Relations between the United States and Pakistan have degraded steadily over the course of this past year, as the fractious and at times antagonistic allies have butted heads in a number of diplomatic incidents, ranging from the detention of CIA contractor Raymond Davis in January to the assault of Osama Bin Laden’s compound in May by U.S. Navy SEALs.
Each side’s response has been to resort to a strategy of tit-for-tat reprisals. Pakistan in recent months has moved to expel hundreds of U.S. personnel believed to be working for the CIA or special operations. In turn, the Obama administration has suspended and deferred hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to the Pakistani armed forces.
It is arguable that American-Pakistani relations today are at their lowest point in the ten years that the present security partnership has existed. While it would be relatively easy to regard the current dispute as the result of fundamentally divergent interests, such a narrative can overlook the nuanced position of the Pakistani government. Due to the delicate nature of its internal and external politics, Islamabad has alternated between “pulling” in and “pushing” against its American ally (Khattak). This, understandably, has earned the distrust of U.S. policymakers, whose much more one-dimensional security concerns are frustrated by Islamabad’s power politics.
For Washington, Pakistan is a strategic partner in the Afghan conflict and a resource in the larger War on Terror. The country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) shares a long, porous border with Afghanistan. Because of their relative autonomy, the FATA serve as a safe haven for Islamist militant groups, including those fighting the Karzai government and the International Security Assistance Force. In return for pacifying a number of these groups, Islamabad receives a substantial amount of assistance—some $2 billion in annual military aid alone.
Questions persist however, about Pakistan’s ties with many of the very same militant group it is being armed to fight. The revelation in May that Osama Bin Laden had been hiding in Abbottabad, home to the country’s military college and only 35 miles from the capital, confirms Washington’s reasons for concern. That the raid was carried out without the knowledge of Islamabad is a further indication to the extent of Washington’s distrust.
The Bin Laden raid represents the low point in a series of diplomatic spats that have broken out over the course of this year. In January, authorities in Lahore arrested CIA contractor Raymond Davis, charging him with murder after he fatally shot two men at a truck stop. American officials support Davis’ claim that the shooting was carried out in self-defense. Following his 47-day detention, Davis was released by Pakistani authorities and paid $2.3 million in compensation, which the Pakistani public has termed “blood money.” The incident drew sharp criticism from government officials on both sides, and signaled the growing frustration of American policymakers.
Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has offered the strongest condemnation of Pakistan’s apparent double-dealing. America’s highest ranking military officer, in a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently referred to the Haqqani network, a North Waziristan-based militant group, as “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). The Haqqani network is responsible for a string of sophisticated and deadly attacks in Afghanistan, the most recent of which included an unprecedented twenty-hour siege on the U.S. embassy in Kabul in September. Evidence also suggests that the group is responsible for the assassination of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who, as chairman of the country’s High Peace Council, was charged with leading negotiation efforts with the Taliban (Najafizada and Rupert).
The conduct of the ISI has long been a point of American criticism. Described as a “state within a state”, the agency is staffed primarily by military officers and holds considerable influence within the Pakistani armed forces, thereby guaranteeing it a free hand vis-à-vis the country’s weak civilian leadership. It has a mixed history of cooperation with the United States military and intelligence services. The ISI is responsible for capturing several high-ranking Al Qaeda members, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Nevertheless, the Pakistani government has shown a reluctance to target homegrown Islamist groups which do not immediately challenge its authority, but which operate across the border in Afghanistan. In fact, the ISI has been found to support insurgents that fit into its goal of creating strategic depth against its military rival India.
Islamabad came to understand the value of asymmetric warfare during the 1980s jihad against the Soviets. Pakistan played a central role as a staging area for American and Saudi-backed guerilla fighters resisting the Red Army. In this way, the Pakistani military learned how effective a small number of ideologically motivated insurgents could be against a much larger conventional military force—lessons it has applied against India in the disputed region of Kashmir. The Haqqani network appears to be one such militant group that can be deployed in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, thus, holds a crucial place in Pakistani defense doctrine: it is considered as a strategic point where Indian influence must be countered to prevent the country’s encirclement.
In choosing to support the Haqqani network and other Islamist militant groups, Pakistan is hedging its bets against a significant American disengagement from the region. This is what occurred in 1989, when after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington more or less ended its strategic partnership with Islamabad. Perceiving a war-weary America, and convinced that history will repeat itself, Pakistan has decided to keep open favorable options in Afghanistan that do not involve the Indian-friendly Karzai government. Indeed, the Obama administration will begin an accelerated drawdown of American troops this year, with ISAF scheduled to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces in 2014 (Cooper and Landler).
Pakistan has also taken the initiative in balancing American influence in the region. According to U.S. officials, in the days following the Bin Laden raid, Pakistan granted Chinese military engineers access to the wreckages of a downed stealth copter which U.S. Navy SEALs had been force to abandon. This was done at the invitation of ISI operatives as an attempt to bolster the country’s growing ties to China. Shortly after the raid, a coterie of Pakistani government officials made a high-level, well-publicized trip to Beijing.
These events beg the question of whether relations between the United States and Pakistan have fundamentally altered as a result of recent events. Despite the rise in tensions between the two countries, the answer is no. Pakistan has and will continue to exert different pressures on its relationship with the United States to fit the needs of the day. American policymakers will, of course, question the long-term viability of this plan. As Admiral Mullen stated in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Pakistan “may believe that by using [Islamist] proxies, they are hedging their bets or redressing what they feel is an imbalance in regional power…But in reality, they have already lost that bet. By exporting violence, they’ve eroded their internal security and their position in the region.”
While Admiral Mullen may be correct, the United States, with its comparatively straight-forward security concerns, will in the short term either have to push back against Islamabad more effectively or learn to live with its political games.
Evangelos is a junior at Fordham College, Lincoln Center and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org