Islamabad has been trying to send signals over the last few months indicating that it is pursuing a new course of action, both internally and externally, that is more in line with international norms. Pakistan has tried to improve its relationship with India. It has also indicated a preference for a negotiated peace in Afghanistan and demonstrated a new attitude toward terrorism. 

Of course, claims that Pakistan’s policies are changing in one way or another are not new. And in the past, the status quo ante has almost always prevailed. But this could be different.

The context is different this time. The looming international troop withdrawal from Afghanistan brings considerable risks for the region in general and for Pakistan in particular. Islamabad fears that, come 2014, it will face an unstable Afghanistan and find itself isolated regionally and globally. 

For the United States, as new faces enter the Departments of State and Defense, reasonably good relations with Pakistan are a prerequisite for a dignified and safe exit from Afghanistan. Politically, their main challenge will be to work out necessary compromises with Islamabad without risking further deterioration of the regional situation, which could affect Washington’s larger strategic objectives in Asia. 

In this context, understanding Pakistan’s new policies and their limits is key. Change in Pakistan’s relations with India and Afghanistan and in its sponsorship of terrorism for political purposes is real but does not yet indicate a fundamental shift in strategic thinking. The shift thus far has been prompted by short-term considerations and reflects Pakistan’s weakness and isolation. However, if the tentative changes lead to improvement in the country’s economy and security, a meaningful shift in Pakistan’s strategic character could take hold.

The Pakistan-India Normalization Process 

Relations with India are a good indicator of the reality of any change in Pakistan’s foreign policy. The relationship was notably bad following the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, but it has warmed up since the March 2011 resumption of the so-called composite dialogue on bilateral issues. Later that year, Pakistan announced that it would grant India most-favored-nation trade status by the end of 2012, thus reciprocating India’s gesture of 1996. Interior Ministers Sushil Kumar Shinde and Rehman Malik also agreed on a new visa regime, hailed as another sign of change. 

But the most-favored-nation decision has not yet been implemented, and the visa regime agreement was put on hold after clashes began on January 6 along the Line of Control that forms India’s border with Pakistan in Kashmir. 

The two countries seem willing to ease tensions and avoid escalation, but questions about the sustainability of the normalization process are legitimate. They can be partly answered through a careful examination of the motivations behind the rapprochement.  

Short-term considerations may have played a part. President Asif Ali Zardari needed to show some political achievement in the face of increasing domestic criticism due to the country’s perceived poor economic performance, while the army seemed to be overstretched and in need of a respite on the eastern front so it could focus on its war against militancy in western Pakistan. This has been particularly true because relations with the United States remain complicated and characterized by deep mistrust on both sides. 

Longer-term, structural factors also contributed to Islamabad’s decisions. As observed by well-known Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, peace with India remains the dividing line between the political leadership and the armed forces. A successful peace process would inevitably diminish the political weight of the military and reduce its budget. It is therefore something the civilian government would seek to bolster its own standing.

Economic considerations were also important in Pakistan’s decision to change tack. In addition to governance-related problems (widespread blackouts, for example), Chinese goods are now being dumped on the Pakistani market. Small and midsize Pakistani enterprises are struggling to survive. Pakistan can no longer afford the type of triangular trade it has practiced with India in the past, shipping goods through third countries. Such a system costs it several billions of dollars every year. Direct trade with India is becoming a necessity even for basic commodities like electrical power. 

Under pressure from industrialists and with its significant corporate holdings suffering, the Pakistani military leadership has also lent its support to the current rapprochement with India. As Pakistan is unlikely to bring its economy back on track in the near future, its eagerness to forge closer trading ties with its old rival is likely to endure for some time.

The recent clashes between Pakistani and Indian forces in Kashmir, irrespective of which side is responsible for the fighting, indicate that tensions exist within the Pakistani security establishment about Islamabad’s India policy. While occasional incidents are perhaps inevitable in the tense Kashmir environment, the alleged mutilation of the bodies of Indian soldiers could be interpreted as a provocation and an indication that the current course of action remains problematic in some quarters. 

