National Security Network

Building a Strategic Relationship with Pakistan

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Report 24 March 2010

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Today marks the commencement of the first ever, ministerial-level strategic dialogue between the United States and Pakistan.  The dialogue - which will unfold over the next two days and will consist of broad-based discussions covering bilateral topics ranging from Afghanistan and terrorism, to development and economic assistance, to energy and water - confirms that the Obama administration is moving the relationship from a state of drift, as characterized by the previous Bush administration's failed policy there, to a state of clear headed action.  The affirmation of the importance that the U.S. places on its relationship with Pakistan, as symbolized by the strategic dialogue, follows more than a year of constructive engagement that is beginning to pay dividends. 

However, potential pitfalls looming on the horizon, as well as recent history suggest that trumpeting such accomplishments at this point is premature.  In particular, the Administration would be wise to remember that Pakistan's interests do not always align with those of the U.S., meaning that while there are opportunities for positive overlap, there will also be disagreements.  Therefore, the Administration should not repeat its predecessor's failures by simply assuming that a "friendly" Pakistani government will pursue U.S. interests.  Instead, the U.S. will benefit most by using the strategic dialogue to continue to build upon the progress it has made in building a mature U.S.-Pakistan relationship, capable of advancing common interests while also continuing to identify the important challenges that remain.

First of its kind U.S. - Pakistan ‘Strategic Dialogue' commences today. In a sign of the value that the Obama administration places on the U.S. - Pakistan relationship, today marks the commencement of the first ever ministerial-level strategic dialogue between the two countries.  The Washington Post reports that the talks are intended to "overcome what both characterize as a mutual ‘trust deficit,'" and "consolidate the new partnership the president promised last fall in exchange for Pakistan's cooperation in shutting down Taliban and al-Qaeda havens."  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will lead the U.S. team, which also includes Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, USAID Administrator Raj Shah, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, and other top officials.  Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi will lead his country's delegation, which has been heavily influenced by Army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Kayani, according to the New York Times. 

In a preview of the talks, Pakistan Dawn news agency reported that the Pakistani delegation "will use next week's high-level talks with the Obama administration to seek more recognition for its part in the fight against terrorism and get Washington to acknowledge its concerns about rival India."  To that end, it has submitted a 56-page document which the Wall Street Journal reported "outlines a range of aid Pakistan is seeking from the U.S.," including greater and speedier military assistance, intelligence cooperation, a civilian nuclear deal similar to the one established between the U.S. and India, as well as other assurances related to Afghanistan, its counterterrorism efforts and its contentious relationship with India.  According to the Journal, "officials on both sides say that by detailing them in a single comprehensive document, Islamabad is trying to signal its willingness to align its interests with those of Washington, its vision for a partnership-and its price."  A U.S. official interviewed by the Post discussed Pakistan's motivations, saying "They know this is not China or Taiwan or India, where we have a long-run business investment driving the partnership. We have a war and we need them. They are suspicious that we're going to leave. But they also want to take maximum advantage of their moment in the sun." The official later added that "[l]ike any relationship, you look for signs of commitment."  According to the official, the Obama administration believes it has already made a substantial commitment to Pakistan," the Pakistanis look at that and "say ‘Yes, but what else?'" [Washington Post, 3/24/10. NY Times, 3/21/10. WSJ, 3/22/10]

Strategic dialogue affirms Obama administration's effective approach towards Pakistan. The strategic dialogue builds on the painstaking work by the Obama administration to adopt an engaged, clear-headed policy toward Pakistan, after years in which U.S. policy was seen as adrift.  According to Reuters, the dialogue itself "is likely to produce several signed agreements, from building dams and roads to power projects for energy-starved Pakistan, as well as additional security commitments." 

Any results would build upon the significant steps the Obama administration has already taken over the past year and a half.  The Obama administration has increased cooperation on hard security issues, such as counterterrorism and battling Pakistan's Islamist insurgency.  Just as important, it has dramatically increased development assistance to Pakistan, with the strong support of Congress, and engaged in intense diplomacy to rebuild the bilateral ties that suffered under the previous Administration.  It has also quietly encouraged diplomatic talks between Pakistan and India, in recognition that resolution of that conflict is a long-term regional challenge that must be overcome.

Defense: In January, the New York Times reported that "The United States will provide a dozen unarmed aerial spy drones to Pakistan for the first time as part of an effort to encourage Pakistan's cooperation in fighting Islamic militants on the Afghanistan border... The Shadow drones, which are smaller than armed Predator drones, will be a significant upgrade in the Pakistanis' reconnaissance and surveillance ability and will supply video to help cue strikes from the ground or the air." [New York Times, 1/21/10]

Development: The White House has significantly increased aid to Pakistan, after signing into law in October a $7.5 billion aid package for Pakistan. As the BBC reported, "this triples non-military U.S. aid to an annual outlay of $1.5bn for five years." [BBC, 10/15/09]

Diplomacy: In February, Newsweek reported that "intensive, hands-on U.S. diplomacy with Pakistan-with regular senior-level trips by National-Security Adviser Jim Jones, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and others-has helped to reassure Islamabad that it is seen as a long-term partner, not a mere instrument."

