only 9 percent of Pakistanis consider the U.S. as a partner. Were the Pakistani government to fall, would the fear of a Chinese proxy stepping in be substantial enough to warrant U.S. intervention?
While the main concern is reserved for an extremist group take-over or terrorist confiscation of Pakistani nukes in the event the Pakistani government crumbled, Chinese involvement in the wake of a government collapse cannot be ruled out. To deal with these concerns, there is an American contingency plan to confiscate nuclear weapons in Pakistan should the government collapse, which solves the primary terrorist concern; partnering with Pakistan and pumping money through the government to create a stable democracy has become a way to solve the second. As relations and competition with China increase in intensity, the U.S. continues to seek creative ways to gain Chinese cooperation or gain additional allies to maintain the power balance (especially in strategic regions like the Middle East). Partnering with Pakistan, therefore, is a strength in that it serves as a way to create stability not only for Pakistan, but also for the United States, in a region of the world where security and control is all too questionable.
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Full Citation for This Article: Zirkle, Rachel Fairclough (2010) "The Evolving US-Pakistani Relationship," SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleZirklePakistan.html, accessed [give access date].
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