The future of US-Pakistan relations


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SINCE 1947, Pakistan and the United States have lived through alternating periods of courtship and disenchantment. Pakistanis of all stripes are familiar with this historical narrative and frequently recount it to Americans as proof that another US ‘abandonment’ of Pakistan looms just over the horizon.

In itself, a historical pattern of this sort does not provide a reliable guide to the future. Too many aspects of US-Pakistan relations, of Pakistan itself, its neighbourhood and the world as a whole, are in flux. The last thirteen years of post-9/11 dealings have added an important new chapter to the bilateral story. Even looking back to prior decades, the specific explanations for the waxing and waning of ties between Washington and Islamabad were never precisely the same.

That said, history does provide at least one rule that has applied equally well since the first treaty inked between Pakistan and the United States in 1954: both sides have always used each other for their own narrow, tactical purposes. When those purposes have overlapped, cooperation was possible. When they did not, frustration and estrangement ensued. The future is likely to promise more of the same.

The logic of national interest tends to define all interstate relationships, but in some cases cold strategic calculations are leavened by commercial or sentimental considerations. This leavening has rarely been present in dealings between Washington and Islamabad.

To be sure, warm personal ties between individual Pakistanis and Americans are common, particularly for Pakistani families that have pursued business and educational opportunities in the United States. Yet these sentiments are swamped by a far more common and powerful Pakistani rejection of US foreign policy. Pakistan’s nationalists, liberals, and jihadists stand united in heaping scorn on Washington, even if they tend to find fault in different places.1

Increasingly, the negative sentiment is mutual. Rarely do Americans have any direct experience of Pakistan, yet feelings of impatience, skepticism and even anger are increasingly widespread and likely to limit prospects for future cooperation. Whereas past generations of US leaders tended to perceive Pakistan as an imperfect Cold War ally, now hundreds of thousands of US soldiers, diplomats, aid workers and contractors have returned from service in Afghanistan convinced that Pakistan deserves a great share of blame for the Taliban insurgency. Few doubt that one way or another, Pakistan has American blood on its hands. As a consequence, American policy-makers and congressional leaders, who still tend to see some cooperation with Islamabad as serving US security interests prefer to keep their deliberations out of the public eye lest they be confronted by the emotion-laced attacks of their critics.

Similarly, commercial ties between the United States and Pakistan are limited, diminishing in relative terms, and largely one-sided. Pakistan is only America’s 62nd largest trading partner, and as is the case throughout the world, Pakistan’s own economic future is increasingly China oriented. While the US remains the number one destination of Pakistani goods, China has become the second largest source of Pakistan’s imports and is set to invest billions in infrastructure and energy sector development over the coming years. There will, of course, be American investors willing to gamble in Pakistan’s high risk markets and American manufacturers hoping to profit from Pakistan’s enormous number of retail consumers. Yet, these will pale in comparison to US commercial interests in other parts of the world and are unlikely to sway Washington’s broader relationship with Islamabad, one way or another.


With so little in the way of sympathy, affection, or commercial promise to hold Washington and Islamabad together, the operative question is whether US and Pakistani officials will at least continue to see value in tactical cooperation, principally in the security realm.

In Washington, patience and resources for Pakistan are already in shorter supply, while the US capacity to attack Pakistan-based terrorist groups from outside Pakistan’s borders (with drones or other means) has improved over the last decade. US officials are increasingly likely to pursue unilateral solutions to their security concerns, especially on the counter-terror front.


This was not Washington’s preferred outcome. After 9/11, US diplomats, soldiers, and intelligence officials spent years trying to cultivate more effective working relationships in Pakistan. Time and again, however, those efforts came up short or were disrupted by broader bilateral disagreements. The May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound demonstrated the depths of US mistrust, for the Obama administration preferred to keep its plans secret from Islamabad even at the risk of a violent confrontation with Pakistani security forces. Even worse, the messy diplomatic aftermath of the mission fed acrimony on both sides.

