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January 13, 2012

Failing Pakistan

by Mike M

It now seems obvious that American strategy toward Pakistan has failed—at the same time that the strategy’s failure suddenly seems irrelevant, and just at the moment when a number of analysts seem willing to risk war to make it work.

Interesting times.

It helps, of course, to be clear about what you are trying to achieve–and this is where the problems begin.  Because while U.S. strategy toward Pakistan would appear to have any number of goals—promote stability and development, safeguard civilian rule, keep Pakistan’s burgeoning nuclear arsenal out of the hands of nasty people, prevent war with India—in fact over time one objective has displaced all others as the leading priority:  Getting Pakistan to dismantle its apparatus of support and succor for Afghan insurgent groups.  Whether Pakistan’s economy survives from one year to the next likely occupies a smidgen of time in U.S. policymaking circles compared to whether the ISI is still screwing around with those damned Haqqanis.

Of course from Pakistan’s perspective, America can get stuffed; and this is an understandable sentiment, all things considered.  Afghanistan is a temporary worry for America but a strategic obsession for Pakistan.  In Pakistan’s eyes, India is out to destabilize and ruin their state and delights in using Afghanistan as a tool to do it.  Meantime America will head for the back door the instant it senses an opportunity.  So please forgive us, a Pakistani official might well say, if we cannot muster any sympathy for your ill-conceived demands, or your pathetic attempts to “educate” us about our “true” interests.

So in terms of what has become America’s dominant goal:  Shall we say, an “impasse.”

What of the broader U.S. strategy toward Pakistan?

There was a time when the great and peripatetic Richard Holbrooke managed to generate a great deal of talk about a “strategic dialogue,” from his office and that of Secretary of State Clinton.  Holbrooke blanketed Islamabad’s government offices with his voluble presence, formed a clutch of joint committees on key issues with Islamabad, worked the Hill tirelessly to help secure passage of the significant Kerry-Lugar-Berman civilian aid legislation, pushed dozens of initiatives throughout the interagency, recruited an energetic and talented crew into his suite of State offices.

But eventually the vicious undertow in the policy culture in both countries—of self-interest, coercion, belligerence, and inability to see the world through the other’s lens—combined with a series of mutual provocations and domestic politics to unravel this emerging vision.  On the U.S. side, this has taken the form of a series of blunt statements:  Pakistan “must” deal with insurgents and terrorists; our patience has run out; if attacks come from Pakistan, watch out; and so forth.

This is all very interesting, because we’re meaning to bring the hammer down on our erstwhile quasi-ally precisely at the moment when the thing we’ve been demanding of them doesn’t seem to matter quite so much anymore.  For one thing, the Obama administration is on a glide path toward “transition” in Afghanistan.  Everyone wants to be “sensible” about this, which translates to “we aren’t leaving, this isn’t 1975.  We’ll have trainers, we’ll have drones, we’ll do our SOF magic, we’ll do capacity building and economic aid and support the Afghan National Security Forces.”  But the overall direction is unmistakable, as it should be:  The COIN war is to become the Afghan government’s war.  Which means that Pakistan’s behavior becomes Kabul’s problem more than ours.

Meanwhile, having now stated a formal timeline, we’ve generated (exaggerated) expectations throughout the region—and political expectations at home—that we’re “leaving” in 2014.  Implication:  Many in the region are now looking past the current fight to the post-war settlement and beyond; trying to change behavior about current operations is both less feasible and less meaningful.  And then, too, is Pakistan really supporting our “enemy”?  Nor according to Vice President Biden and the administration, which has been busily distinguishing our core objective (smash al Qaeda) from the instrumental means used to achieve it (wage COIN to stabilize Afghanistan).

Finally, the Taliban have reportedly agreed to open an office in Qatar as a prelude to building a political presence, a possible step toward meaningful reconciliation talks.  This could be a smoke screen, but if it’s for real it suggests the political track—and ultimately decisive one—is moving.

So:  Do we need Pakistan to take “decisive action” against the safe havens, as we’ve long claimed?  If (1) we’re getting out regardless, (2) many regional actors are mentally past issues like “winning” or “losing” in a narrow sense; (3) we’re not trying to “beat” the groups they’re supporting; and (4) the political process we need to smooth a transition has begun … what was that objective again?  Seems like what we “need” Pakistan to do is settle on a vision of a political track that meets their interests, and nudge their clients onto it; such notions are surely not alien to the makers of policy, here or abroad, but the idea of “America and Pakistan jointly developing a political direction that meets their shared interests” is a very different animal from “we demand that Pakistan cease X and Y.”  So again:  What do we need them to do, exactly?

A timely question, given that many analysts outside government have picked the last months to come out with fire-breathing arguments that we ought to be ready to bring this relationship down on itself in service of ending Pakistani support for insurgents.  Stephen Krasner argues in the latest Foreign Affairs that it’s time to demand that Pakistan put up or shut up, more or less, and this is increasingly the tone of much commentary.

Where this leaves us, it seems to me, is on the verge of doubling down on a strategy that isn’t working, in service of a goal that is becoming less important all the time—and running substantial risks of undermining the other, much more significant U.S. goals attached to this relationship in the process.

Experts in the realities of government policymaking talk all the time of the tyranny of momentum, precedent and increment.  Deputies’ meetings are not convened to ask questions like, “How could we reconceive this whole approach from the ground up”; their background papers, the practical comments made by participants, the recommendations that emerge from them, focus on taking steps 675 and 675 and a half in the long train of “established U.S. policy” toward a country or issue.  It’s damned hard to push back from the table, stop that machine, and shift its course.

But that may be what is called for today with regard to Pakistan—symptomatic as it is of a number of U.S. postures toward key regional countries toward whom our approach is governed more by habit and perceived constraint than wide-angle strategic analysis.

With regard to Pakistan, for example:  Where do we expect this region to end up, post-ISAF Afghanistan?  What role do we expect Pakistan to play?  What sort of Pakistan do we see emerging from the current shifting dynamics?  What relationship might we be able to have with that Pakistan?

And most of all:  Can we shape any of these factors with our policy?

Maybe so; perhaps not, or not much.  But stumbling by default into a new era of mutual recriminations largely because Islamabad refused to do what we should never have expected them to do in the first place isn’t what you’d call the acme of geopolitics.  This isn’t any longer about pride, or power, or global standing.  It’s about shaping regional outcomes, and satisfying serious U.S. national interests.  It’s entirely possible that—yes, hard-headed realists, beat me about the head and shoulders with your Credibility Rods—a more forgiving approach to Pakistan might just make more long-term sense.

Example:  In twenty years, will the United States he more secure if we spend the next twenty-four or thirty-six months hectoring Pakistan about the Haqqanis—or using every one of those months to do what we can (yes, within the constraints of Pakistani politics, bureaucracy etc.) to help Islamabad (and its newly-empowered provincial capitals) to solve their challenges of education, energy, services, and governance?  Is the answer even remotely up for dispute?

What seems minimally true is that we need a better and more rigorous debate about all of this before we go traipsing merrily down Coercion Way.  In most neighborhoods, that road tends to be either a dead-end street, or else to intersect with an avenue that goes by the name of Escalation Boulevard.

There tend to be a lot of head-on crashes down there—often accidental, but sometimes just thoughtless, and unnecessary.

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