As 2014, and the eventual withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan that will come with it, rapidly approaches, analysts in Washington are working to influence the direction of US policy in the region. Unfortunately, much of what is being bandied about as a new direction looks an awful lot like the well-worn path that brought us where we are today. With the recent handover of power between two democratic governments, it’s time to try something new with Pakistan.
In response to a question about the key constructs of the US engagement with Pakistan post-2014, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations Dan Markey recently outlined three options for the US:
- The United States would devote the bulk of its efforts to protecting itself from Pakistan-based threats (terrorism, nuclear weapons, and general instability) by relying on coercion, deterrence, and closer military cooperation with neighboring India and Afghanistan.
- The United States would focus on cultivating a businesslike negotiating relationship with Pakistan’s military—still Pakistan’s most powerful institution—in order to advance specific U.S. counterterrorism and nuclear goals.
- The United States would work with and provide support to Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership as well as civil society in ways that would, over time, tip the scales in favor of greater stability in Pakistan and more peaceful relations between Pakistan and its neighbors, Afghanistan, Iran, India, and China.
At the end of his piece, Markey recommends a combination of all three strategies. But this is exactly the strategy that the US has been pursuing, and to little success. There are several reasons why this policy cannot work. First of all, partnering with India in a policy of coercion is mutually exclusive to developing a productive relationship with Pakistan. More importantly, though, Markey’s recommendations place too much emphasis on continuing to focus on relations with Pakistan’s powerful military at the expense of the democratically elected civilian government. And it is the democratically elected civilian government that is key to ending Pakistan’s problem with militancy.
Nawaz Sharif, having already experienced the consequences of military adventurism during his previous time as Prime Minister, has demonstrated a willingness to confront Pakistan’s military about its alleged involvement with extremist militants. Following the discover of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif was one of the few politicians to demand answers from the military about how the world’s most wanted man could live undetected for years just outside the Kakul Military Academy. And his pursuit of treason charges against former military dictator Pervez Musharraf has united civilian politicians across party lines despite the concerns of some former military officers.
Since being elected Prime Minister earlier this year, Nawaz Sharif has also pursued improved relations with India, including continuing the policy of improving bilateral trade and economic cooperation begun under the previous government.
Dan Markey’s approach would threaten the progress that is currently being made by breathing new life into military dominance just as the civilians are starting to get a strong foothold, and driving a wedge into Pakistan-India relations just as they are on the brink of a breakthrough.
Rather than reprise past policies, the US should take the fourth option: Treating the democratically elected civilian government as the legitimate policy-making authority; providing significant support for civil society by investing in domestic capacity building for key areas including education, energy, and law enforcement; and using its growing influence to reassure India that continuing to work towards improved trade and economic relations are the most effective path towards boosting Pakistan’s national security perception and eliminating its reliance on militant groups as part of their national security strategy.
For decades, the US has pursued a relationship that overemphasizes the military’s power, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the military is “still Pakistan’s most powerful institution” at the expense of democratic progress, civil development, and regional security. It’s time to try something new.