Of course, 2011 was hardly the first time Islamabad felt the intensity of Washington’s focus on counter-terrorism. Yet, Pakistan responded to incessant US demands to ‘do more’ against violent extremists with half-measures and resistance. Perhaps a more robust US commitment to the war in Afghanistan, a more coercive (or generous) American diplomatic approach toward Islamabad, or some other combination of US policies could have tipped the scales.

The debate is now for historians; Washington never achieved its desired strategic about-face from Pakistan. More frustrating, from the US perspective, is the fact that in exchange for inadequate security cooperation Pakistan’s generals and well placed politicians took advantage of access to high-tech US military hardware and billions of dollars in assistance. This was a very old game; the Pakistani practice of turning US aid to parochial national (and even personal) purposes was operative throughout most of the Cold War, dating all the way to the first Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement of 1954.

US aid continues to flow to Pakistan, but times are changing. Pakistan’s leaders are now less troubled by American pressure to ‘do more’ than they are worried about Washington’s growing inattention. Islamabad fears the potential of post-NATO insecurity in Afghanistan, sharp reductions in US military and civilian assistance, and Washington’s apparent tilt toward New Delhi.


These are all reasonable fears. In Afghanistan, the drawn-out presidential election produced a ‘unity government’ that skeptics fear could be too politically compromised to succeed in the face of enormous challenges. By coming to terms with his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, and signing a bilateral security agreement with Washington, President Ashraf Ghani cleared two initial hurdles, but the Taliban insurgency, faltering economy, and weak state apparatus bequeathed by Karzai will not be addressed so easily. Afghanistan will struggle to stay afloat, and Pakistan will, at the very least, face the continued threat of ‘reverse safe haven’, as the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) use Afghan territory to stage anti-Pakistan attacks.

Far worse, the old dangers of full-scale civil war in Afghanistan could return. Pakistan, with its own internal turmoil, is as poorly prepared to deal with that scenario as ever. Decades of Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan have won it precious few allies, and even fewer loyal friends. The cost of new refugee flows, cross-border violence, and fears of other foreign involvement (especially by India) will not be easy for Islamabad to bear.


Nor, under such circumstances, would the United States be inclined to bail out Pakistan. US budget cuts, driven by the state of the national economy and gridlock in Washington, already point to less assistance to Pakistan in the years ahead. Add to that the growing list of other urgent security threats perceived in Washington, from Ukraine to Iraq and beyond, deserving larger shares of a dwindling funding stream. At the very least, US Coalition Support Fund ‘reimbursements’ for Pakistani security operations along the Afghan border will be scaled back considerably from present levels of roughly $1 billion/year. Direct US military aid, estimated at roughly $353 million in 2014, will probably also end up on the chopping block. If Pakistan cannot get its politics straight, even US civilian development aid would be threatened. Islamabad may turn to other benevolent donors (like the Saudis, who recently delivered a $1.5 billion ‘gift’ to Pakistan) but losing American aid would put Islamabad in a serious bind.

All of that, however, pales in comparison to Pakistani anxiety that Washington is inexorably moving into a tighter embrace of New Delhi. One need only read former President Pervez Musharraf’s memoir, In the Line of Fire, to appreciate how potent the threat of a US-India alliance looks to many Pakistanis. In his book, Musharraf justifies his dramatic decision to partner with Washington after 9/11 as a strategic defence against India, for to stand against the United States would have offered India a ‘golden opportunity’.

Musharraf’s claim may or may not be historically accurate, but in any case it says a lot about the prevailing mindset in Pakistani circles. That mindset persists today. Similar fears of a US tilt in India’s favour were rekindled by the breakthrough civil nuclear deal, and again more recently by the Obama administration’s decision to include India (but never Pakistan) in its plans for a ‘rebalance’ to Asia. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successful first trip to Washington, coupled with official US announcements of enhanced counterterror efforts against Pakistan-based groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and D-Company, will undoubtedly add to Pakistani distress.

