CFR on Pakistan: hold course (for now)

November 14, 2010

damadola2The Council on Foreign Relations has just released a new report on U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan based on a study by a bipartisan group chaired by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former national security adviser Sandy Berger and directed by CFR senior fellow Daniel Markey.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, the report broadly endorses U.S. policy of trying to build a long-term partnership, while also aiming to persuade it to turn convincingly against all militant groups. It reiterates a U.S. complaint that while Pakistan is ready to act against militants that threaten the Pakistani state, like al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, it continues to support or tolerate other groups it believes can be used as proxies against India, including the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Among a range of incentives to build a better relationship with Pakistan, the report argues for continued U.S. financial support for Pakistan, all the more needed after this summer’s devastating floods, along with more favourable trade terms to boost the textile industry, which it says provides 38 percent of the country’s industrial employment.

However, the report’s endorsement of U.S. support for Pakistan comes with a hard edge, warning that failure to achieve results, or an attack on the United States traced back to Pakistan-based militants, could lead to a much more aggressive U.S. policy:

“There are several strategic options available to the United States if the administration concludes that the current strategy is not working. In Pakistan, Washington could turn away from its present emphasis on rewarding and encouraging long-term bilateral cooperation. Instead, it could undertake increasingly aggressive, unilateral U.S. military strikes against Pakistan-based terrorists deeper into Pakistani territory, coercive diplomacy and sanctions, or a range of financial, diplomatic, and legal restrictions to control the flow of people, money, goods, and information to and from Pakistan. This strategy of containment and coercion could be coupled with a distinct diplomatic ’tilt’ toward India, with New Delhi serving as Washington’s main strategic and counterterror partner in the region.”

The report also highlights the potential threat from the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Punjab-based militant group blamed for the 2008 attack on Mumbai, which it says ”could eventually surpass al-Qaeda as the world’s most sophisticated and dangerous terrorist organization.”

“The growing ambitions and capabilities of LeT and its affiliates (and its ties to al-Qaeda) make it the ticking time bomb of South Asia. Washington should place greater pressure on Islamabad to degrade LeT’s capacity and restrain its sympathizers, bearing in mind that a number of these groups enjoy widespread popular support because of their humanitarian outreach efforts,” it says. 

“Discussion of LeT should receive priority alongside al-Qaeda and the Taliban in U.S.-Pakistan political, military, and intelligence dialogues. Tougher U.S. talk must be backed by strong evidence. The United States should therefore enhance its own intelligence and interdiction capabilities to shut down LeT’s operations outside Pakistan and its recruiting activities in the United States and Europe. By sharing intelligence with India and contributing to its defensive capabilities against terrorists based in Pakistan, the United States can undercut any in Pakistan who still see strategic value in supporting militancy.”

Some comments.

As far as I can make out from the list of South Asian experts who contributed to the report, none of them specifically speak for Pakistan’s point of view.  As a result, the subtleties and compromises that would be required in the kind of partnership it advocates go unaddressed. Its approach, rightly or wrongly,  is therefore one of adversary rather than ally. And the questions Pakistanis raise about their relationship with the United States and the future of the country go unanswered.

These include, but are not limited to:

1) Pakistan’s sense of itself as a “rentier state” which takes  money from the United States in return for allowing drone bombings and hiring out its soldiers to fight and die on America’s behalf.  This is a view exploited by militants who think they know best how to save Pakistan from what they see as a collaborationist government.  It is also a view likely to weigh heavily on soldiers and officers in the Pakistan Army, which although too disciplined to allow a rebellion from the ranks, is also intensely patriotic and connected to the feelings of society as a whole. 

2) The “won’t but can’t” (or, depending who you listen to, can’t but won’t) view of the Pakistani military in its approach to the Lashkar-e-Taiba. At one level, according to most analysts, it does not want to take on the Lashkar-e-Taiba, believing the group to be useful and reasonably obedient proxies which can be used against India.  (So far they are one of the few militant groups not believed to have been heavily involved in attacks within Pakistan). But Pakistan also can’t take on the Lashkar-e-Taiba without making the group even more dangerous, by driving it into the arms of an al Qaeda-inspired coalition. This could make it more of a threat to the west, to India and to Pakistan itself.

