Time for a New Pakistan Policy

by , September 23, 2008

It should be becoming increasingly obvious that the present arrangement with Pakistan is simply not working for the United States. Although various U.S. military leaders keep traveling to Pakistan to try to tweak things around the edges, it is of course unlikely that this administration will do anything substantive, not only because it is still invested in the same failed policy that has been stumbling along since 9/11, but because one doubts that they have much of an inkling of how to improve matters. But the next president should undertake a bottom-up reassessment of our relations with Pakistan and the rest of the region, with cold-eyed realism, no preconceptions, and no implicit commitments to continuing previous policies, which have failed miserably.

Such an exercise, however, would be of little use unless the option of a complete strategic withdrawal from Pakistan is not only on the table, but is viewed as the default position, and the Pakistanis understand that we will do it unless they can convince us there are concrete advantages to be gained from alternatives.

There are potential dangers to such a policy, of course. Most intelligence officials are reasonably sure that al-Qaeda has reestablished itself in the laughably misnamed Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan, where, in fact, no Pakistani government has ever wielded anything like effective authority. It is also the case that the Taliban (or maybe several factions of militants calling themselves Taliban) have relatively safe havens in the region from which they cross the border into Afghanistan to pester U.S. and NATO troops, along with elements of the still-nascent Afghan security forces.

At the same time, however, it is also clear that U.S. intelligence agencies have made little and probably no progress in penetrating al-Qaeda in the FATA areas, and the likelihood of doing so with the present policy of blundering, hoping, and occasionally bombing, which some may choose to call a strategy, is low. (I realize that if either our intelligence agencies or the Pakistanis did have some direct penetration that offered a chance to kill or capture Osama bin Laden that they wouldn’t be trumpeting it about. But the sources I talk to with access to intelligence insiders are not shy about saying that the U.S. knows anything at all only from aerial surveillance, so the likelihood is pretty small.)

Since direct military action by the Pakistanis, whose army is configured for a land war with India rather than for counter-insurgency (and who resist even thinking about counterinsurgency, though they sometimes pretend to in order to please the Americans), has clearly failed, it is likely that there will be Taliban and al-Qaeda bases and camps in the FATA region for years to come, and the U.S. is unlikely to be able to destroy them any time soon. That’s a problem, but it’s probably a problem we can live with for a while. Although I could be proven wrong tomorrow, of course, there are a number of reasons to believe not only that al-Qaeda has still not reconstituted itself to anything close to its pre-9/11 effectiveness, but that it is losing effectiveness, not only because of U.S. and other countermeasures that have disrupted finances and communication, but because of internal splits and even widespread disillusionment with jihadism. Al-Qaeda now is more like a home office that certifies franchises of local groups of jihadists than an organization with a strong central core able to coordinate and directly undertake or even participate in major actions and attacks. That could change, of course, but it is not impossible to monitor their progress, or lack thereof.

Our current policy is buying almost nothing of value in terms of effective action against jihadists along the Afghan-Pakistani border, and it is increasing tension between the United States and what is laughingly called the government of Pakistan and, more importantly, the Pakistani people. Continuing our present policy of sending money and weapons and pretending to believe that the Pakistanis are using them effectively against terrorists is more likely to lead to a situation of outright enmity between the U.S. and Pakistan than to progress against terrorism, at least if the events of the last few weeks offer any clues.

It is still unclear whether Pakistani troops actually confronted and turned back U.S. troops who were on the verge of crossing the border from Afghanistan a week or so ago in pursuit of Taliban forces that had conducted a raid in Afghanistan and slipped back into Pakistan. What does seem clear is that the Pakistani government has more or less formally warned the U.S. that it will fire upon U.S. or NATO troops if they do cross the border into Pakistan. Pakistan also temporarily closed resupply traffic to Afghanistan recently – just to let is know it could?

This is more than a slight complication. President Bush apparently approved orders back in July for U.S. special operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government. Something like this approach seems to be the preferred policy of both John McCain and Barack Obama as well, but it has yielded tension and resentment rather than real progress against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Tension increased after U.S. commandos landed helicopter gunships in another village in Pakistan on Sept. 3 and attacked what was believed to be a militant compound.

The fundamental problem nobody wants to address is whether Pakistan is friend or foe. It seems to be a bit of both.

U.S.-Pakistani relations have never been easy. President Bush had a close personal relationship with ousted Pakistani president/dictator Pervez Musharraf, yet another example of the Bushlet conducting foreign policy on the basis of his notoriously unreliable "gut" and his personal impressions rather than knowledge or experience. The Pakistanis have gladly accepted $10 billion to $12 billion in U.S. aid since 2001 and promised to go after Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. But they have done so with large-scale military tactics, which even the Rand Corporation now stresses are ineffective against terrorist groups compared to assiduous police and intelligence work.

Despite heavy casualties – about 1,400 Pakistanis killed and 4,000 wounded – that campaign has not gone well. To be sure, there is evidence that the notorious ISI secret police in Pakistan – or at least some elements thereof – have a mutually supportive relationship at least with the Taliban, who are seen by some as a way for Pakistan to control or heavily influence Afghanistan, which it has long wanted to do and has sometimes effectively done. Whether that’s the case or not, Pakistan has suffered real casualties in military actions most Pakistanis believe were done only to please the Americans, which is one reason Musharraf was widely called "Busharraf" in Pakistan

The problem is that every bombing or commando raid into Pakistani territory increases anti-Americanism, already at very high levels, among ordinary Pakistanis. In addition, as Arnaud de Borchgrave, who studies transnational threats at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me, the Pakistani army’s emerging top officers were all junior officers when the Soviets left Afghanistan and the U.S., as Pakistanis saw it, lost interest in the region and left them high and dry. They are now deeply anti-American.

It is possible that strategic disengagement will create another generation of anti-American Pakistanis. But it is also possible that most Pakistanis will be relieved not to have the U.S. so actively engaged in – or interfering with – political and military policies and actions inside Pakistan. That might turn out to be the basis for a fairly normal relationship.

To be sure, a solid argument can be made that the U.S. has an interest in seeing that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons don’t fall into terrorist hands, so there are reasons for the two countries to engage in some limited and narrowly targeted military-to-military relationships. But simply sending money and weapons with no accountability, meddling clumsily with little or no understanding of internal Pakistani politics, and hoping for the best do not a real policy make. It’s time to rethink it from the ground up.

Read more by Alan Bock