The United States has dealt with Pakistan as a client state for more than half a century. This technique worked reasonably well when the interests of both countries coincided, such as during the Afghan war in the 1980s. Today, the relationship is complicated by the U.S.-India rapprochement, the rise of Islamist groups in Pakistan, Islamabad's security-oriented world view, and the role of the Pakistani army. Washington is at a crossroads: can the United States continue to engage Pakistan or has the time come for a different strategy? Christophe Jaffrelot, a Senior Research Fellow at CNRS, explored the feasibility and the implications of both alternatives. Carnegie’s Ashley J. Tellis moderated.

A History of Clientelism

Tellis began by noting that Pakistan presents one of the most difficult of foreign policy conundrums today and dealing with Pakistan taxes the imagination and capability of American policymakers. However, Pakistan is important, not just because of its significance in the war on terror, but also due to its large population, its nuclear weapons, and its place in the larger trajectory of the South Asia region and greater Asia.

Jaffrelot agreed, noting that the U.S.-Pakistani relationship must be understood as a variety of clientelism:

  • A Patron-Client Relationship: Jaffrelot defined a patron-client relationship as a relationship of dependence based on a mutual exchange of favors between two parties with an unequal distribution of resources. He highlighted the instrumental nature of such relationships.
  • History of Clientelism: From the very beginning of Pakistan’s independence, it established a patron-client relationship with the United States, Jaffrelot explained. In 1947, Pakistan looked to the United States for security aid against the predations of its larger neighbor, and Washington in turn drafted Pakistan into its Cold War sphere of influence. Since then, the relationship has been very successful when the interests of the two nations have coincided, as during the anti-Soviet jihad.
  • History of Instability: As in any interests-based relationship, a history of instability between the two states has also emerged as their interests have changed and evolved over time, Jaffrelot added.

The Collapse of Clientelism

  • A New Bargain: After 9/11, President Bush and General Musharraf arranged a new deal – Pakistan would fight al-Qaeda and other terrorists, and in exchange, it would get financial aid from the United States, Jaffrelot said. But by 2006, the client could not deliver any more, since all al-Qaeda operatives had been given up and Pakistan refused to go as far as the United States wanted in tackling safe havens.
  • An Attempt at Resuscitation: President Obama re-negotiated the tacit bargain, allowing the Pakistani army to leave the safe havens alone but inserting U.S. drones to do the job for them, he said. Simultaneously, the United States would begin to re-direct the flow of aid away from the military sector and towards the civilian one.
  • A Floundering Relationship: Jaffrelot argued that this new bargain has not worked, either. The U.S. strategy of using drones in the tribal areas is not effective enough in combating enemies like the Haqqani network, which only Pakistan can do. Moreover, other issues – such as the bin Laden raid, the U.S.-India rapprochement, and national opprobrium over continuing American drone strikes – have significantly undermined relationship, even as the majority of American aid continues to go into the pockets of the military.

Moving Forward

Jaffrelot declared that the U.S.-Pakistan patron-client relationship was no longer viable, and that a new set of American policies would been needed instead:

  • Overcoming Denial: Jaffrelot urged that policymakers overcome the public denial about the nature of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as the first step towards a newly-designed and constructive partnership.
  • Both Containment and Engagement: Both containment and engagement are necessary to deal with Pakistan, Jaffrelot argued. Pakistan cannot be ignored or isolated because it has nuclear weapons, hosts some global terrorist groups, and has the ability to sabotage the Afghanistan transition process. On the other hand, Pakistan must be contained because of the terrorist groups within the country that have the ability to reach American targets.
  • A Resulting Policy Mix: Jaffrelot identified several policies that would need to be implemented to both contain and engage Pakistan:

    • Reduce Dependence: Washington must seek to reduce its military dependence on Pakistan by reducing the supply lines running through Pakistan and by investing in more of a permanent presence in Afghanistan, he argued.
    • Stop Augmenting the Pakistan Army: Jaffrelot urged the United States to cease transferring certain non-counterterrorism weapons to the Pakistan military.
    • Engage with Pakistan: The United States should curtail drone attacks on Pakistani soil. It should also recognize that while the Pakistani military cannot resolve the country’s problems, the same is likely true of its politicians. He argued that Washington should provide aid to Pakistan’s commercial sector, in part through more liberal trade relations. Tellis noted that although this may seem to be a hard sell politically, the economics of it are sound.

Jaffrelot concluded by painting a dire picture of what might occur in Afghanistan in the absence of a bolstered U.S.-Pakistan relationship: an increase in cross-border attacks, a sabotaged transition, and a return to near civil war, as in pre-1996, with rampant militias and a need to cobble together a new security structure within Afghanistan similar to the Northern Alliance. In short, he argued, the costs of failure are a return to square one in Afghanistan.