3) The fear of more bombings in Pakistan were its military to take a more aggressive approach; combined with a sense that the United States does not take  Pakistani deaths as seriously as it would American deaths, if for example as many were to die in U.S. cities as have been killed in a string of bombings from Peshawar to Lahore, Islamabad to Karachi

4)    The apparent (so far) inability of the United States to influence political discourse in Pakistan in a way which encourages people to see it as a friend rather than an enemy.  Running parallel to that is the government’s inability to convince people that Islamist militants pose a real threat.  And then pile on top the nature of politics in Pakistan — for an extreme version, see this link to a water-throwing incident between politicians, as picked up by Cafe Pyala.

5)  The “hedging your bets” scenario. If the United States is going to leave Afghanistan, sooner or later, why create more enemies by taking on the Afghan Taliban? Or maybe more to the point of this post. If the United States is going to turn on Pakistan because it runs out of patience, why create more enemies by having the Lashkar-e-Taiba against you? 

6) Then there is India, the country that is trying very hard not to be hyphenated with Pakistan,  and yet which still defines the Pakistani military’s view of what it sees as its existential threat.  President Barack Obama’s trip to India has left that debate in limbo, seen variously as a wake-up call  and a rebuff.

There is more, far more that ought to be said about a country of 180 million people. And to be fair to the CFR report, it also suggests how much more there might be if the United States changes course and switches from “frenemy” to enemy:

“Americans and Pakistanis must understand that these options carry heavy risks and costs. Both sides have a great deal to lose. Containing the terrorist threat from Pakistan would be challenging if the Pakistani and U.S. governments were at odds, intelligence sharing were reduced, and U.S. officials were forced to operate from neighboring countries. NATO’s presence in Afghanistan would be jeopardized without a secure logistics route through Pakistan. At the same time, Pakistan’s fragile political and economic stability would be undermined by greater tensions with the United States. Pakistan’s military would suffer from the loss of U.S. assistance and restricted access to training, technology, and spare parts for American-made weapons and vehicles. In general, U.S. coercion and containment of Pakistan could accelerate dangerous economic, political, and social trends inside Pakistan. Americans must recognize that as frustrating and difficult as Pakistan’s situation may be today, it has the potential to get even worse.”

The report, with admirable transparency, also quotes its many dissenting voices, including this one from Michael Krepon:

“I do not share this report’s analysis and recommendations in every respect. In particular, I believe that the report’s suggestion that Washington has a credible, coercive fall-back position to convince Pakistan’s security managers to change course is misplaced. In past crises, when the possibilities of leveraging unwelcome choices on Pakistan’s decision-makers were far better than at present, and when faced with far more concerted, top-down U.S. pressures, Pakistan’s leaders successfully parried Washington’s pressures to take actions that were perceived to be unacceptable on national security or domestic political grounds. This track record, as reflected in Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapon capabilities, its protection of unconventional military options to influence Afghanistan’s future, and its policies to keep India off-balance, provides a cautionary tale of Washington’s ability to successfully manipulate carrots and sticks.

“To hold out the expectation that, this time around, with such a heavy U.S. military presence in Afghanistan dependent on Pakistani logistical support, Washington can coercively manipulate Pakistan’s orientation toward the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Afghan Taliban, Kabul, and New Delhi, seems unwise. Pakistan’s security managers have to come to their own realization that their policies have resulted in profound damage to their country. If they do not, the natural result, with no U.S. manipulation necessary, will be the continued mortgaging of Pakistan’s future, its distancing from the West, and its economic decline.”

Again there is more, far more, to be said. But let me end on a somewhat flippant note. People (countries?) don’t do stuff they don’t want to do because other people tell them to.  Otherwise I would have given up smoking years ago. People do stuff because it is in their interests to do so, or because they choose to do so. I’m not convinced that the CFR report, with all the American bipartisan support behind it, gets there.  “Do this or else,” just does not cut it.

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