The U.S. and Pakistan Have Found Detente, but It Won't Last

The transactional U.S.-Pakistan alliance means that, once the Afghan War ends, so will their incentive to get along.



Last week, the U.S. and Pakistan reached a surprising agreement: after seven months of angry recriminations over a U.S. airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apologized for the incident and Pakistan re-opened their supply lines for the war in Afghanistan.

On Sunday, at a conference in Tokyo to secure long-term funding for the war, Secretary Clinton said, "[the U.S. and Pakistan] are both encouraged that we have been able to put the recent difficulties behind us so we can focus on the many challenges ahead." The official intent is to move past the bad blood of the last seven months. But is that really possible?

Right now, the U.S. is dependent on Pakistan in order to withdraw from Afghanistan. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this year, General William Fraser, who commands the Transportation Command, said that Pakistan is essential to the withdrawal plan. "With the amount of equipment we need to move ... we need the Pakistan GLOC open," he said, referring to the "Ground Lines Of Communication," which is military jargon for the transit routes. "Because of the large numbers that we are talking about that we need to bring out in a timely manner."

Those GLOCs are probably the most important reason that Clinton played nice toward Pakistan: there is little other reason for Washington to grant Islamabad any courtesy on the matter. Ever since last year's Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Congress and the White House have become increasingly angry with Pakistan's seeming antipathy toward U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Leaders in Washington assume, perhaps correctly, that if Osama could set up shop in a huge mansion right down the road from Pakistan's premier military academy, then Pakistan is simply not a reliable or honest partner in the struggle against militants.

Pakistani officials, predictably, bristle at the suggestion that they don't care about terrorism. The Pakistani government says 3,300 soldiers have died fighting militants in the volatile Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and nine general officers have died (including one three-star general). Pointing to this data, many senior Pakistani officials insist, off the record, that such high losses -- more than the U.S. has lost in Afghanistan -- are evidence that they take the battle against terrorism very seriously.

In a bizarre way, both the U.S. and Pakistan are right: Pakistan has suffered greatly from terrorism on its soil, and thousands of soldiers have died trying to eliminate it (and far more Pakistani citizens have died from Islamist terrorists than Americans ever have). But the U.S. is also right about Pakistan's half-hearted efforts to root out the extremists. As just one example, in January of 2008 former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told 60 Minutes that Pakistan was "not particularly looking for Osama bin Laden" during the six years he was president after September 2001.

So, despite the many sacrifices Pakistani soldiers have made, their own high officials have been rather public about how little they really cared about ending the scourge of al-Qaeda. It's difficult to accept the protests coming from Islamabad when U.S. officials stake something so seemingly obvious as anything other than posturing.

This leaves the future U.S.-Pakistan relationship in a bit of a bind. Washington has faced serious criticism for its decision to deepen its relationship with the government of Uzbekistan to expand the so-called Northern Distribution Network, which will ship some equipment from the Afghanistan war northward, away from Pakistan. There is a simple reason for this policy: it gives the U.S. an alternative to Pakistan that, while far more expensive, makes it tougher for Pakistan to use the GLOCs as leverage against the U.S. It is a transactional policy, in other words, trading the downsides of engaging with an abusive regime in Tashkent for gaining some advantage over the much more volatile, dangerous Pakistan.

But, now, it is important to keep in mind that the Pakistani-U.S. détente is also transactional in nature: the U.S. is making amends because it needs Pakistan to withdraw on time from Afghanistan. But those amends are not infinite in nature, nor are they guaranteed to last one day before the final MRAP is loaded onto a shipping container for the long journey back to America.

This transactional nature is reflected in the last ten years of U.S.-Pakistan relations. Washington was never eager to partner with Islamabad -- documents recently declassified by George Washington University's National Security Archive show the anger and mistrust that drove initial U.S. demands for Pakistani compliance with the war in Afghanistan. As the Center for Global Development shows, the vast majority of U.S. aid to Pakistan after 2001 has been for its military, for the specific purpose of developing their capacity to go after militants. Yet the White House, through two administrations, has become less and less enthusiastic about the partnership as Pakistan's contradictory, self-destructive relationship with the militants in its territory became harder and harder to ignore.

U.S.-Pakistan relations seem on course for conflict the moment the U.S. no longer needs Pakistani GLOCs for Afghanistan. What shape that conflict takes remains to be seen. The U.S. can construct a strong case for describing Pakistan as a rogue state: it harbors and supports international terrorism; it is one of the world's most brazen proliferators of nuclear and ballistic missile technology; and it seems so stubbornly unwilling to admit fault that U.S. officials say they can barely raise either subject with their Pakistani counterparts.

Without the war in Afghanistan to draw the two countries together, it's difficult to see how they can maintain anything more than a distant, perfunctory relationship. Pakistani officials insist privately that they love America. Yet that professed love has not translated into very many pro-American policies. If that doesn't change, the U.S. and Pakistan seem destined to part ways 18 months from now. What happens after that, no one can say.