A response to Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s op-ed in The Washington Post
US-Pakistan relations may not be broken, but they’re certainly strained. Events in recent months have reinforced fears on both sides, and leaders in both countries are under increasing pressure from their respective publics to abandon each other. It’s clear that a new approach to US-Pakistan relations is needed. Unfortunately, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s op-ed in The Washington Post reflects a mindset steeped in past thinking, and his recommendations represent an old and dis-proven approach
What drives Pakistan?
Amb. Khalilzad offers two theories for why Pakistan’s military might support militant groups: Either they are trying to prolong the Afghan war in order to extort US aid, or they are trying to conquer Central Asia. This represents not only a false dilemma, but a fundamentally silly one.
The Kerry-Lugar-Burman bill (KLB) provides for $1.5 billion in economic aid annually for five years. While this aid is valuable, it represents about 0.3 percent of the nation’s GDP. Moreover, in the first year of KLB, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that only $179.5 million was actually disbursed. Even if it were possible to buy Pakistan’s cooperation, this amount of foreign aid is simply insufficient to do so.
The alternate theory offered – that Islamabad has a secret “ambitious plan to consolidate regional hegemony in Central Asia” – is equally nonsensical. With China and India sitting on its doorstep, Pakistan’s strategic priority is not to expand its influence across Asia, it’s to defend its own sovereignty. If Pakistan seeks influence in Kabul, it is not as a means of expanding its influence to Tashkent, it’s as as means of preserving it’s control of Lahore which sits precariously on the border with India.
So why might some in Pakistan’s military support the Afghan Taliban and militant groups like the Haqqani network? The same reason that they – and the US – supported these groups in the 1980s: they keep other people out. During the Cold War, the US supported the Taliban as a way of fighting Soviet influence in Kabul. Similarly, some security strategists in Pakistan today see the Taliban as a way of fighting Indian influence and preventing the nation from being boxed in by hostile neighbors.
What drives Pakistan is neither banditry nor ambition – it’s a basic desire for self-preservation. While some individuals in Pakistan may have ideological or religious affinity for the Taliban, this does not represent an official position any more than the existence of radicals in the US represent any official positions on the part of the US.
This is why it is disappointing that Amb. Khalilzad continually references “Pakistani support” for militant groups. By suggesting there is some state policy in support of these groups, the Ambassador ignores the incredible sacrifices that Pakistanis have made in the fight against militancy and extremism including the lives of over 35,000 Pakistani citizens.
Carrots and Sticks, re-revisited
Ambassador Khalilzad proposes using aid along with the promise to facilitate trilateral talks between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. In other words, what we’re already doing. But if these carrots are not sufficient to change Pakistan’s strategic outlook now, why would they be tomorrow?
The fact is that Pakistan seeks to reduce its reliance on aid, not prolong or deepen its dependency on foreign donors. We know this because it has been stated repeatedly by Pakistan’s President, Asif Zardari, as well as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani.
And the the Government of Pakistan has been doing more than just talking about improving its domestic economy. Pakistan announced this week that it has beat tax collection targets, bringing its tax-to-GDP ration to 9.2 percent, up from 8.9 percent a year ago. This demonstrates that the Government of Pakistan is making serious efforts to get its books in order, despite significant political obstacles – something Washington may want to eye with more sympathy as American lawmakers struggle to create consensus on their own economic policy.
Rather than continuing attempts to use economic and military aid as leverage, the US would be better advised to listen to Pakistan’s leadership and seriously discuss the possibility of improved trade deals such as Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZ), lower textile tariffs, and investment in energy production and delivery to improve capacity in Pakistan’s domestic industry.
Similarly, the “sticks” proposed by Amb. Khalilzad amount to little more than cutting aid to Pakistan – a strategy that will only further entrench anti-democratic forces in Pakistan and reinforce suspicions that the US is a less reliable ally than Taliban militants. Again, we don’t have to assume this to be the case. We can look to the outcome of America’s policy of disengagement in the 1990s as a response to Pakistan’s nuclear program – a nuclearized Pakistan suspicious of US motives and interests.
Strengthening Civil Society
Despite his other errors, Amb. Khalilzad gets one thing right: “Ultimately, only the Pakistani people and a new generation of civilian leadership can rein in the country’s military leaders.” Whatever US interests in South Asia, the future of Pakistan will be defined by Pakistanis themselves. If the US wants to see a free and prosperous Pakistan, the only way forward is to invest in the success of Pakistan’s civil society.
That means dealing with the civilian political leadership, even when it might seem more efficient to deal directly with the military; it means focusing aid and investment on sustainable ways of improving the lives of ordinary Pakistanis; and it means listening to Pakistanis about their own priorities, rather than trying to convince them to prioritize American interests. Above all, if we are going to see a peaceful and stable Pakistan, the US must move beyond the strategies of the past and engage Pakistan as a partner, not a patron.