As the Trump administration finalizes its policy towards Afghanistan, a series of articles and speeches (by key Pakistani officials) are once again putting forth the argument that a friendly Pakistan is indispensable to American success in Afghanistan. According to this argument, Washington needs to reassure Pakistan, and that attempts to coerce or isolate Pakistan will lead the country to move closer to China and Russia.
In itself the argument sounds simple, however, in reality it is not.
For the last six decades, ever since Pakistan first became an American ally in 1954, the country’s leaders have periodically used this argument with their American interlocutors and counterparts.
In an op-ed in the New York Times, Stephen Hadley and Moeed Yusuf argue that instead of using “sticks” the United States “must understand and address Pakistan’s strategic anxieties.” This according to the authors means addressing Pakistan’s fears about Indian presence in Afghanistan and helping resolve the Kashmir dispute.
A former Pakistani official argues that if all “players” in Afghanistan “have their preferred militant outfits” why should Pakistan “give up on its long-held assets?” Pakistan, according to this argument, is simply protecting its own interests in a hostile environment. Further, China’s $46 billion investment through CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) is cited as demonstrating that Pakistan has a strong ally and hence United States “is in no position to influence Pakistan’s security policies in a meaningful way.” Growing Russian involvement in Afghanistan is cited by another recent piece to make the argument that with the help of China and Russia, Pakistan will be able to “reduce or even neutralize” any global coercion or attempts at isolation.
At a recent event, Pakistan’s top diplomat in Washington DC, claimed that there are no terrorist ‘sanctuaries’ in Pakistan and asserted that the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban were not Pakistan’s proxies. The theatrics may fool some people but if you listen closely you could be mistaken for believing you were back in the 1950s if not the 1980s.
After decades of using jihad as a lever of its foreign and security policy, Pakistan’s intelligentsia and its officials prefer to live in denial instead of acknowledging the reality. Instead of changing their policies the argument being made is that Pakistan has no option but to support jihadi groups like the Haqqani network and the Taliban. Rather than admitting that it is Pakistan’s own policies that have led to its isolation, the argument being made is that Washington’s close ties to India have led it to move away from Pakistan. Pakistan, however, is not concerned as it has China and Russia to depend upon and is no longer dependent on American aid or military equipment. Hence, any ‘tough love’ approach by Washington has its limits and the U.S. should be careful otherwise it will soon have no leverage over Pakistan.
To those who have followed Pakistan’s foreign policy and U.S.-Pakistan relations these arguments are not new.
At periodic intervals whenever Pakistan’s leaders feel that the U.S. is getting too close to India or exerting pressure on Pakistan to change its policies, they complain of American betrayal, assert that the Americans will lose any leverage they have on Pakistan and brandish close ties with China.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Pakistan’s first military ruler General Ayub Khan warned his American counterparts – from President Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson –that Pakistan may turn to China if the U.S. becomes too close to India. Generals Zia through Musharraf continued to make similar arguments to their American counterparts. Reference to the United States as a ‘Fair-weather ally’ and China as an ‘All weather ally’ was another way of applying pressuring on the Americans.
Pakistan’s ties with the Soviet Union were never as deep as its relations with China primarily because of close ties between India and the Soviet Union. However, at periodic intervals, during the mid-1960s and then again from the early 2000s Pakistan has attempted to build ties with Russia. In 2003 President Musharraf went on a three-day trip to Moscow to strengthen bilateral relations with Russia and his successor President Asif Ali Zardari visited Russia in 2010 and 2011.
Pakistan’s leaders tout Chinese and Russian involvement in the Afghan peace talks, growing military relations between Russia and Pakistan in addition to Chinese investment to argue that Pakistan does not need American aid and assistance and that if the United States wants to retain Pakistani friendship Washington should avoid any talk of ‘tough love.’
The reality is different and something Pakistan’s leaders are reluctant to acknowledge.
Pakistan is a hard currency deficit country. For the last three years Pakistan’s exports have been in steady decline. Remittances from overseas workers make up almost half of Pakistan’s import bill and there has been a decline for the last two years. There are those in Pakistan who view CPEC, initially valued at $46 billion, as the panacea of all its problems. What is forgotten is that CPEC, like other projects under China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative is primarily made up of high interest loans and as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned the “repayment obligations that come with this investment will be serious.” The Economist called CPEC ‘Pakistan’s misguided obsession with infrastructure’ instead of focusing on the structural problems facing Pakistan’s economic growth.
Pakistan faces crises on multiple levels – societal, political and economic – and none of these will be resolved by closer ties with China or Russia. Whenever Pakistan has faced an economic crisis or a natural disaster the first country to offer assistance has always been the United States, not China or Russia. Whenever Pakistan has sought assistance from the IMF, it is Washington not Beijing that has been the key player. Finally, Pakistan’s military today depends primarily on American support.
Pakistan’s leaders have over the years mastered the art of gaming the United States. Periodic threats by American administrations to suspend aid are countered by Pakistan threatening to turn to China or Russia for aid and support. This has almost always resulted in American officials once again offering aid and assistance in order to keep Pakistan as an American ally. Instead of changing Pakistan’s strategic calculus, American policies have only helped reinforce Pakistani belief in the centrality of their country to global order.
Instead of buying into arguments that there is no solution in Afghanistan without accepting Pakistan’s strategic interests or that the United States has no leverage in Pakistan, the U.S. should jolt Pakistan’s leaders into facing the realities of their domestic failures and the elusiveness of their dream of regional pre-eminence through terrorism.