Pakistan, An Unreliable Partner But Disengagement Is No Answer
By Zach Paikin
The discovery that Osama bin Laden had been living comfortably in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, directly under the noses of the Pakistani military, has some policymakers seriously questioning whether Pakistan, the recipient of more than $3 billion in U.S. foreign aid in 2011 alone, can be considered a trustworthy partner especially with the military commanding such significant influence over the state’s policies. Indeed, many are asking if Pakistan is or ever was a reliable ally in the War on Terror.
Due to its chronically weak central government, American cooperation with Pakistan is fraught with difficulty. The country’s present civilian government is representative but ineffective. For more than half of its history, the military has governed Pakistan outright. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, creator and supporter of the Afghan Taliban and several anti-India terror outfits, is considered to be a largely independent actor beyond the oversight and control of either the military or the civilian government.
Cooperation with Pakistan is made even more difficult by a consensus held by the country’s elite since the 1980s that Pakistan requires “strategic depth” to counter the existential threat they believe India poses. Recognizing that a conventional war with India would yield little success, the security services pursued their conflict with India by supporting anti-India terrorist groups. One example is Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Pakistan adopted “strategic depth” as one of its key foreign policy directives following the 1979 Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The essence of the policy was to support anti-Soviet – chiefly Islamist – elements within Afghanistan to prevent encirclement by India and an Afghanistan favorably disposed toward India. New Delhi and Kabul have traditionally enjoyed close relations. Since the Taliban’s defeat, India has pledged more than $650 million in reconstruction and development aid to Afghanistan making it Kabul’s largest aid source.
Pakistan’s attempts to destabilize India through terror attacks intensified in the years after the Taliban’s 2001 fall culminating in the aforementioned 2008 Mumbai attacks as well as support for the Afghani Taliban battling U.S.-led NATO forces. As the Pakistan-Afghanistan border runs through tribal areas, support for the Afghan Taliban has all too often become support for the Pakistani Taliban opposed to Islamabad’s rule.
Despite these destabilizing and provocative Pakistani policies – and the unreliable nature of the Pakistani military – calls for a U.S. disengagement from Pakistan are premature, precisely because of the terrorist issue as well as questions regarding the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
Disengagement would likely lead to instability and possibly to the nightmare scenario in which the Pakistani Taliban gains control over a piece of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. This is even more distressing when the fact that Pakistan has doubled its number of deployed nuclear warheads since 2007 to more than 100 is taken into account.
Disengagement would also allow China’s influence over Pakistan to grow at the expense of democratic India, a key U.S. partner. Pakistan has already begun to develop stronger military and economic ties with China.
Going forward requires a new take on U.S. policy toward Pakistan.
Accepting that Pakistan’s military establishment is untrustworthy, the United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally in Pakistan – as it did in the bin Ladin operation – in order to address the terrorist threat.
Moreover, to ensure regime stability and to expand the capability and legitimacy of Pakistan’s civilian government, the United States should assist Islamabad with economic reform and develop stronger non-military ties. Half of Pakistan’s population is under the age of sixteen and 25% lives in abject poverty, providing the United States with an opening to maintain its influence in Pakistan with reduced risk to U.S. national security.
Pakistan is neither solidly a partner nor a threat to the United States. Instead, it is a challenge, and one in which America must remain actively engaged.
Zach Paikin is a research associate for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.