So far, the only real reason to doubt the consummation of a strategic partnership between the United States and India has been New Delhi’s own ponderous policy processes and strategic reticence. The stalemated government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was politically incapable of capitalizing on the civil nuclear deal or building momentum for follow-on initiatives. Nor has it been clear that the India of ‘nonalignment 2.0’ would ever be comfortable in a close US embrace. Yet, this is cold comfort for Islamabad; at present Washington’s strategic bet on India’s future as a major Asian power will sustain warm feelings for New Delhi, even if they are never fully reciprocated.

In short, the United States and Pakistan are now on divergent paths. They are not yet facing a dramatic bilateral rupture of the sort that threatened throughout much of 2011 and 2012, or economic sanctions like Washington imposed throughout the 1990s, but the post-9/11 chapter of the relationship is clearly over.


As a practical matter, the next chapter of the US-Pakistan relationship has already started. It is marked mainly by lower expectations for the relationship on both sides. Resigned that its aims will never fully align with Pakistan’s, Washington remains willing to seek cooperation and deliver assistance on those matters where the two sides can agree, and is eager to do so with a much lower profile. Pakistan’s unhealthy national fixation on the United States also appears to have waned. Officials on both sides suggest that they have found a more beneficial approach to their interactions.

So far at least, the new equilibrium is undoubtedly less confrontational. As far as is possible to discern, bilateral criticism tends to be delivered behind closed doors rather than through public reprimands, even though there is no indication, for instance, that Washington is significantly more satisfied with Pakistan’s counterterror efforts or that Islamabad is any less irritated by US policies toward India.


Minor disputes that in the recent past would have spiralled into bilateral crises, such as the case of an American Federal Bureau of Investigation agent arrested for carrying ammunition onto a May 2014 flight from Karachi airport, have been resolved without undue escalation. Across the board, Pakistan’s current civilian and military leaders are less inclined than their predecessors to factor Washington into either their political calculations or their pronouncements.

Greater equanimity has defined US policies on major issues as well. Obama administration officials have neither swooned over Pakistani army operations in North Waziristan (by, for instance, reprising some version of the Bush administration’s rhetoric about Pakistan being a ‘frontline ally in the war on terror’), nor have they gone out of their way to belittle Pakistani efforts because they do too little to tackle America’s terrorist enemies (by, for instance, reiterating then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen’s comment that the Haqqani network is a ‘veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency’). Instead, US officials like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, tend to describe Pakistan’s North Waziristan campaign as a limited step in the right direction that will have to be judged by its net consequences over the long haul.

As part of the de-escalation in the relationship, US diplomats have taken pains to avoid being implicated in Pakistan’s recent spate of internal political disputes. This is no small feat; for decades American officials routinely found themselves entangled in Pakistan’s intrigues, willingly or otherwise. Now, even with former President Musharraf on trial and under house arrest, opposition parties thronging Pakistani streets, and the army breathing down Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s neck, the US State Department stuck to neutral ground by voicing support for Pakistan’s legitimate constitutional order rather than backing any single party. As a consequence, shrill accusations of American bias or intervention (such as those voiced on occasion by opposition politician Imran Khan) have gained remarkably little traction.


Reduced expectations have cooled tempers and lowered the tensions that threatened to send US-Pakistan relations over a cliff in 2011 and 2012. Stepping back from that abyss was the least risky strategy for both sides. And, to be sure, there remain important issues upon which Washington and Islamabad agree enough to cooperate, such as a shared antipathy toward the Pakistani Taliban, the desire to grow Pakistan’s economy, and the need to secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from theft, unauthorized use, or accident.

Yet, US and Pakistani officials must understand that they have found only a temporary salve for the relationship, not a sustainable equilibrium. Fundamental differences simmer on the back-burner, unresolved. A relationship built on reduced expectations, diminished attention, and little trust will likely fizzle out over time, even if it is not again confronted by any spectacular crisis.

