TSG IntelBrief: The U.S.-Pakistan ‘Reset’: What’s in Store?

INTELBRIEF

TSG IntelBrief: The U.S.-Pakistan ‘Reset’: What’s in Store?

The U.S.-Pakistan ‘Reset’: What’s in Store?

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• After the upheavals of 2011, notably the U.S. commando mission that killed bin Laden in Pakistan, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship will never be the same. The goal of a post-9/11 “strategic partnership” may have died with Richard Holbrooke in  2010.

• Ties have been frozen for months, and a formal Pakistani “parliamentary review” of the relationship – expected to call for stringent new conditions and restrictions – is months overdue.

• The anticipated shift toward a “transactional” relationship may actually benefit both countries, and bring greater transparency and credibility to the alliance.

• The near goal for both countries is a stable Afghanistan, but because Islamabad’s primary goal is to minimize Indian influence there, the means of effecting such stability remain contentious. While the longer-term goals are less congruent, neither government desires to see mutual distrust become outright antagonism.

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As of early April 2012, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan may never again approach the broad “strategic partnership” once championed by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s original Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The late ambassador did not live to witness last year’s series of upheavals that left U.S. and Pakistani leaders alike angry, confounded, and in no mood to go on as before.

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A Relationship on Hold

Tremors included the January episode of American CIA contractor Ray Davis shooting dead two Pakistanis on a Lahore street (with his Embassy “rescuers” accidentally killing a bystander) and September’s congressional testimony from the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stating that the Haqqani Network of Afghan insurgents was acting as a “proxy” for Pakistan’s main intelligence service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence.

Yet the real earthquake had come in May, when Usama bin Laden (UBL) was found to have spent years ensconced in a roomy villa just down the street from Pakistan’s premier military academy. The country’s powerful military and intelligence services faced intense and unprecedented domestic criticism; dodging accusations of complicity and/or incompetence became nearly impossible. The leadership found a distraction in cries of violated sovereignty – the Americans had not shared intelligence nor provided advanced warning of the raid – but statuses and egos were bruised. In Washington, the revelations about UBL fueled already acute doubts about Pakistan’s trustworthiness, and spurred many on Capitol Hill to call for immediate halt to delivery of billion of dollars in annual U.S. aid to Pakistan.

To bookend the catastrophic year, a November NATO raid across the Durand Line inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at their Salala border posts. According to the U.S. government, the incident was a result of miscommunication and poor coordination; “deepest regrets” and “sincere condolences” were issued. For Islamabad, these American expressions were insufficient, and a Pentagon report on the incident was rejected as “factually incorrect” and “unacceptable.” Their country already a hothouse of anti-Americanism, many Pakistanis remain convinced the attack was intentional.

Islamabad placed relations “on hold;” expressions of Pakistani pique included shutting down the ground lines of communication (GLOCs) used by NATO to get supplies from Karachi port to Afghanistan; boycotting a December Berlin conference on Afghanistan; and demanding the U.S. vacate the Shamsi airfield in Baluchistan, from which U.S. drone aircraft operated. Pakistani leaders, along with some in the U.S. State Department, have sought a full-blown apology from the U.S. President, something not forthcoming to date and difficult to elicit during election season.

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The Parliamentary Review

A civilian face was put on the Pakistani response to Salala; real authority in such matters is widely assumed to sit at the Army’s GHQ in Rawalpindi. In March, a parliamentary committee demanded that the United States issue an unconditional apology for the Salala incident and cease all drone strikes. It further called for an end to NATO “hot pursuit” across the Durand Line, new taxes on cargo transiting the GLOCs, and stringent oversight of all foreign security contractors on Pakistani soil. In the waning days of March, the full Parliament was to take up the committee’s recommendations, but to date the body’s debate has been sidetracked by domestic issues, meaning the outcome is still pending.

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Whither the Strategic Partnership?

U.S.-Pakistan relations had been deteriorating more-or-less steadily well before 2011. The years-long effort to build a broad-based partnership was enshrined in the so-called “Kerry-Lugar-Berman” bill that authorized a tripling of nonmilitary aid to some $1.5 billion annually. That conception seems to have foundered on the fundamentally different geostrategic perspectives of Washington and Islamabad. The year 2011 saw core differences come to the fore in lethal and roundly aggravating ways. In neither capital does one hear talk of preserving a true strategic partnership.

A more realistic, issues-based engagement may better address and serve the interests of both governments. Washington will secure military coordination at the border and intelligence cooperation with Pakistan (in the tribal areas, at worst; ideally to include Punjab). Islamabad and Rawalpindi both can recover some credibility and national pride by setting stark “red lines” for the United States.

Ask any American military commander in Afghanistan why the United States has continued to abide Pakistani intransigence and malfeasance, and you’ll get a two-part answer: we need their GLOCs and they have nukes. The loss of Pakistani GLOCs turned out to be less debilitating to NATO than expected, with much of the slack picked up by a “Northern Distribution Network” running through Russia and Central Asia. Still, the Karachi route is far more direct and so far less expensive. Given that it’s vital for the transit “lethal” supplies, Washington wants it reopened.

CIA Predator and Reaper drones target Islamist militants in Pakistan in a hugely controversial and yet arguably effective tactic. Yet it may be wise for Washington to accept a near-curtailment of such attacks (the CIA is unlikely to relinquish freedom to strike so-called high-value targets, but Islamabad may be willing to allow these with agreement that it be kept in the loop). The reality is that the number of al Qaeda operatives in western Pakistan has been greatly reduced, concerns about civilian casualties and even the legality of the program abound, and the drones evoke virulent anti-American sentiment among nearly every spectrum of Pakistani society.

The question of covert U.S. operations inside Pakistan is the thorniest of all. Even before the affair involving the CIA contractor, Pakistanis officials were anxious at the purported hordes of American security contractors in their midst who were operating beyond their knowledge, much less oversight. Davis likely was tracking indigenous Punjabi militants in an operation unknown to the Pakistanis. The true degree of allowable U.S. ground presence will be set behind closed doors.

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Forecast:

Near-Term:

Pakistan’s parliamentary review is certain to reopen the GLOCs (with higher fees for their use), but may require the United States to end drone strikes in lieu of agreement on coordination and intelligence sharing.

Watch for Pakistani participation at the planned multilateral meeting on Afghanistan in Chicago in May as an indicator that cooperative efforts are back on track.

Long-Term:

Pakistan is probably as difficult and vexing an ally as the United States has ever had. Yet the conventional wisdom of the past decade remains highly persuasive: Despite the now well-validated wariness and mistrust on both sides, the alternative to continued bilateral engagement and cooperation looks even worse than the tumultuous status quo.

Beyond the U.S. search for an orderly, respectable avenue of withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington’s keen interests in combating religious extremism, curtailing nuclear proliferation, and realizing peace and prosperity in South Asia will hold no matter the nature of U.S.-Pakistan relations. Pakistan is an indispensable player on every count with interests that cannot be ignored.

If a successful terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland is traced back to Pakistan, all bets are off. Otherwise, don’t expect Washington to abandon ties with Islamabad, or even shift to a policy of containment, especially while NATO troops are still fighting in Afghanistan.  The stakes are just too high.

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