The End of Illusions


There are no more illusions in U.S.-Pakistan relations. Pakistan feels bitter about Washington’s embrace of India and the blowback from U.S. counter-terrorism policies. Washington feels embittered by Pakistan’s decisions and seeming incapability of changing course.

In retrospect, the last stand of wishful thinking in the United States was the 2010 Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation. Washington’s strategy back then was to put more money on the table to incentivize a reconsideration of Pakistan’s policies toward internal threats, Afghanistan, ties with India, and its nuclear posture.

From Washington’s perspective, the timing of KLB seemed right. A new civilian government was in place and in need of reinforcement. A thaw with India – a necessary condition to spur Pakistan’s economic growth – seemed possible. Perhaps Pakistan could be persuaded to not veto negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, since it was harming Pakistan’s standing without constraining India. And maybe both countries could collaborate on finding a workable political settlement in Afghanistan.

KLB did not fare very well. Well meaning but tone deaf Members of Congress included a provision supporting civilian control of the military, prompting a backlash and antagonizing those capable of changing Pakistan’s national security policies. Pakistan took the money and didn’t change most of its policies. The big exception was that Pakistan’s military took on the Pakistan Taliban.

Six years after KLB, relations have reached another low point. Messages to move past the “blame game” will be again be heard, but this talking point has lost its powers of persuasion, as has the theme of betrayal. On Capitol Hill, Members of Congress are losing sympathy with Pakistan on Capitol Hill. Afghan Taliban leaders still find refuge on Pakistan’s soil where they are periodically targeted by drone strikes that damage the standing of both Pakistan and the United States. Hope has waned on negotiations over Afghanistan’s future and Afghan-Pakistan relations. The Indian Prime Minister makes a surprise visit to Lahore to jump-start improved relations, only to be stymied by the usual blocking action – an attack on a sensitive Indian target by cadres from an extremist group that finds safe haven in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal continues to grow faster than India’s even though Pakistan’s economy is nine times smaller.

The end of illusions helps to explain Capitol Hill’s behavior toward the F-16 sale. The only choices Congress seriously considered were to block the sale or to require payment in full. Yes, Washington appreciates the sacrifices made by Pakistan’s military in dealing with the Pakistan Taliban – a campaign that relies partly on F-16 sorties. But Members of Congress also recognize that money is fungible; helping Pakistan to finance the purchase of F-16s will free up money for choices that are contrary to U.S. foreign policy and national security interests.

The Obama administration has lost leverage it previously had on Capitol Hill in support of Pakistan. Its talking points are no more persuasive than Pakistan’s when it comes to the Haqqani network. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker fought back efforts to kill the sale, while insisting that Pakistan prioritize between its desire for more F-16s and outlays for other military initiatives. This outcome is likely to become the template followed by the next administration, as well.

A realistic appraisal of trend lines, stripped of illusion, leads to the following, inescapable conclusions. The United States will grow closer to India. Pakistan’s equities in Washington have shrunk with the declining U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and with Pakistan’s perceived need to hedge its bets with the Afghan Taliban. U.S. defense assistance to India will continue to expand, while U.S. coalition support funding to Pakistan will diminish. The pro-India caucus on Capitol Hill will gain strength, and the pro-Pakistan caucus will shrink.

The United States will, however, continue to offer Pakistan assistance because of residual common interests — especially on counter-terrorism. Because perceptions of common U.S.-Pakistan interests have narrowed, Pakistan’s ties with China will become stronger, as they must. In time, Pakistan will find reason to be displeased with Chinese support, just as it found reason to grumble about U.S. assistance. Even the most artful diplomacy cannot alter these trends.

Pakistan will continue to chart its own course toward internal threats, Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban, India, and nuclear issues – regardless of what Washington says or does or offers in terms of assistance. If Pakistan changes its national security policies, it will be because change is perceived by Pakistan to be in its interests, not because of Washington’s prodding, incentives, or penalties.

U.S.-Pakistan relations have been transactional, but both sides now have good reasons to be unhappy with transactionalism. From Washington’s perspective, Pakistan’s compensation has been generous. From Pakistan’s perspective, the compensation seems insufficient. Washington’s transactional calculus has now changed. It’s no longer about the sum total of U.S. assistance; it’s about Pakistan’s choices. 


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