Can the US trust Pakistan?

US President Barack Obama with Pakistan's President Asif Zardari

Following the release of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review last week, and then a New York Times article suggesting ISI involvement in the outing of the CIA station chief in Pakistan, some are wondering if Pakistan is a trustworthy ally in the fight against al Qaeda and other extremist militants. While many evaluate this question based on discreet metrics such as the number of Pakistani military offensives, a better way to find the answer is to ask whether the Pakistanis believe they can trust us.

Robert Baer, a former Middle East CIA officer, writes in Time that American policy makers are fooling themselves for the sake of convenience when they trust Pakistan. He goes on to ask whether Pakistan is also playing America for the fool.

They want our money, but not our drones. They don’t want the United States to fall into the arms of India, but they also do not intend to kowtow to us. They want to be a part of any settlement in Afghanistan, but they won’t or can’t bring the Taliban under control.

Mr. Baer is mistaken. Pakistan wants our money and our drones. The fact is, the drone program would not be as successful as it has without the close cooperation of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies – including the ISI. This was further confirmed by leaked diplomatic cables provided to news organizations by the group Wikileaks.

Mr. Baer is correct, however, in suggesting that Pakistan does not intend to kowtow to the United States. Nor should they.

Pakistan is a sovereign nation under a civilian government democratically elected by its people. While the military may retain a strong influence in national affairs as a legacy of decades of military rule, the civilian government has made great strides in devolving power that had been consolidated under such dictatorships and is building a working relationship with the military that ensures civilian control over domestic and foreign policy.  The selection of judges, which Mr. Baer cynically attributes to the ISI, was recently put under the purview of a parliamentary committee by the 18th Amendment to the constitution enacted earlier this year.

As a sovereign nation, Pakistan has its own calculus to prioritize threats to its national security. Regardless of American perspectives on these threats, Pakistan will make its own decisions about what deserves the most attention. Still, Pakistan appears to have come to the same conclusion as we have and determined that extremist militant groups pose an existential threat to the nation.

Allegations that Pakistan “won’t or can’t bring the Taliban under control” are misguided. The US has approximately 98,000 troops in Afghanistan. By comparison, the Pakistani military has 140,000 troops in the tribal regions on the Western border that are plagued with militant hideouts. Suggesting that Pakistan is not taking the militant problem seriously is simply not supported by the facts, nor is this the opinion of American military leaders on the ground.

This it not to say that Pakistan is not regularly updating their national security calculations based on perceived changes to American strategy and priorities. In short, the Pakistanis are asking themselves the same question – can we trust them?

Unlike Mr. Baer, Huma Yusuf, Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, sees Pakistan performing a complicated calculus based on predictions of changing American strategies, competing domestic political interests, and on-the-ground realities. As Ms. Yusuf notes, there simply is no clear path.

Time and again, Pakistan has complained about the previous consequences of the US decision to abandon the region. Islamabad has cunningly reminded Washington of its culpability in the fallout from the anti-Soviet `jihad`, and evoked the trauma and sense of betrayal resulting from the Pressler Amendment. The logic of Pakistan needing a back-up plan in the face of American inconsistency and unreliability has clearly resonated — that`s why the US has promised us a five-year, $7.5bn civilian aid package under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act, as well as a five-year $2bn security assistance package. Repeated reassurances from both the State Department and Pentagon about the US`s long-term commitment to the region have also been forthcoming.

But as on most other matters, Pakistan is double-minded on this point too. Our fear that the US will leave the region abruptly is matched only by our fear that it will stay here indefinitely. This latter concern has manifest in complaints about US meddling in Pakistani politics as well as critiques of America`s obsession with Pakistan`s nuclear programme. More frequently, and more vociferously, such fears have been articulated as paranoia about fortress-like, proliferating US embassies; arrivals by the planeload of Blackwater agents; US military control of the PAF Shahbaz Base at Jacobabad during this summer`s floods, and more.

Pakistan is an allied nation, not a base of operations. As such, it deserves to be treated with the same level of respect and consideration that we treat other allies like the UK, France, and Germany. If we are to continue building a productive partnership between our two nations, the US must make clear that we are working with Pakistan to ensure that we have a long-term commitment to working towards shared goals. We must ensure that they know they can trust us.

Last week, Secretary Clinton again made clear American intentions when she said at a White House press briefing,

Pakistan and the United States have begun a long-term commitment to work together not just on security but on energy, agriculture, education, health and other areas that directly affect the daily lives of the Pakistani people.

While the ultimate goal of our mission in Afghanistan is to protect American security and interests, this cannot be achieved without also ensuring that Pakistan is secure in its own interests. Presently, the US and Pakistan are working together and making significant progress under difficult political realities. But there remains more to be done.

The US must ease Pakistan’s concerns that we will abandon them to fight al Qaeda and affiliated militant groups alone. We must also ease their concerns that we are encroaching on their sovereignty or taking their cooperation for granted.

The path will not be easy, but the US and Pakistan can succeed because we share mutual interests – a peaceful and stable region with opportunity for long-term economic growth. It’s natural for the US to ask itself if it can trust any ally, Pakistan included. But we must remember that the answer will largely be predicated on Pakistan’s answer to the same question about us.

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