Pakistan’s Woes

ROBERT M. HATHAWAY — Pakistan and the United States have fostered a shallow alliance in Afghanistan. Leaders on both sides are troubled by its effects. 

During and after the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Pakistani ISI helped to create the Mujahadeen and Taliban, influenced by the United States. During both periods — the 1980s and the years following 9/11 — how did Islamabad’s goals differ from Washington’s?

This question requires two different answers. The US-Pakistan partnership during the Afghan War in the 1980s was a marriage of convenience. Pakistan feared the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, especially along their border. What the United States failed to fully appreciate at the time was that other than the shared anxiety about the presence of Soviet troops, the US and Pakistan did not have many interests in common. This failure to appreciate the fact that the two countries had very different agendas and security anxieties led analysts in Washington to pay insufficient attention to the tools that they and the Pakistanis were using to fight the Soviet Union. Here I am talking about the various Mujahadeen groups during the conflict, many of whom did not care very much about so-called “US values,” certainly did not care about democracy, did not care about many of the things that in resisting Soviet aggression Washington thought it was defending against.

The US ended up funding and arming groups that to one extent or another — and it varied according to the group — were proxies for a Pakistani agenda with which it had very little sympathy. The Afghan conflict in the 1980s is a perfect example of Washington’s shortsighted preoccupation with resisting Soviet aggression, a focus that led us to support people who not many years later came back to become a serious problem. American leaders failed to appreciate the shallowness of the alliance between themselves and their counterparts in Islamabad.

Moving into the period beginning in the hours following the September 11, 2001, attacks, it is well-documented that the US presented President Pervez Musharraf with an ultimatum. There is some dispute as to what exactly Richard Armitage told the Pakistanis. Musharraf has claimed that Armitage threatened if Pakistan failed to support the US against the Taliban and al Qaeda, American warplanes would bomb Pakistan back to the stone age. I have spoken directly with Armitage about this particular quote and he denies it. Regardless of the exact nature of the threat, there is not really any question that the US told Musharraf that if he did not fully cooperate in the days, weeks, and months after 9/11, Pakistan would pay a very heavy price.

Once again Musharraf, albeit reluctantly, turned against the groups — including the Taliban — that he had supported prior to 9/11, and set the stage for another shallow, one-dimensional relationship. This time, more so than during the 1980s, the Pakistanis were playing from the very beginning a “double game.” The absence of a common purpose and shared interest has worked against the establishment of a close and mutually profitable US-Pakistan relationship for the eleven years since 9/11.

In the interview with Stephen Biddle, he mentioned that one unintended effect of NATO war efforts in Afghanistan was the creation of non-Al Qaeda Islamist among whose objectives was the overthrow of the Pakistani government. Although Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan is often discussed, how has the Afghan War created new domestic concerns for Islamabad?

There is no question that there has been unfavorable blowback for Pakistan — for successive Pakistani governments and for the Pakistani people — because of Musharraf’s agreement in the hours after 9/11 to side with the United States against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Most people in Pakistan today would argue that the war in Afghanistan was never their war, but that they have suffered far more than the United States or any other country — save Afghanistan itself — because of the conflict. Islamabad’s alliance with Washington — even though in many respects it was superficial — was controversial from the very beginning, and has become even more divisive inside Pakistan.

There is almost no support in Pakistan today for Pakistani cooperation with US and NATO war efforts. As a consequence, growing numbers of Pakistanis have become radicalized and have turned against their own government. Islamabad today faces a very serious insurgency within Pakistan that may or may not have arisen absent 9/11, but certainly has grown dramatically because of Pakistan’s relationship with the war in Afghanistan. The insurgents are to some extent based in Afghanistan, but the real threat is now based in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and increasingly in the country’s settled areas (including the major cities). There is no place anywhere in Pakistan where government forces, security personnel, or government officials can be absolutely safe and secure. This is a tremendous change from the situation eleven years ago, and is certainly related to the Afghan War.

There is a caveat. A succession of Pakistani governments have misgoverned the country over a period of many decades. Had Pakistan been governed well, the existing insurgency would not be of such great significance. It is wrong to say that governing authorities today are under siege by many of their own countrymen exclusively because of the conflict in Afghanistan. This and previous governments bear much of the responsibility for the widespread dissatisfaction that fuels the insurgency today.

Pakistan’s governmental history has been defined by fluctuations between civilian and military governments. How can US and Afghan politicians negotiate with a country whose leadership is often uncertain?

Many countries around the world with whom the United States deals have governments whose authority is uncertain. Pakistan does not represent a unique case.

This question implies that the governments in Afghanistan and the United States have a common interest in negotiating with Pakistan. Increasingly what is striking for many analysts like myself is the divergence of interests and opinions between Kabul and Washington. If I may refine the question to ask instead “how can Washington negotiate with Islamabad?” the short answer is “it has to.” There are no other options but to try to make the relationship moderately workable. Pakistan is too important to the achievement of American interests for US policymakers to simply walk away from the table. Pakistan is in a position to help Washington achieve important purposes and objectives. Similarly a hostile Pakistan could easily thwart these goals.

