12.01.11

Perfidious Pakistani-American Games

Foreign policy is often a nauseating game of juggling diplomatic lies and killings on the battlefield. And that’s just what Washington and Islamabad do, writes Leslie H. Gelb.

The U.S. military is “investigating” NATO’s recent killing of some 24 Pakistani soldiers who might have been closing their eyes as usual to Taliban border attacks on U.S. forces. Pakistan is protesting this insult to its sovereignty by not showing up at next week’s international conference on Afghanistan and shutting down the U.S. supply line. It’s a crisis! Well, sort of. Which means that both Washington and Islamabad need to bash each other rhetorically for another week or so to placate domestic critics, then return to diplomacy, then simply wait for the political turmoil to settle down. That process always takes a while because of the political outrage in each country over the perceived treachery of the other. Only then can they happily resume their perfidious business as usual.

Expect these vicious games to continue. Islamabad won’t stop giving sanctuary to the Taliban or killing American troops. That’s how Islamabad retains its influence in Afghanistan. And Washington won’t stop attacking the Taliban on Pakistani territory because that’s how it must protect its troops in Afghanistan.

Managing this clash of interests is what professionals call foreign policy. Just remember the soaring confrontation of only months ago, when President Obama felt sure that Osama bin Laden was hiding in the Pakistani military parlor and invaded Pakistani soil to kill him. Both sides were furious—the American side because the Pakistanis were harboring our worst enemy; the Pakistanis because they got caught. Two tense weeks ensued while leaders all around demonstrated their anger.  Now calls resound once more to break relations.

Let’s examine the labyrinthinian reasons why both countries put up with this situation. The answer, in short, is that they think they have enough in common to tolerate each other’s sins.

Why on earth would the Pakistanis put up with this, and why, even more, would the United States? The answer is, and one has to pardon this expression, common interests. Whatever it is they think they have in common is enough for each to tolerate the sins of the other.

The Pakistanis are devoted to, and dependent on, our multibillion-dollar aid program. Last year we pledged them $2.5 billion in military aid and $1.8 billion in economic aid. There’s also an appropriately obscure “reimbursement” fund of $1.2 billion. This may seem a trifling sum to a Goldman Sachs investment banker, but it’s critical to meet the “needs” of the Pakistani leadership. Islamabad also wants to stay close to Washington to influence the final power-sharing arrangements in Afghanistan. Not least, the Pakistanis don’t want Americans to tilt too far in the direction of India, Islamabad’s mortal enemy.

Here’s what the Obama administration says are America’s stakes in filling Pakistani coffers and keeping open the diplomatic lines of communication:

—Some 50 percent of all NATO supplies to its troops in Afghanistan go through Pakistani territory. The remainder goes through nations north of Afghanistan, such as Kyrgyzstan. In addition, the U.S. has huge stockpiles in Afghanistan. Shifting all the supplies northward would be an enormous expense, even if those countries would allow it. So as long as the U.S. has upward of 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, Pakistani ports and roads are essential.

—Washington needs Islamabad’s help in curtailing Taliban operations from Pakistani soil against American troops in Afghanistan. This is as close as the State Department comes to cracking a joke. The reality is Pakistan provides safe haven, intelligence, money, and arms to the Taliban who kill our troops. Every once in a while, just to show they’re good guys, Pakistani forces kill a few Taliban and sacrifice some of their own soldiers.

Only quacks argue that the U.S. should halt its aid to Pakistan and break relations.

—We give aid to Islamabad to limit the danger of Pakistani nukes falling into Taliban or al Qaeda hands. This “interest” is a near joke, as the U.S. government has never adequately explained how America’s help to Pakistan reduces this very real danger. The overriding fact is that the Pakistani military won’t give us any knowledge of its nukes or let us anywhere near them. It's more worried about America getting hold of its nukes or being able to knock them out in a crisis than about the weapons being swiped by the Taliban.

—The most compelling interest is that the Pakistani intelligence agency does provide the United States with information about terrorist activities from time to time. U.S. intelligence agencies say this information is quite helpful, but one really has to be there to make a definitive evaluation.

—Undoubtedly the most specious and costly explanation of American interests in this region is that the United States is, in good part, fighting in Afghanistan in order to “save Pakistan.” The argument is that somehow “losing Afghanistan” would mean that Pakistan and its nuclear weapons would be more likely to fall under the control of Taliban and al Qaeda extremists. Apparently, the Pakistani leaders themselves don’t agree with this logic at all. In practice, they have been helping the Taliban to bloody American troops and mortally wound the American presence in Afghanistan. If the Pakistanis really felt their future depended on a U.S. victory in Afghanistan, they wouldn’t dream of doing this. Common sense suggests that whatever the future of Afghanistan, the fate of the far larger and much more complicated state of Pakistan will surely depend on what happens inside Pakistan.

Only quacks argue that the U.S. should halt its aid to Pakistan and break relations. However complicated the interests are that bind us to that broiling Muslim country, they are clearly strong enough to justify holding the relationship more or less where it is. But those stakes can’t, by common sense, be used to justify prolonging a massive U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. The ironic truth is that if we phased way down militarily in Afghanistan, that would relieve many of the conflicts in the far more important Pakistani-American relationship.