Moreover, there is no visible sign that the military intends to dismantle militant organizations with a record of attacking India in Kashmir and elsewhere. So long as groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba persist, hostilities could resume, with or without the consent of the military. However, the fact that no major terrorist attack originating within Pakistan has taken place since the 2008 Mumbai attacks may indicate that Pakistan can control some of its most dangerous jihadi organizations, even if that control is not absolute.

The rapprochement with India is therefore fragile. But given the convergence of short- and long-term interests within Pakistan, the normalization could be expected to last. Should it endure, it would also enlarge the political space open to the civilian government, which has always been in favor of better economic relations with India and whose economic interests partly coincide (for once) with those of the military. 

And if it lasts long enough, a warmer India-Pakistan dynamic could even alter the security establishment’s perception of India. This may not be sufficient to change Pakistan’s India-centric strategic calculations, but it could create an intermediary situation that would eventually permit a more comprehensive shift. That remains, however, purely speculative at this stage. 

Pakistan and Reconciliation in Afghanistan

Pakistan’s position on Afghanistan and its medium-term intentions and capabilities are more difficult to read. For months, the Pakistani leadership has said that its Afghan policy has changed. Military authorities claim that the country is not part of the Afghan conflict and that they favor political reconciliation. 

As proof of its goodwill, Islamabad has released several Taliban prisoners, its first gesture toward the Afghan government since 2009, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai initiated a rapprochement with Islamabad to diminish his government’s dependency on Washington. In an even more dramatic move, Pakistani officials say that they will release all Afghan Taliban prisoners, though it is unclear whether the prisoners can really be helpful in the reconciliation process. 

There is, however, no doubt that Islamabad’s policies have shifted. The massive release of prisoners itself constitutes a major change. And Pakistan has also reached out to some members of the former Northern Alliance, which fought against the Pashtun-dominated Taliban government before the Afghan war began—an indication that Islamabad does not want to be seen as supporting exclusively the Pashtun elements. Given their large numbers on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, could, if united, make the border areas on both sides totally uncontrollable.

Hedging its bets, Pakistan has insisted that the circle at negotiations be widened beyond the Taliban. It has called for the inclusion of the Haqqani network in any negotiation with the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the militant political party Hezb-i-Islami. That leaves open the possibility to play one faction against another should the Pashtun question become too salient, despite the fact that Haqqani has sworn allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, which should de facto make the Taliban the sole representative of the insurgency.

Pakistan’s position can be explained at several levels. There seems to be no doubt that the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan is generating a considerable amount of anxiety in Islamabad because it could affect the entire spectrum of threats Pakistan believes it is already facing. 

The Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), a Pakistani radical movement that targets the Pakistani state, now operates from Afghanistan, which means Islamabad faces the prospect of a durable threat emanating from its neighbor’s territory in much the same way that Western and Afghan forces long suffered the consequences of terrorist sanctuaries on Pakistan’s territory. To date, the presence of Western troops in Afghanistan has kept groups like the TTP in check and limited their prospects for development. But with the upcoming departure of Western forces, Islamabad rightly fears that the TTP or a comparable movement will benefit from the opportunities presented by Afghanistan’s vast territory. 

This situation would be further aggravated if relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan were to deteriorate. Given that Pakistan’s conventional military capabilities far exceed Afghanistan’s, Kabul could be tempted to sponsor proxy terrorism against Pakistan, which Islamabad already suspects Kabul is doing. The consequences would be the continuation of terrorism on Pakistan’s territory or a bilateral conflict with its weaker neighbor (or both). Past cross-border exchanges of artillery between the two countries make this scenario highly credible. Either outcome would threaten to radically destabilize Pakistan, especially given the potential impact on the Pashtun populations on both sides of the border.  

Pakistan also fears that the departure of Western troops will open the door to greater Indian influence in Afghanistan. Moreover, India is playing a larger role in training the Afghan armed forces, which Pakistan views with concern. Islamabad is also aware that it cannot hope to match Indian contributions to the Afghan economy and is therefore incapable of buying Afghan goodwill.  

Pakistan may have considered several possible courses of events when developing its current Afghanistan policy. But it is obviously keeping all of its options open.

