One of the most pressing issues in the Middle East is the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. President Obama is trying to maintain congenial relations with Islamabad because of its geostrategic importance in the fight in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which may dwell on the Pakistani border. However, recent U.S. operations within Pakistan, such as increased drone attacks and the killing of two Pakistani soldiers by U.S. aerial strikes, have greatly soured this alliance. Similarly, the Pakistani government’s perennial support for extremists and reluctance to vanquish militants within its borders frustrate U.S. public and military officials.
If you browse through the October 19 issue of The New York Times, you will find the op-ed “Get Tough on Pakistan,” by former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the UN during the George W. Bush administration, Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad, now counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). There is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Khalilzad is an intelligent man with years of government service. Nonetheless, his article suggests that the Obama administration demand that Pakistan cut ties with extremists, on the penalty of U.S. military involvement in Pakistan without Pakistani approval. He goes on to say that Pakistan is more than capable of countering any potential repercussions that may arise because of unilateral U.S. action.
I think Mr. Khalilzad misunderstands two things. One, Pakistan is not going to readily disentangle itself from the extremists. Why would it when the militants are willing to provide some strategic leverage to Pakistan in the fight for influence in Kashmir and Afghanistan? It is a relationship that has lasted the past twenty-five years and will not just end because of Western pressure. Mr. Khalilzad wants Pakistan to isolate the militants, which will result in tremendous consequences, as the extremists will increase attacks against the Pakistani state. Essentially, he is insisting that U.S. forces go in, achieve its goal, and leave Pakistan to deal with the resulting conflagration. This scenario is not in Pakistan’s best interest, especially at this time, as it is trying to recover from the recent floods. A better strategy would be for the U.S. to use Pakistan’s special relationship with the Taliban to further push this militant reconciliation initiative, a project that should have received more attention months ago.
Second, undermining Pakistan’s sovereignty is one of the worst things the U.S. can do for its perception in the country. Pakistanis don’t want their government to cede authority over to Westerners that don’t have the country’s best interest in mind. This is the reason Pakistanis were displeased with former President Pervez Musharraf.
Pakistan may react by closing its supply line to Afghanistan. But its leaders could also respond to Khalilzad’s suggestions by not sharing intelligence on Afghanistan or forbidding the U.S. to perform any operations within its borders.
One must remain cognizant of the fact that the Pakistanis want the U.S. to treat them respectfully. This is a key ingredient to any alliance. If we accept Mr. Khalilzad’s proposals, Pakistan will indisputably react negatively and the consequences for the U.S. will be substantial, a prospect Mr. Khalilzad plays down. In my view, the U.S. can no longer pursue its national security interests with complete disregard for the concerns of our allies or the public they govern. This all seems dangerously obvious to me.
Adam Ahmad is a graduate student pursuing an M.A. in International Relations.