Susan Rice, the U.S. national security advisor, apparently traveled to Pakistan on Sunday August 30 to tell Pakistani officials that operations of militant jihadi groups like the Haqqani network from Pakistani soil were “absolutely unacceptable” to Americans. She is not the first official to convey that message to Pakistan. American and Pakistani officials have discussed the elimination of terrorist safe havens in Pakistan for at least the last two decades. Why, then, has the United States failed to secure Pakistan’s acquiescence to its demands?
Ms. Rice’s demand that Pakistan “do more” to curb terrorism from its soil will most likely have no more effect on Pakistan’s all powerful military than earlier similar entreaties. The United States has been reluctant to exert leverage and pressure on Pakistan that might actually work, like international isolation, targeted sanctions or cutting off aid. The periodic suspension and conditionality of aid that the U.S. resorts to are too familiar to Pakistanis to make a difference.
In the end, it is all about how Pakistan’s power centers view their national interest and the extent they fear (or, actually, do not fear) the Americans. The Pakistani military views the Haqqani network and allied groups as assets to help achieve its desire for a pro-Pakistan regime in Afghanistan. U.S. officials, in their desire to obtain Pakistan’s support for American global aims, do not understand Pakistan’s regional aspirations. Pakistan promises support to U.S. global aims, secures Washington’s support and then goes on with pursuing its regional aims without regard for American concerns about its methods in the region.
The Pakistani assumption is that America protests but does not really care about its nuclear proliferation or support for terrorism as long as Pakistan’s target is India or Afghanistan. The Taliban, the Haqqani network and the assorted anti-India jihadi groups nurtured by Islamabad did not attract American attention until 9/11. Since 2001, Pakistan has balanced its support for regional Jihadis with some cooperation with the U.S. in going after Al-Qaeda. Instead of seeing through and confronting Pakistan, Americans are all too willing to encourage Pakistan in persisting with its policies by praising the one step forward (in fighting some terrorist groups) without focusing on the many steps back.
Pakistan’s regional preoccupation has been seeking military parity with its much larger neighbor, India. It doesn’t matter that each one of the Pakistan’s four wars with India were initiated by Pakistan. An existential threat from India is at the heart of Pakistani nationalism, the defining characteristic of a nation only 67 years old that lacks both history and an established national identity.
Pakistan has wooed the United States since its independence because Pakistani strategists and policy makers believed the U.S. was the ideal superpower ally who would build Pakistan’s economic and material resources in order to help it stand up to India. From the 1950s until 1990s, Pakistan for the United States was one of many allies helping fight international communism.
American policy makers have consistently ignored, even when internal intelligence and staff memos said otherwise, the harsh reality of Pakistan never sharing American goals. When the Americans turned to Pakistan to fight international communism, Pakistan saw Hinduism as the threat. Now, despite being America’s nominal allies in the fight against international terrorism, Pakistan still sees ‘Hindu India’ as the principal threat. Jihadi groups, such as the Haqqani Network, are Pakistan’s instruments in its own war with India for influence over Afghanistan.
While the United States’ focus has been global, Pakistan’s focus has been regional: the desire for parity — primarily military but also economic — with India. Economic and military aid from the US has been one part of the strategy for achieving parity, the other has been using non-state actors or jihadi groups to keep both its neighbors – India and Afghanistan – tied down.
Fearful of one neighbor, India, Pakistan’s early leaders hoped that their western neighbor, ‘Muslim’ Afghanistan would accept the Pakistani viewpoint and avoid ties with ‘Hindu’ India. However, Kabul and New Delhi have had close ties right from the 1950s with the exception of the years of Taliban rule.
To prevent a strategic encirclement by India and Afghanistan, Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment has supported Islamist groups in Afghanistan in the hope of a pro-Pakistan anti-Indian Afghan government. This has led Pakistan to support not just the Afghan Taliban but also the Haqqani network and allied groups.
Washington has known -and ignored — Pakistan’s security fears (and paranoia) about India and Afghanistan for decades. American policymakers and leaders have, however, always hoped that by giving more aid and arms to Pakistan they would reassure Pakistan’s leaders that there was no threat to their territorial integrity and this would lead Pakistan to change its worldview.
Ironically, every American president in his first year (with the exception of Kennedy) tries to reach out to Pakistan and sees it as an American ally and in his last two years realizes the problem of divergent objectives.
In his book ‘Magnificent Delusions -Pakistan, the United States and an Epic History of Misunderstanding,’ Husain Haqqani (former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S.) tells the fascinating story of how President Dwight Eisenhower (along with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles) initially saw Pakistan as America’s ‘Most Allied Ally in Asia,’ only to wonder in his second term whether military aid to Pakistan served any useful American purpose. President Lyndon Johnson asked the same question in 1965 and every American President, with the exception of Richard Nixon, has done so since then.
Despite the $12 billion in aid that the US provided to Pakistan after 9/11, former President George W. Bush wrote in his memoirs that then Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf “would not or could not fulfill his promises.”
The Obama administration, too, has followed the familiar pattern of assuming that aid will buy America leverage with Pakistan. The Kerry Lugar Berman Bill, authorized by Congress in 2009, promised $1.5 billion in aid annually for 5 years, in the hope that this would encourage Pakistan to abandon support for Jihadi groups. The aid has flown uninterrupted even though Taliban operating from Pakistan attacked American troops in Afghanistan. US intelligence found the Pakistan-backed Haqqani network responsible for an attack on the American Embassy in Kabul and suspected Pakistani intelligence officers of directing the attack.
Ms. Rice’s visit to Pakistan is unlikely to change Pakistani policy any more than the several visits to Islamabad by her predecessor General Jim Jones. Former Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, met the Pakistan army chief 26 times in three years, hoping to initiate a change in Pakistani behavior. Towards the end of his tenure, Mullen voiced his frustration that the Haqqani Network operated as “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s army. Apparently, frequent meetings with Pakistan’s top general was not guarantee that the general would redirect the effort of his ground troops.
High-level visits by American officials to Pakistan do not help change Pakistan’s strategic mindset. They only reinforce the belief of Pakistani leaders in the centrality of their country to global order. The belief that Pakistan is indispensable to the United States and is the pivot of the world for other major powers has encouraged Pakistan’s irresponsible behavior.
Instead of feeding Pakistan’s psychoses of self-importance and paranoia, the U.S. would do better by jolting its leaders into facing the realities of their domestic failures and the elusiveness of their dream of regional pre-eminence through terrorism.