The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is under great stress. In a video Q&A, George Perkovich says Washington’s policy toward Pakistan has had the unintended but undeniable effect of empowering Pakistan’s military and intelligence services at the expense of the country’s political future.
To stop doing harm to Pakistan and its own interests, the United States must stop looking at Pakistan as a tool that can be used to help solve America’s other problems and instead focus on Pakistan for its own sake—it is one of the world’s most populous nations, has nuclear weapons, is in a critical region, and produces many of the terrorists looking to strike America. Instead of pressing Pakistan’s army to fight America’s war in Afghanistan, the United States would accomplish more by distancing itself from the Pakistani army, reforming trade and aid policies, and clarifying the defensive purposes of U.S.-Indian cooperation.
The United States and Pakistan have always had a fairly tense relationship, in the sense that the United States has always seen Pakistan as an instrument to some other big U.S. objective—in a way, use Pakistan. Now states do that all the time. Pakistanis have always known they were being used, and have gone along with it in part to use the United States to do something else—which was always to fight India, or contest India, or compete with India.
So in a way, the relationship has always been one of those things that wasn’t really built on trust or commonality of values or purpose, but was very utilitarian in a semi-duplicitous way from the beginning. This goes back to the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. And this has continued and happened again after 9/11. The United States had pulled out of Pakistan between 1990 and 2000 because it was “shocked” to find out that Pakistan had nuclear weapons in 1990 and so had to impose sanctions that had been legislated earlier and basically pulled back.
The Pakistanis knew they had nuclear weapons. They also knew that we had these laws on the books that we had done with their help to actually ease the supply of aid to them in the 1980s, and that if it was found that they had nuclear weapons there would be sanctions. So everybody knew that but, nonetheless, it was dismaying and upsetting. So we were estranged for ten years.
During that time Pakistan cultivated the Taliban. So after 9/11, the United States comes back in and Pakistan in some sense reacts by saying, “Whoa, where the hell have you been? Now you guys come back?” And we came in very heavy-handed—we had just been attacked—so the U.S. administration came in and said, “Alright, enough of that. You’ve got to switch sides basically and turn against these guys and you’ve got to help us and work with us to get rid of al-Qaeda. And get rid of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.”
Pakistan did that under duress. In their various accounts, Pakistanis said, “We were threatened physically, we were threatened with bombing.” I don’t believe that, but I think you could have inferred from the body language that people were really pissed off and serious. And then President Pervez Musharraf and others tried to turn that into something in Pakistan’s own interest, to put Pakistan back on a modern course.
That didn’t work, again, mainly because of the obsession with India. And there were elements, as there still are today, in Pakistan—in the military, in the intelligence services—that say, “No, we need to support these jihadi guys, these guys with guns, to go after India. Either directly in Kashmir and India, or now we’re fighting to keep India out of Afghanistan, to keep Indian advantage from growing in Afghanistan. And therefore, we don’t share the same objectives as the Americans.”
The Americans are saying, you’ve got to get rid of all terrorists and Pakistan doesn’t share that same objective. Their feeling has been that once the United States gets done in Afghanistan, Pakistan will still have to protect its interests there.
And remember, the Northern Alliance and the other parts of Afghanistan are kind of mortal enemies with the Taliban, who are Pashtuns. And Pakistan is associated with the Pashtuns, so they’re looking at the future in a different way than the United States, and so they’ve never been fully on board with U.S. interests or its agenda. And the United States, therefore, hasn’t been so sensitive to the issue of Pakistani sovereignty or violating air space—although the drone attacks have been done with Pakistani knowledge.
But the U.S. view has been that we’ve got a job to do, we were attacked, and now we’ve got to do stuff, we’d like to do it with you, but if not, we’ll do it against you. So that’s been an inherent tension in the relationship all along. And it was there throughout the last decade as well. It’s become more acute now because of the death of Osama bin Laden, and because the crisis in Pakistan has gotten so much more severe, and because the war in Afghanistan kept taking a turn for the worse in 2007 and 2008—it was clear that Pakistan was supporting these guys who were making the objectives in Afghanistan impossible to achieve.
The Osama bin Laden killing could have gone several ways. But the way it went was harmful to relations, and I think mainly at the choice of the Pakistani military, who were embarrassed. But they could have come out and said, “He was violating our sovereignty by being here, he’s a terrorist and good riddance to him.” They didn’t say that. They chose to emphasize that the United States had not consulted them, had violated their sovereignty and air space in conducting the raid.
Once that became the narrative—and there were other things that happened before this, including the Raymond Davis incident, when a CIA contractor killed a couple of Pakistani intelligence operatives in February 2011. So there was background of tension that was brewing, but the Osama bin Laden killing really made the Pakistani army stand up out of hurt pride and humiliation and try to shift the blame to the United States at a time when the competence of the Pakistani army was being questioned as never before—Pakistanis asking, “How could you let the Americans get in and not know it,” and so on. And then there was a raid on a naval base a couple of weeks after that that was also humiliating.
