Editorial Board

Reframing the Broken U.S. Relationship With Pakistan: View

The events of the past week are a cold shower for any who hold out hope that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is on the mend. The latest round of bad news started June 11, when the Washington Post reported that members of the Pakistani military might have tipped off terrorists that the U.S. had identified the location of their bomb-making factories, allowing them to elude capture.

Yesterday brought word of the arrest of several Pakistanis suspected of helping the Central Intelligence Agency gather information for the May 1 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. These betrayals came only weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, traveled to Islamabad and sought a promise of urgent action against Islamic extremists targeting American forces in Afghanistan. The CIA director, Leon Panetta, dropped by the Pakistani capital a week later to reinforce the message.

The U.S. has relied on a combination of about $20 billion in aid and empty threats over the past decade to persuade Pakistan to end its destructive behavior. This policy hasn’t been successful because it has been resisted by key Pakistani military and intelligence leaders. The CIA’s deputy director, Michael J. Morell, acknowledged as much last week in a closed briefing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Asked to rate Pakistan’s cooperation on counterterrorism operations on a scale of one to 10, he answered “three,” according to the New York Times.

Better Terror Cooperation

Americans have every right to expect a much higher score. The rational conclusion to draw from this failure is that Pakistan won’t be induced to change course under the existing policy. Rather than waiting for a breakthrough from Islamabad that will never come, Washington should seriously consider reframing its approach.

The stakes for U.S. national security couldn’t be higher. Terrorists in Pakistan are planning attacks against the U.S., and Pakistan’s refusal to take steps to shut down the sanctuary it provides Afghan insurgents will undermine the ability of U.S. and allied troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. In addition, Islamabad’s continued support for groups that commit acts of terrorism against India increases the likelihood of a wider war between two nuclear-armed rivals.

The first step of a new U.S. policy would be to leverage the relationship Mullen has developed over the past 3 1/2 years with the commander of Pakistan’s army, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. In a meeting this week with the editorial board of Bloomberg View, Mullen said he believes that Kayani is committed to a good relationship with the U.S.

Mullen to Islamabad

President Barack Obama could dispatch Mullen to Islamabad with a strong message designed to persuade Pakistan to change course: In exchange for demonstrable efforts by Islamabad to crack down on terrorists and insurgents on its territory, the president would fight for additional military and economic aid, as well as increased access to the U.S. textile market. Washington also could offer to address Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns, for example by pressing India to limit its presence in Afghanistan and by helping to resolve the Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir.

Mullen would also make clear the inevitable consequences for Pakistan if it continues to back terrorist groups. This approach was successful, at least for a while, in the past. Two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage handed Pakistan’s intelligence chief a non-negotiable list of seven steps that needed to be carried out immediately against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The alternative, Armitage said, was to be labeled a U.S. enemy. The Pakistanis quickly agreed. As soon as President George W. Bush eased the pressure, Pakistani support for terrorists resumed.

Crackdown on al Qaeda

Such a stark choice could work again. The U.S. should insist on a 100 percent effort from Pakistan to end its support for all terrorist groups. Mullen told Bloomberg View that Kayani claims to have arrested or captured 248 members of al-Qaeda. Yet, based on discussions with experts, we estimate that Pakistan has made an 80 percent effort to defeat terrorists targeting its government, a 75 percent effort against al-Qaeda, a 25 percent effort against the Taliban and the Haqqani Network operating in Afghanistan, and a 10 percent effort against groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba that strike India. These judgments are consistent with the CIA’s assessment of a 30 percent effort.

After 10 years and many broken promises, the Pakistanis need to understand that, absent a turnaround, the administration may not have the clout -- or the desire -- to resist growing demands from the American public and Congress to treat Islamabad as an adversary rather than a partner. This could result in a cutoff of military and non-humanitarian civilian assistance, and perhaps pressure for the International Monetary Fund and other donors to do the same.

Engagement With India

And Pakistan should also be made to understand that a failure to change paths could lead to closer U.S. engagement with India. This could include encouraging greater Indian involvement in sensitive areas in Afghanistan. More importantly, Mullen could emphasize that intransigence will mean that the U.S. can no longer treat Islamabad as a friend. Such a change would have inevitable consequences: First, it would make it difficult, if not impossible, to dissuade India from retaliating if it were attacked by Pakistani-backed terrorist groups, as the U.S. did after the 2008 terror strikes in Mumbai. Second, should the U.S. be asked by India for assistance to identify and locate the perpetrators of a future attack, it would be difficult to turn down the request. Kayani surely understands that a successful Indian retaliation, with or without U.S. intelligence assistance, would humiliate the military and undermine its privileged role.

Nuclear Arsenal

Some may argue that reframing the policy along these lines would inflame nationalist anger, possibly leading to a takeover of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal by Islamic fanatics. Or that Islamabad might reduce the access of the U.S. and its allies to the supply routes into Afghanistan. Such concerns are overstated: This change would have no effect on Pakistan’s determination to keep its weapons secure. And while most U.S. supplies for Afghanistan travel over Pakistani ports and roads, the percentage is dropping, and closing down supply lines would further inflame Pakistan’s relations with its major Western aid donors who also have troops in Afghanistan.

Islamabad could also ask China to fill the void left by the U.S. That is unrealistic: Although China and Pakistan have a close relationship, the Pakistanis know Beijing isn’t eager to add their country to its list of pariah client states that already includes North Korea and Myanmar.

This new option, intended to change Pakistan’s approach, isn’t perfect, but may be less risky than allowing Islamabad to continue to support insurgents in Afghanistan and groups that target innocent men, women and children in the U.S.