The Hill

US-Pakistan Relations Need More Candor

Senior Fellow and Director for South and Central Asia
Pakistan's soldiers take part in a ceremony to mark country's Defence Day on September 6, 2021 (Photo by ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images)
Pakistan's soldiers take part in a ceremony to mark country's Defence Day on September 6, 2021 (Photo by ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images)

Twenty years ago, the U.S. toppled the Taliban regime and sent troops to Afghanistan with the intention of rooting out terrorists. Three years ago, Americans initiated direct talks with the Taliban to conclude a deal that would end their expanded military presence. On both occasions, the U.S. relied on Pakistan, initially for logistical support for its military and finally for facilitation of dialogue with insurgent leaders.

As the Americans leave Afghanistan, several U.S. commentators have voiced their desire to disengage with Pakistan as well. That would be a mistake. Frustrating as Pakistan’s policies have been for the U.S., Pakistan remains important for U.S. policy. As the disaster immediately following the withdrawal from Afghanistan highlights, frustrations from difficult engagements become more complicated by disengagements that have not been thought through.

There is a case for a new round of Pakistan-U.S. engagement, albeit on a more candid and realistic basis. Given the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the need for ensuring another friendly anchor in this very troubled part of the world, Pakistan could be a useful American partner if it wants to be one.

Candor should work both ways, but so far some of Pakistan’s official spokesmen are singing an old and tired tune. As Pakistan has done consistently since the global war on terror started after Sept.11, 2001, transcending the successive presidencies of Pervez Musharraf and Asif Ali Zardari and the tenures of Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, it is portraying itself as the victim and the U.S. as the problem.

As this ballad goes, by supporting the U.S. and its coalition in Afghanistan, Pakistan brought on itself the dogs of war and other misfortune. As he lectured Judy Woodruff on PBS’s “NewsHour” last month, Prime Minister Khan underscored that the war cost Pakistan hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses and 70,000 dead in the war on terror. Pakistan also hosts three-to-four-million Afghans who fled the violence.

But even if they firmly believe their own narrative, senior Pakistani officials must not expect Americans to believe now what they have refused to believe for 20 years. President Biden has, so far, not spoken to Khan because he has heard the view before that chaos in Afghanistan is the fault of the U.S. and that Pakistan was an innocent victim.

As vice president, Biden was engaged in the 2009 Afghanistan-Pakistan review conducted by the Obama administration and the subsequent decisions. He was also present when President Zardari had his Rose Garden meeting with Obama making a similar case, presenting Pakistan as a willing ally but one that had suffered for becoming a major non-NATO American ally.

Biden also was in office in 2011 when an unwarranted killing by CIA contractor Raymond Davis of unarmed Pakistanis who were following him exploded, revealing fissures between the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He sat in on meetings about the attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul by the Haqqani Network, which U.S. officials believed to have occurred with knowledge of ISI functionaries. Biden also dissented from the Afghan surge and recommended a far smaller military presence. He understands that Pakistan’s goal in Afghanistan differed from that of the U.S.

Pakistan wanted the end of “Indian influence,” while the U.S. sought the end of Jihadi groups. Now that the Taliban has retaken Afghanistan, the Pakistani fear of Indian influence across its northwest frontier is gone. There is little reason for Pakistan to pretend it had nothing to do with the Taliban or to act as an apologist for the Taliban’s obscurantist beliefs.

Pakistan would be better off accepting that the Americans know Pakistan’s policies of the last two decades and then figuring out what actions and arguments might be best received by the U.S. government in changed circumstances.

China, Iran and Russia worked out their own deals with the Taliban to push the Americans out of Afghanistan. They will all have different, and possibly contending, interests now. President Putin has already voiced Russia’s concerns about radical Islamism spilling over into Central Asia.

The anti-American coalition that enabled the Taliban victory will now pull in different directions. Pakistan should now consider aligning more closely with the U.S. in preventing a resurgence of Islamist terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The ISI is presumed to be well informed about conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. Pakistan could be helpful to the U.S., India and other countries in preventing future terrorist attacks. But only if Pakistan’s leaders decide on that as their objective.

Pakistan would still have to convince Americans that it has turned its back on all Jihadi terrorist groups, including those targeting India. But real counter-terrorism cooperation going forward would be a better foundation for U.S.-Pakistan relations than playing the old victimhood song that did not and will not sell in the U.S.

Pakistan must take seriously American wounds inflicted by Pakistan’s widely believed support of the Taliban and other terrorist groups instead of denying them. Prime Minister Khan’s preference for supporting the most die-herd anti-western ideas and packaging them as an Islamic ideology is not missed in Washington.

Americans, on the other hand, must not ignore Pakistan’s importance in its region and the world. Until fresh, solid foundations are laid for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Pakistan’s old siren’s song will not play well and will not help improve relations.

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