November 30, 2009

November 30, 2009 | Commentary on Pakistan

Trust is a Two-Way Street

We often hear about the 'trust deficit' Pakistanis feel toward the United States because of the cut-off of US aid programs to Pakistan in the early 1990s over its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Pakistanis repeatedly voice their view that the United States is a fickle and untrustworthy partner that pursues its own national security interests at the expense of Pakistan.

But demonstrating that the lack of trust in the US-Pakistan relationship cuts both ways, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her recent visit to the country questioned Pakistani sincerity over its efforts to capture senior al-Qaeda members. While Clinton's statement stood out for its bluntness, other senior US officials have echoed similar sentiments. US CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeus, for example, acknowledged in congressional testimony last spring that elements of Pakistan's security services retained unhelpful links to the Afghan Taliban, while US and NATO Forces Commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal repeated the same assertion in his Afghanistan assessment.

It has become something of an open secret -- or painful truth -- that Pakistan and the US are working at cross-purposes in Afghanistan. The real question is how long the US-Pakistan partnership can be sustained under the current strain of our divergent goals in Afghanistan, especially as US military deaths rise. The United States has pledged this year to triple non-military aid to Pakistan and to provide support for the Pakistan military as it battles militants that threaten the Pakistani state. But until there's a meeting of the minds on Afghanistan, the US-Pakistan relationship will be plagued by mistrust and suspicion.

Addressing Pakistani Insecurities

Secretary Clinton has strayed several times from the diplomatic handbook with regard to statements on Pakistan -- sometimes with a helpful outcome. She was the first US official to declare, last April, that Pakistan was 'abdicating to the Taliban,' a week before the Pakistani military finally decided to push the pro-Taliban forces back from the settled areas of Pakistan. She also won high marks in Pakistan a few months ago when she acknowledged during congressional testimony that the United States had treated Pakistan poorly in the past. This statement apparently met a need among Pakistanis for the US to acknowledge that it had made mistakes in its past policies toward the region.

This sense of betrayal explains in part why despite the Pakistani public's growing recognition that the Pakistani Taliban is a threat to the country and must be fought militarily, anti-American sentiment is soaring in the country. An August survey by Gallup Pakistan found that 59 percent of Pakistanis felt the greatest threat to the country was the United States.

The Washington Post recently documented a similarly troubling phenomenon. It seems the more horrific the terrorist attack in Pakistan, the less willing the Pakistani people are to believe the attack could be carried out by their fellow countrymen. During Secretary Clinton's visit to Pakistan last month, there was a major suicide bombing at a women's market in Peshawar in which over 120 people, mainly women and children, were murdered.

Many Pakistanis could not comprehend the inhuman nature of the Peshawar attack and thus tended to believe outsiders were responsible. This peculiar phenomenon was captured recently in a speech by US Senator Joe Lieberman, in which he said: 'Part of the perversity of evil is that, the greater its depravity, the greater is our temptation to avert our eyes from it, to look away, to convince ourselves that we cannot possibly be seeing what we are in fact seeing. Indeed, that is one of the reasons such evil persists.' The point is that unless Pakistanis themselves come to grips with the reality that it is the terrorists -- not India or the United States -- that are threatening their way of life and very existence as a nation, they may indeed be manipulated and eventually overcome by these dark forces.

There had been initial hope that the elimination of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a drone strike in August would be a major blow to the organization. However, the recent spate of terrorist attacks, including an unprecedented 20-hour hostage stand-off at Pakistan's military headquarters, demonstrates the Pakistani Taliban is still capable of wreaking havoc in the country.

Patience as Policy?

Given the enormous challenges Pakistan faces, it's difficult to assess how far and how fast the United States should be pushing Islamabad to take on the various militant groups threatening both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Years of support from the Pakistani security establishment to groups that attack India and Afghanistan seem to have compromised the military in many ways and many now question whether the military is capable of remaining unified as an institution as it takes on its former proxies.

Some US officials argue that we must accept a certain amount of ambiguity in the Pakistan military's attitudes and actions toward militancy since the links between the security services and militant groups have been built up over a period of several years. They say it would be impossible to break those links over night. But the Obama administration must distinguish between Pakistani strategy and a genuine struggle to dismantle the various militant groups. The US should not countenance Pakistani leaders using such excuses to explain why they aren't cracking down more consistently on terrorism, when we assess the real reason is because they view these terrorist groups as supporting their national security interests.

There are many policies the US can pursue that can support and encourage Pakistan in its transition from tolerating to fighting the various militant groups on its territory.

First, the United States should continue to support Pakistan with its military operations in the tribal border areas and in developing hold and build strategies that establish government writ in the region and eventually bring reform that incorporates the areas into the larger Pakistani political framework.

Second, the US needs to convince Pakistan that cases against terrorists who attack India should be treated no differently than cases against terrorists who act in other parts of the world. By treating terrorists focused on India with kid gloves, Islamabad has created a permissive environment for terrorists to operate more generally, especially since many of the various terrorist groups share a pan-Islamist ideology and provide each other with tactical cooperation and logistical support.

Third, we should work with Pakistani civilian leaders to build a consensus within Pakistan against extremist messages and ideologies that foster terrorism. The U.S. can provide support for interfaith dialogue and activities in Pakistan that promote religious pluralism and empower mainstream religious leaders to actively engage and challenge radical interpretations of the religion of Islam. Secretary Clinton's visit to a Sufi shrine in Islamabad was symbolically important because most Pakistanis adhere to the Barevli School of Islamic thought, which draws on Sufi traditions of religious tolerance and a deeply spiritual form of Islam. Her visit was a reminder that the extremists conducting attacks in Pakistan are seeking to impose a way of life on Pakistanis that is alien to their own traditions of Islam and aspirations toward constitutional democracy.

Lastly, an essential part of stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan involves encouraging Indian and Pakistani officials to develop a different security paradigm for the region that is based on regional economic integration and trade. This new paradigm would allow them to focus on containing dangerous non-state actors that threaten stability in all three countries.

President Obama revealed that he understands the conundrum of South Asia when he said he wouldn't seek to directly mediate the Indo-Pakistani dispute but would make efforts to help both countries feel secure. Improving a country's sense of security may seem like a Herculean task, but when it comes to Pakistan, Washington simply has no other choice.

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

Related Issues: Pakistan

First Appeared in The Diplomat