March 30, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Terrorism

Avoiding a Collision Course in US-Pakistan Relations

The long-awaited new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that President Barack Obama will be in the process of unveiling by the time this comes into print is the clearest signal yet that the Obama administration intends to dedicate the time, resources, and US leadership necessary to stabilise the region and contain the terrorist threat in South Asia.

The new plan will likely reflect a shift in US strategy towards more regional diplomacy and civilian aid to both countries, but less tolerance for the continued existence of militant sanctuaries on the Pakistani side of the border.

The re-doubling of US efforts in Afghanistan should help convince Pakistanis that America won't repeat its past mistake of turning its back on South Asia like it did in the early 1990s. This fateful decision still haunts US-Pakistani relations and perpetuates a debilitating distrust between our two countries.

But leaving the past behind also requires Pakistan to put its faith in a new strategic view of the region that involves greater integration and cooperation with its neighbours and zero tolerance for terrorist groups that threaten the peace. Without a shift away from Pakistan's dual policies of fighting some terrorists and supporting others, US-Pakistani ties will be destined for a collision course.

The front-page news story on continued Pakistani links to the Taliban and other terrorists targeting coalition forces in Afghanistan that ran in March 26's New York Times indicates the enormous challenge the US faces in seeking a counterterrorism partnership with Pakistan. US officials have long been aware that Pakistani security officials maintain contacts with the Afghan Taliban and related militant networks. Pakistani officials argue that such ties are necessary to keep tabs on the groups. There is growing recognition in Washington, however, that Pakistan's contacts with these groups involve much more than merely 'keeping tabs' on them. There is mounting evidence that Pakistani security officials support, and even guide, the terrorists in their activities.

This disturbing fact was brought home last spring when US intelligence agencies apparently intercepted messages in which Pakistani army chief General Kayani referred to Afghan militant commander Jalaluddin Haqqani as a 'strategic asset'. Jalaluddin Haqqani is a powerful independent militant leader who operates in the border areas between Khost province in Afghanistan and North Waziristan agency of Pakistan's tribal border areas. He has been allied with the Taliban for nearly 15 years, having served as tribal affairs minister in the Taliban regime in the late 1990s.

The Haqqani network has reportedly been behind several high-profile attacks in Afghanistan, including a truck bombing that killed two US soldiers in Khost province in March 2008 and the storming of the Serena Hotel in Kabul during a high-level visit by Norwegian officials in January 2008. Credible media reports, quoting US officials, further reveal a Pakistani intelligence link to the Haqqani network's planning and execution of a suicide bomb attack against India's embassy in Kabul last July that left over 50 Afghan civilians and two senior Indian officials dead. So while Pakistani military leaders may consider Haqqani a 'strategic asset', the international coalition considers him a ruthless terrorist enemy of the Afghan people and the international coalition forces fighting to protect them.

What does all this mean for prospects for partnering with Pakistan in fighting terrorism? On the face of it, the signs are not encouraging.

The Obama administration is clinging to the hope that Pakistan's military will awaken to the dangers these same terrorist elements pose to Pakistani society and the stability of the state. Continued links between extremists and elements of the Pakistani security establishment have led to confusion about the genuine threat to the nation. In turn, this ambivalence towards extremist groups within the security establishment fuels conspiracy theories against outsiders (mainly either India or the US) that get aired in the Pakistani media and lead to a public discourse that diminishes the threat from terrorists.

To end this vicious cycle, the Pakistan army must fully break its links to terrorist groups and recognise that its own interests as a unified and stable institution will ultimately be jeopardised unless it reins in individuals who are pressing an extremist agenda.

President Obama's speech is likely to reflect his commitment to building a partnership with Pakistan. But it will do so on terms that set benchmarks on Pakistan's performance against the terrorists that threaten stability in Afghanistan and the safety of the international community. Obama has already proved he is committed to his presidential campaign promise to target Al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal border areas by continuing the use of Predator drone strikes against terrorist targets in the region.

Recent reports about expanding drone attacks into Balochistan, however, likely represent veiled threats to Pakistani leaders to take decisive action against Taliban leaders in the provincial capital, Quetta. Predator strikes in populated areas like Quetta, where civilian casualties would be inevitable, would fuel enormous rage against the US that would push the US-Pakistan partnership to a breaking point.

The increase in drone attacks in the tribal border areas over the last eight months is a reflection of the increasing frustration in Washington over Al Qaeda's and the Taliban's ability to maintain a safe haven in the region. The US resisted relying on unilateral strikes in these regions for several years in hopes that Pakistani efforts to deal with the terrorists would bear fruit. Drone attacks do not provide a long-term solution to the terrorist problem in the region, even as they have proved effective in causing disarray among the senior Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership. Signs of stronger Pakistani commitment to dealing with the terrorists decisively in this region would obviate the need to rely on drone attacks.

Strengthen democratic forces

Even as the Obama team sets benchmarks to gauge the Pakistani military's commitment to uprooting terrorism from the region, it needs to promote civilian democracy and demonstrate its support for the common Pakistani. In the current environment of extremism and terrorism, Pakistani politicians are often powerless to bring change for fear of violent retaliation. The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007, is a stark example of the dangerous forces at play in Pakistan.

The capitulation of the Awami National Party-led government of NWFP to the pro-Taliban forces in the Swat valley is another example of the violent intimidation of the secular forces in the country. Prior to the Swat valley agreement, several ANP politicians, including ANP party leader Asfandyar Wali Khan, were targeted for assassination. Until the security situation improves in Pakistan, it will be difficult for civilian politicians and civil society leaders to make bold policy moves towards building civil society and democratic institutions. Pakistani civilian leaders need and deserve US assistance. Legislation before the US Congress to potentially triple non-military assistance to Pakistan is a critical component of bolstering the Pakistani state against the forces of extremism.

Pakistan is at a critical juncture. The Obama administration is demonstrating a willingness to invest significant resources (even amid a serious global economic downturn) into helping the country develop into a prosperous, peaceful and thriving state. But achieving this goal requires Pakistan's leaders to adjust their own regional security perceptions and to view the internal terrorist threat as urgently as their counterparts in Washington do. Only through a strong and trusting US-Pakistan partnership can Pakistan stabilise its economy and face down extremists who wish to destroy its tolerant traditions, retard its growth and development, and isolate the country from the global community.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in The News International (Pakistan)