Moreover, at least as long as sophisticated international terrorists call Pakistan home, another crisis is reasonably easy to envision. Other even more probable and less nightmarish scenarios would also accelerate the downward slide in US-Pakistani relations, such as a soft military coup in Islamabad that leaves US leaders even more reticent to join hands with their Pakistani counterparts, or an Indo-Pakistani crisis in which American policymakers clearly take New Delhi’s side.


Broadly speaking, this leaves US policymakers with three near-term policy options. The first would be to accept a likely downward drift in relations with Pakistan, work within the confines of reduced expectations for as long as possible, and brace for even more difficult times ahead. The second would be to intensify pressure on Islamabad in at least one more attempt to force a constructive change in Pakistan’s trajectory. The third would be to pull away from Pakistan and bolster US defences against Pakistan-based threats over the long run, accepting that a US-Pakistan break-up is inevitable and that delaying that fate is a wasteful exercise in wishful thinking.

At least until a new administration is elected in the United States, and perhaps for far longer than that, only variants of the first policy option will receive serious consideration. The risk-averse Obama administration now faces too many other international crises to court a dust-up with Islamabad, whether as a means to force Pakistan’s hand or out of sheer frustration. With a political time horizon of two years, managing expectations and seeking small victories in Pakistan is also consistent with the general demeanour in the White House, where the president has embraced an incremental approach to US foreign policy and has, now infamously, distilled his global vision into dictums like ‘Don’t do stupid stuff.’


Assuming that crisis avoidance and relationship management will be Washington’s favoured approach over the short to medium term, there are still important steps that the United States should take. First, the United States should reconsider its plans for a full troop withdrawal from neighbouring Afghanistan. A smaller US military footprint that can be supplied without dependence on Pakistan’s overland routes offers the only way to maintain serious US counterterror operations along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, especially if relations with Pakistan begin to falter. Moreover, although a continued US commitment to Afghanistan’s security cannot guarantee success, a hasty departure – more than any other factor under US control – undoubtedly encourages the region’s adversaries and spoilers, especially within Pakistan.

Second, in the spirit of cooperating in areas where US and Pakistani interests overlap while avoiding unnecessary provocation, the Obama administration should revise one of its signature strategic initiatives: the so-called ‘rebalance’ to Asia. Pakistanis, currently excluded from all US statements about the rebalance, view the strategy with suspicion. They tend to interpret it as Washington’s plan to tilt toward India, contain China, and abandon Pakistan. To address these concerns, the Obama administration should include Pakistan in the rebalance, at least in the context of US efforts to promote Asia’s regional economic integration. Not only would this reduce some anxiety in Islamabad, but linking Pakistan with the fast-growing economies to its east offers the only realistic means to grow Pakistan’s own economy, create opportunities for its enormous youth population, and encourage peaceful relations with its neighbours.

Third, even as US diplomats seek ways to keep relations with Pakistan on an even keel, US military planners will need to invest in technologies, platforms, and basing arrangements that enable counterterror and other missions in Pakistan over the long run. Washington needs an answer, for instance, to the question of how it plans to strike Pakistan-based terrorists if drones are denied airspace, or if an increasingly weak or hostile Pakistani government cedes greater territory to groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS in its vast urban centres.

These sorts of US policies would help both sides avoid a near-term crisis. At the same time, they would prop the door open for greater and more consequential cooperation with Pakistan in the (admittedly unlikely) event that leaders in Islamabad begin governing in ways that warrant expanded US attention and support. And they would enhance Washington’s preparations for the more likely circumstance that the US-Pakistan relationship takes another turn for the worse long before Pakistan-based security threats to US interests are addressed.

Sadly, that ‘success’ would still leave an extraordinarily difficult set of challenges in the lap of the next American president, and the laps of all who follow, until the distant day that the United States and Pakistan come to share a broader set of overlapping interests and a common perspective on how to pursue them.



1. I describe the various strands of Pakistan’s anti-Americanism in my book, No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad. Cambridge, New York, 2013, pp. 72-104.