The killing of Osama bin Laden and the recent drone strike against al-Qaeda’s number two in Pakistan have added additional stress to an already tense U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Compounding the issue, Pakistan faces increasing problems from militants at home. In a video Q&A, Stephen Tankel discusses U.S. policy toward Pakistan, how to fix the trust deficit between the two countries, and how they can cooperate on counterterrorism.
- What is the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations following the killing of Osama bin Laden?
- What is the significance of the death of al-Qaeda’s number two, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman? How effective are drone strikes?
- What should the U.S. foreign policy be toward Pakistan?
- Should the United States scale back aid to Pakistan?
- Is Pakistan playing a double game?
- What needs to be done to fix the trust deficit?
- Are there Pakistani terrorist groups who have the ability to attack the United States?
- What is behind the recent uptick of violence within Pakistan and what needs to be done to stop it?
- How will the troop drawdown in Afghanistan impact Washington’s relations with Islamabad?
- How should the United States and Pakistan cooperate on counterterrorism?
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship was already going downhill prior to the death of Osama bin Laden. After 2010, when the United States increased forces in Afghanistan, relations began to deteriorate and they dropped quite a bit further following the Raymond Davis incident. But of course the Bin Laden raid in May probably brought them to a new low since 9/11 and relations continue to be quite tense. Both sides are not prepared to walk away from the relationship but are beginning to reassess what the nature of that relationship should be going forward.
What is the significance of the death of al-Qaeda’s number two, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman? How effective are drone strikes?
Of course it’s significant that he was killed in Pakistan. There have been suspicions for quite some time that al-Qaeda’s top leadership was on the Pakistani side of the border and this is one of the main sticking points for the bilateral relationship between the United States and Pakistan.
In terms of drone strikes from a wider perspective, this is exactly the type of drone strike that the United States should be executing. It was against a high value target and it’s going to have significant impact on an operational and probably also a strategic level within al-Qaeda. Al-Rahman was not only responsible for liaising on an operational level with a lot of different outfits, but he was also somebody who was attuned to concerns about violence against Muslims and this is a strategic debate going on within al-Qaeda right now. So, on a whole host of levels, this is exactly the type of drone strike that I think the United States should be doing.
That said, a lot of the drone strikes that have been carried out (at least as far as we can determine from the open source evidence which is often quite difficult to gather) have targeted much lower level operatives. There is a question in terms of whether the benefits of those strikes outweigh the costs—they anger the Pakistani populace, create tensions within the bilateral relationship, and there is the fact that regardless of whether or not those strikes are killing civilians they are perceived to be and therefore may be creating more foot soldiers.
U.S. foreign policy toward Pakistan goes beyond just cooperation in terms of counterterrorism, although that is a very important component of it. There are also regional diplomatic initiatives in Afghanistan, there are counter-proliferation issues that the United States needs to be concerned about, and then there’s the wider issue of regional stability with which Pakistan plays a major part, particularly because of the intense India-Pakistan relationship. Over time, my sense is that both regional stability and U.S. interests in the region will benefit if Pakistan is able to improve its own economic performance, its civilian governance, its infrastructure—all of these things are interests for the United States.
Civilian aid should continue for several reasons. One, civilian assistance is an important way of signaling that the United States will continue to maintain a relationship with Pakistan over the long term, and that is something that is very important for putting Pakistani concerns at ease and sending a message to the populace. Two, civilian aid is important for building governance mechanisms and helping to straighten out Pakistan’s economy and stabilize it to the degree possible.
Military aid, however, is a different story. The military aid package needs to be restructured. While the United States may feel that it has the right to dictate the terms of the aid package, Pakistan disagrees. I’m not suggesting that there shouldn’t be metrics, that aid shouldn’t be conditioned, but rather that we may have a more fruitful relationship if the United States and Pakistan negotiated what those indicators should be. This could lead to a scaling back of aid, but that’s something both sides need to work out together.
Of course right now given the state of the relationship, I don’t know if there’s stomach on either side for a constructive engagement along those lines. In terms of the U.S. military aid package, it would be quite useful if there was a greater focus on civilian intelligence agencies and civilian law enforcement. And any aid package to the military should be contingent upon aid for civilian intelligence agencies and civilian law enforcement being accepted and that U.S. civilian trainers should be able to work with Pakistan’s civilian agencies.
Yes. The security establishment continues to play a double game and this has been happening since 9/11. It is not just that the Pakistanis are continuing to support some outfits and aren’t doing some of the things that the United States would like them to do. It is also important to remember that the United States is getting assistance in certain areas—it hasn’t completely ceased. Supplies continue to transit through Pakistan into Afghanistan even though counterterrorism cooperation has suffered since the Raymond Davis affair and particularly the Bin Laden raid and the United States has the largest diplomatic mission in Pakistan for example.
So as bad as it is right now, the relationship could certainly decline further. Will the double game continue? Absolutely. But that means that the United States is getting some cooperation, it’s just not getting nearly as much as it would like.
The United States and Pakistan have different objectives and perspectives in terms of what it’s going to take to ensure their security. That is particularly true in terms of how the United States and Pakistan view certain militant groups on Pakistani soil. While they can agree on the need for action against outfits like the Pakistani Taliban or al-Qaeda, there is a significant divergence in terms of groups like the Haqqani network and Lakshar-e-Taiba.
Those groups are not, at the organizational level, attacking the Pakistani state and they continue to serve a purpose for Pakistan geopolitically as a balance against India. The United States, on the other hand, sees them as a significant security threat. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the divergences that take place.