Islamabad may have based its thinking on the assumption that a military victory by one or several Afghan factions is unlikely in the short term, including after the Western withdrawal. But should this assumption prove incorrect, and should one faction—which could be its Taliban protégés—gain control of Afghanistan, it seems probable that Islamabad understands that it would be impossible for Pakistan to control Kabul, reinforcing the risks Pakistan faces. And Islamabad may have decided to delay taking action in Afghanistan and await or even facilitate the Western withdrawal in order to promote its preferred option later. 

None of these scenarios excludes the others. In all three of them, a negotiated solution to the conflict in Afghanistan is a desirable outcome for Pakistan in the short term. 

Further supporting this end goal, Pakistan’s security establishment probably expects that better relations with Kabul would promote cooperation on counterterrorism efforts directed against Afghanistan-based groups that target Pakistan. Endorsing negotiations, moreover, would paint Pakistan as a responsible stakeholder in the eyes of the international community, helping rebuild its reputation and denying its regional rivals an argument for excluding the Pakistani stake from Afghanistan’s future.  

But with a slightly longer view, any negotiated agreement is likely to be perceived in Islamabad as a potential threat due to the risk of irredentist Pashtun designs (no longer articulated around traditionally secular Pashtun nationalism but radical ideology) on Pakistani territory. A “successful” negotiation could result in three potential outcomes.

First, the Taliban could participate in the central government, which would gradually consolidate. In that case, the risk for Pakistan would be similar to that of a Taliban victory: the consolidation of the Afghan state, the stoking of nationalism in opposition to Pakistan, and a Kabul government beyond Islamabad’s control.

Second, the Taliban could gain control (alone or with other proxies of Pakistan) of Pashtun-populated provinces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In the short term, this would constitute a net gain for Pakistan, as it would limit the threat of foreign influence in its immediate vicinity. In the medium term, however, there could be a real risk that the Pashtunistan claim—calls for the reunification of the Pashtun population living on both sides of the border—would reemerge with the support of both the Afghan Taliban and the TTP and its affiliates.

Third, any combination of those scenarios would only increase the risk in the medium and long term.

These risks could be mitigated by various confidence-building measures and a greater degree of cooperation between Islamabad and Kabul, including in the area of counterterrorism. But given the resentment that has accumulated over the years, confidence building is likely to be a very slow process and could easily be disrupted at any stage.  

While a negotiated settlement could help Pakistan in the short term but potentially hurt it in the medium term, a continuation of the conflict in Afghanistan would do the opposite. Though it would be damaging for Pakistan in the short term, the situation would remain manageable and would prevent Pashtun irredentism from becoming a political force.

In the end, Islamabad will push for the agreement most favorable to its own interests. It will likely be one similar to the “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015” presented by the Afghan High Peace Council and reportedly concluded between Afghan and Pakistani officials. But that agreement is very favorable to Islamabad’s interests and is likely to be rejected by the legally sanctioned parties that oppose President Karzai and by the Taliban for that reason. In Afghanistan, it will likely generate negative reactions that would potentially accelerate the trend toward civil war. 

Therefore, Pakistan may choose instead to accept the negotiation of an agreement that is more inclusive of all Afghan factions, in which its potential gains would be less substantial but more sustainable.

Counterterrorism: Where and Against Whom?

Signs of change in Pakistani behavior in matters of terrorism emerged with the August 2012 speech of General Pervez Kayani, Pakistan’s highly influential chief of army staff. Kayani condemned extremism and terrorism, which he described as potential triggers of civil war. And he also called for constitutional solutions and the mobilization of the entire nation against terrorism. He said the army’s ultimate success was dependent on that mobilization. Words were turned into action, and the fight against the TTP intensified.

That fight gave credit to Kayani’s alleged determination to eradicate terrorism. As on several occasions before, some observers concluded that Pakistan had finally understood where its real interests were. Pakistan has reasons for concern. More than 45,500 Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist violence in the last ten years, including 4,855 Pakistani security forces. 

However, Pakistan’s record in fighting terrorism remains dubious. The military opposes terrorism that is directed at itself or other Pakistani state institutions and objectives. But there are other practitioners of terrorism that direct their efforts against India, Afghanistan, and Baloch that the military does not challenge. 