Among hundreds of other reasons to pay attention to Pakistan, the fact that it is due to replace the United Kingdom as the world’s fifth largest nuclear weapons state is crucial. America needs to learn to work with the government in Islamabad, although it is not necessarily the government the US would choose or one that can necessarily deliver on its promises. It is important for the US to be modest in its expectations moving forward. There are strict limits on American influence in Pakistan, and on Washington’s ability to persuade, bribe, or coerce Islamabad to do its bidding. It is important to be conscious of constraints on the maneuverability of Pakistan’s civilian leaders. (This is a good thing; it is all too easy to work with a military strongman. The US has for many decades argued that it wants to see a vibrant civilian-led democracy. That is and should be among our utmost priorities.) US leaders do need to be conscious that, as Pakistan continues to democratize, there are multiple centers of power in the country. For the US, that means the person with whom it is negotiating — the Prime Minister, the President, or even the Chief of Army Staff — cannot guarantee that they can deliver on any promises. Given how unpopular the US is in Pakistan, to the extent possible US leaders should be working quietly and behind the scenes.

How have US and Afghan interests towards Pakistan diverged?

One fundamental issue on which the US and Afghanistan do not see eye-to-eye is the Afghan-Pakistan border. America has historically supported the current border as the legitimate boundary. Afghanistan has never accepted this boundary, and still makes a claim for territory in Pakistan. The US does not have any intention — nor should it — of supporting Afghanistan in what for Afghanistan is a major difference with Pakistan.

More generally, as the US moves towards withdrawing from Afghanistan, doing so in a fashion that does not simply leave the place in shambles is a priority. The US needs to work with Pakistan to facilitate that withdrawal. For instance, there was a major controversy in US-Pakistan relations for seven months because the ground lines of communication from Karachi into Afghanistan had been closed, lines which were only recently reopened. One of the purposes of this recent agreement from the American standpoint was to facilitate NATO and US withdrawal from Afghanistan. For many in Afghanistan, this goal would certainly not be their first, second, or even third priority. It is increasingly clear that the US and the current leadership in Kabul have very different priorities, and these differences reflect these respective countries’ relationship to Pakistan.

The two countries do have some things in common. Both wish Pakistan were able to control its border to keep armed groups from crossing into Afghanistan. Pakistan claims — and there is reason to accept this claim — that increasingly, armed groups based in Afghanistan are attacking Pakistani security forces. The US is not indifferent to the growing tensions between Kabul and Islamabad.

Some analysts have argued that US policymakers are focusing too much on security issues and too little on achieving political reform in Afghanistan. How has the West’s military focus hardened or influenced Pakistani negotiators, and could a strategic reassessment ameliorate any tension?

I have argued that the US has an unfortunate tilt in its dealings with Islamabad in favor of security. For many years the US gave the Pakistani military a blank check, without exacting any serious quid pro quo. From the period from 2002-2009, Washington provided virtually unconditional military assistance to Pakistan while at the same time Pakistanis were arming and supporting those groups who were increasingly killing American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Many would argue that the US should condition US assistance to Pakistan on greater Pakistani cooperation in the security realm. If the US follows that advice, Washington should impose those conditions exclusively on US military assistance, not on economic, development, or civilian assistance. It makes no sense to penalize either the civilian government or the Pakistani people because Washington is unhappy about a lack of cooperation from the Pakistani military. After all, it is doubtful how much either the Pakistani people or the civilian government leaders can influence the actions of the military.

The US should favor economic and civilian-based assistance over military assistance, while also providing military assistance only to the extent that there is real cooperation from Pakistan’s military.

Pakistan has long tolerated militant groups responsible for violent attacks in Afghanistan. How has Pakistan’s relationships affected its ability to interact and negotiate with its neighbors and allies?

Pakistan does not have many neighbors who are allies, with the partial exception of China. Pakistan has as a matter of state policy supported groups who are engaged in terrorism, both in Afghanistan and India. These actions have clearly undermined their ability to have continued and constructive negotiations with either Kabul or New Delhi.

Here the situation between Pakistan and India is not entirely bleak, notwithstanding a number of egregious attacks on India by groups who are based in Pakistan and almost certainly had some sort of official support. Pakistan and India seem to be moving gradually and sometimes even grudgingly toward a different type of relationship. The issue in the spotlight today concerns the hope in both countries to break down some of the trade barriers, and to dramatically increase trade relations. Most people would argue that countries who are also trading partners will find it more difficult to go to war. Mutual economic benefit can create constituencies for peace in both countries.

The story about Pakistan and Afghanistan is simultaneously not as threatening and not as hopeful. It is less threatening because the level of enmity between Afghanistan and Pakistan has historically never had the same tensions as Islamabad-New Delhi relations. By the same token, there are more hot-button issues between Pakistan and Afghanistan today that there are between Pakistan and India. Some of the most emotional issues in the region today are those between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Afghanistan for many years was an “imperial sandbox” for western powers, and has become regarded as the graveyard of empire. Although Pakistan formally became a state in 1947, how do Pakistani policymakers assess this history, and is their policy towards Afghanistan shaped by memories of western hegemony?

Pakistan was on the colonial frontier of the British Empire, and Pakistani culture, architecture, art, education, and politics all reflect the country’s colonial past. The British Empire never extended as firmly into Afghanistan as it did into Pakistan, but if anything the fight against western influence and colonial mastery — many of the colonial masters in Afghanistan were based in Moscow during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — serve to bring Afghanistan and Pakistan together rather than act as a dividing force, even though Pakistan and Afghanistan did not have identical colonial histories.  


ROBERT M. HATHAWAY is director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He previously served for twelve years on the professional staff of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he specialized in American foreign policy toward Asia.

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