So the military tried to focus on the United States and on the measures they were taking to basically punish the United States in response. So, “I’m still tough and in charge and now we don’t want American aid, or to not give permission for American intelligence operatives to be here.”
And to some CIA and other counterterrorism operatives, the response by Pakistan actually had an impact. So that made people in the intelligence services in the United States more angry. So at times you would see the CIA doing things clearly sending a signal to the Pakistanis, and to some in Washington, to say, “We’re really angry and we’re going to pound those guys,” even when other parts of Washington are saying, “Let’s try to heal things with the Pakistanis, let’s make nice.” So there’s lots of undercurrent of conflict and tension between the two.
Pakistan, in many ways, has been a crisis looking for an identity, from its founding in the late 1940s. It was founded in terrible and difficult circumstances, in many cases the result of British indifference or lack of foresight. So it was a violent partition.
They built a country, whose economy actually did well in the late 1950s and mid-1960s, but where there were always fundamental divisions and there was not an identity as Pakistan. You had Punjabis in what was then West Pakistan, who dominated the army and much of the leadership. But the majority of the population lived in East Pakistan, which was a thousand miles away in what is now Bangladesh. There were big cultural and economic tensions between the two wings of Pakistan. And within West Pakistan, there are tensions that are still there today, between Punjabis and the Baluchis. Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan and located in Sindh province, as we speak today, the city is virtually shut down as there’s been rampant violence and lots of killings. The army may be called in to the city. These are long-running tensions, within Sindh, within Karachi, but also between Sindh and then the other provinces.
So you have all of these internal rifts. You had the rich land owners who have never paid taxes, have never contributed their share, and they still don’t. So you have all of these internal problems—the big one with East Pakistan led to the war in 1971, a civil war between East and West Pakistan that created Bangladesh. But they’ve never healed these internal wounds.
The army has, in the majority of years, run the country. It has always been the most influential institution. And it hasn’t solved, or even come close to solving, any of these problems because they all still exist. But an army’s not well suited to actually reconciling identity or ethnic questions or questions of sharing economic resources. The only way to do that is if they are worked over time through democratic processes. You have to let people represent themselves and figure out ways to mediate and reconcile issues. And that’s never taken hold in Pakistan.
And so all of this taken together means it’s a country in a deep, deep crisis. There’s no positive story in Pakistan. People don’t have any hope for the future. There’s tremendous violence and economic corruption. Any problem, you name it, it’s in Pakistan. And the army all these years has said, “Our threat is from India, let’s focus on India.” Which, whatever you think about India right now, India just wants to leave Pakistan alone and be left alone by Pakistan. But focusing on India has allowed the army to not really pay attention to the internal problems. But they can’t avoid it anymore. The internal problems are simply overwhelming, but there’s no one there really mobilizing to try and solve them.
The hope is that there are many talented, well-intentioned, and committed Pakistanis. They are mostly in the bigger cities. They are deeply frustrated and they see all of the internal problems, they articulate them now, and they know the military is not the solution. So there’s a hope in the talent and sensibilities of those people.
But that’s as far as the hope goes at the moment because they are not organized. They’re not making alternative political parties, they’re not organizing in any kind of protest movement that could sweep out the army and so forth. People are saying, “Why doesn’t Pakistan have a revolution like Egypt,” but unlike in Egypt, Pakistan has real elections. So one reason is that they actually vote in these people. Not the army, but the government they have.
So if you were to go into the street, you’re not going to demand elections because you already have elections. You could demand that the army and the intelligence services get out of things, but they can say, “Well, we are not in them, we have elections,” and you know, the government is corrupt but people elected them and so on.”
The United States—and I think very naturally and understandably—has always seen Pakistan as a country living next to a big problem. First it was the Soviet Union and we wanted a place to base spy planes to go into Central Asia, and Pakistan was there. We were worried in the 1950s that communism would expand into the Persian Gulf, and Pakistan was there, so you make them an ally and a buffer. Then in the 1970s, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger wanted to open relations with China and Pakistan has great relations and they are our friends, so they’ll be the broker and be useful. The Soviets invade Afghanistan, we need to drive them out to win the Cold War, and Pakistan’s there so we’ll do it through Pakistan.
So the United States has always seen Pakistan as a tool for some bigger cause—again, understandably—but missing in that picture all the time was the inherent importance of Pakistan—potentially. But if you treat people as a tool and not as inherently important, at some point that will have its limitations. We’ve reached that point. Pakistan is now a country of 175 million people, which is the fifth or sixth most populous country in the world, it has nuclear weapons, it sits geographically in an important place, and it produces the terrorists that we tend to be fighting around the world.
But you can’t enable or help Pakistan be the way it needs to be to work in the world if you keep treating it as a means to an end. You have to treat Pakistan itself as the challenge, as something that’s worth trying to help improve, not to accomplish some other goal. You just have to be willing to try to help Pakistan work for Pakistanis.
And that’s the shift that has been made in the past couple of years. There is a greater awareness in Washington that this has to be done. And part of that is reflected in shifting, or at least adding, civilian assistance to what has always been a militarily dominated relationship between the two countries—the idea that we can’t just do business with the Pakistani army and that we have to develop civilian institutions.