One may argue that the Pakistani armed forces are not capable of fighting all their adversaries at once, and that argument is real. Moreover, efforts to disarm these groups could have a blowback effect on Pakistan. 

But Pakistan’s refusal to bring the culprits of the Mumbai attacks to justice reflects, at the least, a very deep ambiguity vis-à-vis terrorism, including toward groups that could directly affect Pakistan’s relations with India. While Kayani described the war against terrorism as the nation’s “just war,” the Pakistani state has been less than willing to combat groups more favorable to its own interests, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The army also seems to discount terrorist attacks carried out by state-backed proxies, including sectarian ones, in support of its domestic political agenda. Balochistan, where Pakistan’s Frontier Corps is fighting a separatist insurgency with the support of the intelligence agencies, is the most important case of selectivity in abjuring political violence of a terrorist nature. 

It is thus premature to say that a fundamental change has occurred in the Pakistani state’s attitudes regarding the use of terrorism in pursuit of political objectives.

Policy Implications for the United States

Bearing in mind 2011, the annus horribilis in the history of U.S.-Pakistani relations, and the months of painful negotiations over supply lines running to Afghanistan through Pakistani territory in 2012, any assessment of Pakistan’s behavior will inevitably involve political considerations as well as the careful and objective analysis of the state’s already-complex behavior. 

In such a context, it makes sense to take Pakistan at its own word. It makes sense to encourage whatever initiative can truly help promote stability in the region. But it would be a mistake to once again rescue Pakistan from any negative fallout of its own wrongdoing and concede more than is necessary in dealing with Islamabad. 

Changes in Pakistan’s policy often reflect the state’s weaknesses rather than an evolution of its philosophy regarding any specific issue. Encouraging positive trends will therefore require that Pakistan be left to face the consequences of its own policies. 

Pakistan’s trade relationship with India will develop on its own. Pakistani policymakers and businesspeople alike understand the fact that economic cooperation with India would make Pakistan better off. It seems rather preferable to let the burgeoning relationship develop within its current bilateral framework in which, for example, the prevention of terrorist incidents between the two countries will define the pace and scope of their rapprochement. The United States should not attempt to provide Pakistan with alternative opportunities by offering preferential trade agreements to compensate for a missing India-Pakistan economic relationship. India is Pakistan’s most natural trading partner. 

Recent incidents in Kashmir demonstrate that true normalization will be difficult to achieve, but they also indicate that there is a significant Pakistani constituency that favors peace. This constituency will not be strengthened by outside support but by the requirements of the Pakistani economy. 

In Afghanistan, where Pakistan is isolated, the United States should encourage Islamabad to search for broad-based agreements that include all factions rather than favoring deals with a limited set of participants. Negotiations that include the insurgents, the current government, and legal opposition parties would perhaps limit Pakistani influence in Afghanistan’s future, but they would also limit the role of all outside interference. Moreover, they would hardly preclude Pakistan from playing a role in the region and would, therefore, be more likely to lead to a more sustainable peace. 

To the extent possible, the question of terrorism should no longer be addressed bilaterally and subject to the vagaries of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. This approach has so far met with very limited success and has only politicized the issue beyond reasonable levels, especially where questions of Pakistani sovereignty are concerned. Addressing the question of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in multilateral forums, such as the UN Security Council or the UN Human Rights Commission, and in keeping with international norms would shift the debate from sovereignty to responsibility. It would also diminish the impact of the issue on already-difficult U.S.-Pakistani relations. 

The depoliticization of the issue would also make it easier for a broader coalition of countries to support whatever course of action the international community might embrace and to bring more unified and effective pressure to bear against Pakistan if need be. This does not necessarily mean sanctions would be imposed on Pakistan, as Islamabad would most likely count on its Chinese allies to veto any threatening text. But it would expose Pakistan’s wrongdoings, inevitably isolating Islamabad internationally and creating incentives to change policy.    

None of these approaches would require a dramatic change of U.S. policy or end all possibility of cooperation with Islamabad. It is well past time for the United States to accept that Pakistan is a sovereign country, to leave it more alone and less entangled in the international context, and to treat it as a rational actor capable of adjusting to the consequences of its own actions.