It’s going to be very difficult to rebuild the trust deficit, but one of the things that is going to be necessary is a franker exchange about what each side can and cannot expect from the other. Some of the travails that the relationship has suffered have been as a result of unrealistic expectations on both sides.
There are several Pakistani outfits that have the capability to launch a strike against the United States, whether they could do so unilaterally or collaboratively is very difficult to determine. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan has already attempted an attack against the United States last year.
Lashkar-e-Taiba has probably the most robust transnational networks of any of these groups. It has trained U.S. operatives in the past, but its intention to attack the United States is less clear—it appears that it’s under significant pressure from the ISI not to launch strikes against the United States.
When I was recently in Pakistan, I had a number of military and intelligence officials say to me, “Listen, you think we don’t understand the stakes involved if LeT hits America?” But they really do seem to understand. The question is, what are they prepared to do about that? The approach thus far has been to try to keep Lashkar-e-Taiba under control, to keep the organization from striking the U.S. homeland or U.S. or allied interests in Europe or in the region.
Having just had conversations with a number of people from law enforcement—from various militant groups and journalists—in Pakistan, one of the things that is cause for concern is the degree to which control over the group’s leadership translates to control over mid-level commanders in the rank and file. This goes to the concerns about a collaborative strike of some nature or an unsanctioned attack by one of these groups that the Pakistani ISI is attempting to keep in a box.
Pakistan has been suffering from terrorism attacks and insurgency in the tribal areas since before 2007, but certainly since 2007/2008 there’s been a steady drumbeat of attacks. These often occur in the heartland, in Punjab Province, and elsewhere in Pakistan, based on what’s happening in the tribal areas.
One of the things that I was looking at when I was in Pakistan was the role that the outfits that were initially headquartered and grew out of Punjab Province play in this. It’s quite apparent that several things are happening. The first is that there’s a rise of a new generation of militants who are tied to these networks but who aren’t under the control of the leadership the way some of the older generations are today.
The second thing that is happening is that some people from these groups leave and form splinter outfits or become part of new networks, and they are also able to make use of the infrastructure that existed in the past. And then the third thing that is happening is that there are completely independent actors who are often involved in criminality and may transition over to jihadism. There’s an economic interest in this as well—one sees warlordism and jihadism often overlapping, particularly in the tribal areas.
In terms of Pakistani perceptions on what can be done about this, one of the things that I was struck by in talking with security officials and law enforcement is that there’s a real disconnect within the establishment over whether this is an existential problem or not. There are those who are working at the ground level who see it as a major threat that needs to be rolled back, but there are others who believe that this is manageable, and that the way to avoid inflaming the threat is to avoid going after those groups that haven’t turned their guns on the Pakistani state even when the infrastructure belonging to those groups is being used for attacks against the Pakistani state.
And that’s a real debate, and until that debate is resolved it’s going to be very difficult to have a long-term, lasting solution. Instead, it will be a question of managing violence rather than ending it. Part and parcel to that is also of course debates about what deradicalization would look like in Pakistan. I was at a conference on deradicalization and while the army, civilian government, and NGOs are to be commended for working to deradicalize individuals who are part of the insurgency in Swat, there doesn’t appear to be a real plan in place for demobilizing some of the extant organizations and movements in the country.
There are different schools of thought in terms of how a troop withdrawal is going to impact the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. On the one hand, the need for supplies to move through Pakistan decreases as more troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan. This is one of the areas where the Pakistanis have leverage over the United States. If there is some sort of a political settlement in Afghanistan—even if some troops remain in Afghanistan—and that settlement is acceptable to the Pakistanis, then it could also potentially reorder or change their calculus vis-à-vis some of the insurgent movements that are currently enjoying sanctuary on Pakistani soil.
On the flip side, there are Pakistani concerns about an Afghanistan that is out of control. Part of their support for some of these insurgent movements stems not just from a desire to see an Afghanistan that is friendly to Pakistan, but one that is also stable. Their belief, at least publicly stated, is that they need to have their own dog in the fight in case things devolve after the U.S. withdrawal.
So on the one hand, it’s “we don’t want the United States to leave because we don’t want instability” and on the other hand “if the United States would just leave Afghanistan, then everything would be better.” Of course we won’t know the answer to that until the troop withdrawal actually takes place, and a lot of this will also depend on how many troops are left in the country and on the degree to which a political settlement is possible to attain.
The United States and Pakistan are going to need to continue to cooperate on counterterrorism, whether they’d like to or not. From the U.S. perspective, it can degrade the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan and it can work with allies outside of Pakistan to interdict some of those who are trying to get training there or are trying to leave to come back to do attacks. But the United States cannot dismantle an infrastructure on its own, and it’s going to need Pakistan’s cooperation to do it.
On the flip side, while the Pakistanis have improved in terms of their counterinsurgency efforts, this has been in large part due to financial, technological, and training assistance from the United States. Counterterrorism, however, lags far behind, particularly from a law enforcement perspective. And those are the type of capabilities that Pakistan is going to need to protect itself, because the army isn’t going to be deployed in Punjab province. The army can be deployed to the tribal areas to pacify things (and it has had mixed results at this stage), but it can’t be deployed in Punjab province. So if there were a spike in attacks in Punjab, the police are going to need to manage this along with civilian intelligence agencies.
In the area of counterterrorism, Pakistan will continue to need security assistance from the United States. So both sides are going to need to continue to work with one another—whether they’d like to or not.