But this awareness and focus on Pakistan is very incomplete. And it’s very hard to work there, so what we’re doing there now is also backfiring—even with good intentions.
Well, one thing that already began by accident as a result of the Osama bin Laden aftermath, when the United States said, “We’re going to withhold $800 million in assistance to the military,” because the military wasn’t doing what they said they were supposed to do. And now the military says, “We don’t want it.”
That’s good. The United States should—not in a punitive way, I would argue—understand that the Pakistani army was never going to fight our fight. For ten years we were trying to get the Pakistani army and the ISI to stop the Haqqani network and others operating from Pakistan and Afghanistan. And the Pakistanis have always felt, “That’s your fight, America. Those are your enemies in Afghanistan, they’re not our enemies.” And that’s right. And we kept deluding ourselves that if we gave them a little more money or threatened to withdraw some money, somehow they would turn on these guys. That’s not going to happen and we should stop pretending that it is and withdraw the money.
What we should do is say, “Look, our highest priority is the security and eventual reduction of violence in Pakistan. We want to protect Pakistani lives, we want you, the Pakistani security services, to protect the rights and lives of your people. So, if you’re prepared to go after the internal terrorists in Pakistan, to strengthen your police, to disband jihadi groups, to go in when places are recruiting and it’s obvious they’re recruiting them to become terrorists, and to go in and interrupt that, we’re prepared to provide whatever help you think we could to be useful. But we’re not going to keep pushing you to fight our wars.” So that’s one thing we could do. Focus on the internal struggle in Pakistan, and the police and other institutions.
There’s another thing. The United States is willing to provide billions of dollars in assistance to Pakistan, but a few members of Congress are blocking lowering tariffs on Pakistani textiles and apparel, which is one of Pakistan’s big industries. It’s primitive, but it’s what they do. But because of high U.S. tariff rates, they can’t sell many of their products in the United States. And a few members in Congress, to protect the tiny industry in the United States, won’t lower those tariff rates, which would make a big difference in Pakistan. And it wouldn’t be aid, it would be trade, and we always say, “Trade, not aid,” because trade is so much more dignified, it makes people genuinely be and feel prouder. But when it comes to Pakistan, who is our great friend, we can’t lower these tariff rates—which by the way, would hurt the Chinese more than anybody else because they’d be the ones losing market share. So that’s something we could do.
There’s another thing to do. In the very understandable effort to build a relationship with India, sometimes the United States acts in ways that suggest to Pakistanis and other Muslims that their lives are worth much less than Indians. So, when there’s a terrorist attack in India, we very correctly denounce it and show great concern, but when Pakistanis are victims of a terrorist attack we don’t say anything—that’s happened with a train that was coming from India to Pakistan and people were burned alive, and it happens in Kashmir, where Muslims have been abused by the security forces. And the United States doesn’t say anything. But to Pakistanis, what’s happened to their people or to their fellow Muslims is an act of terror and, in their view, it’s being done by a friend of the United States and the United States isn’t saying anything. But whenever Pakistan does something, there is a denunciation. So I think a greater expression of respect for lives, wherever they are lost, and speaking out against the violation of human rights wherever it occurs, would be useful in Pakistan.
And then lastly, the United States has, beginning in 2009 under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation, made more assistance available for civilian and development work in Pakistan. But it is so encumbered by concerns—again, understandable—about corruption, that very little of the assistance is actually being delivered.
And I joke that the conditions that are required mean the bill should really be called the Full Employment for Pakistani Accountants Act. Basically, to reassure Congress that the money is not being misspent, people have to hire all these accountants in organizations that are tiny grassroots organizations—it’s absurd. Not that corruption is a good thing, but basically, in trying to prevent a scandal and someone in Congress getting up and saying, “My God, this money has been misspent,” you end up spending more U.S. taxpayer dollars, with all of the red tape and bureaucracy and conditions, then if you just went ahead and allowed normal vetting and you took the risk of corruption. It’s stupid and it’s all about covering people’s behinds.
And then also, because of security and other reasons, U.S. officials who are supposed to be out figuring out who to give the money and grants to, they rotate every year. They’re not in the country for even a year and then they rotate out. So they don’t know the place and they don’t have the network. It is destined to fail. It’s destined not to work.
We need to pause the program. Don’t take the money off the table, but pause and work with Pakistani counterparts and multinational actors that are there and can act more freely and securely and figure out how to pool investments, and figure out the willingness of the United States to provide resources to Pakistan so that they actually get there. Because right now, it is counterproductive. Everyone in Pakistan knows that the aid is not getting there and they know all of these horror stories. And people in Washington know the stories, so what was intended to be an expression of genuine cooperation and a desire for Pakistan’s success is now again a sign of the opposite.
The Carnegie South Asia Program informs policy debates relating to the region’s security, economy, and political development. From the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan’s internal dynamics to U.S. engagement with India, the Program’s renowned team of experts offer in-depth analysis derived from their unique access to the people and places defining South Asia’s most critical challenges.
Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!
You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.