In addition, the U.S. has engaged in regional diplomacy, particularly to support efforts to resolve the India - Pakistan conflict.  As Secretary Clinton recently told a Senate panel: "With respect to India and Pakistan, we've encouraged the resumption of the direct talks which were suspended when (Pakistan) President (Pervez) Musharraf left office." [Newsweek, 2/23/10. Secretary of State Clinton, via the Nation, 2/25/10].  Reuters, 3/24/10]

Challenges with Pakistan remain, highlighting the need to be clear headed while avoiding the mistakes of the previous administration.  Though the Obama administration's efforts to develop a strategic approach toward Pakistan have produced positive results, the path forward remains rife with potential complications.  Of the recent wave of arrests of Taliban leadership by Pakistani authorities, the Wall Street Journal reported that "Afghan officials and other Western officials say the Pakistanis may be trying to take control of nascent Taliban peace efforts by detaining the most pragmatic insurgent leaders," a move that could hem in Afghan and Western options in the future.  Such a move could be related to Pakistan's interest in defining the order in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. forces.  The Washington Post notes that "India and Pakistan are struggling for influence in Afghanistan and, some experts say, jeopardizing regional security." While on a visit to India earlier this year, Secretary Gates discussed India and Pakistan's fraught relationship in the context of Afghanistan: "There are real suspicions in both India and Pakistan about what the other is doing in Afghanistan." 

In addition, though Pakistan has touted recent moves against insurgents operating within its borders, and U.S. officials have credited drone strikes for taking out key militant and terrorist figures, independent monitors have had difficulty accessing these areas to ascertain the validity of these claims and investigate possible negative repercussions related to the operations.  This uncertainty had led Administration officials to adopt a cautious tone.  One senior U.S. military official involved in talks with Pakistan commented to the Wall Street Journal, "Everything with the Pakistanis is two steps forward and one step back...Anybody who expects straight linear progress out of a strategic dialogue between these two nations is really kind of naïve. What it will be is a step forward and then we'll see where they go with it."

With so many potential complications on the horizon, the Obama administration is best served by not resting on its accomplishments, a cautionary point illustrated by the failures of its predecessors.  For years, the Bush White House acted as if U.S. interests and Pakistan's were one and the same, with President Bush even going so far as to say, "when [Musharraf] looks me in the eye and says there won't be a Taliban and won't be Al Qaeda, I believe him."  The reality was very different.  Brookings Institution Pakistan expert Stephen P. Cohen explained at the time: "Administration officials have gloated that they coerced Pakistan into signing on to the ill-named war on terrorism.  In return, Islamabad played a double game regarding its participation in this struggle." Cohen added, "Its intelligence services supported the Taliban, while only reluctantly going after the al Qaeda forces embedded in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).  The failure to round up the Taliban leadership was a matter of state policy: the Pakistan army still regards India as its major threat, and the Taliban are used to counterbalance Indian influence in Afghanistan." [WSJ, 3/22/10. Washington Post, 2/26/10. Secretary Gates, via the NY Times, 1/20/10. CS Monitor, 2/24/10. NY Times, 2/24/10. BBC, 2/25/10. Washington Quarterly, Spring 2007. Steven P. Cohen, 11/05/07]

What We're Reading

Israel took rebukes from both the U.S. and Britain as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Obama without the usual trappings of a head-of-state visit and the UK expelled an Israeli diplomat in response to the misuse of British passports.

Palestinian support for a two-state solution is declining, according to a new poll released as Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vows to continue building in East Jerusalem.

As the Chinese government blocks Google searches in mainland China, a long-running alliance between Western business executives and China is turning sour.

The Kurds, the strongest U.S. ally in Iraq and a leading political kingmaker, appear likely to lose some of their influence to the stridently anti-American group led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which did surprisingly well in this month's parliamentary elections.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has ordered a review of the military's information operations programs in response to allegations that private contractors ran an unauthorized spy ring in Afghanistan.

Shabab militants in Somalia might be losing the hearts and minds of Somalis.

Amid an uptick in drug violence, U.S. and Mexican officials said that they will seek to bolster nonmilitary spending on police and courts and look for ways to help ravaged communities, but they offered few concrete proposals for fighting the powerful drug cartels.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country will not send its recalled ambassador back to Washington until the Obama administration and Congress make clear they will not judge Turkish history.

There is mounting evidence that Kim Jong Il is losing the propaganda war inside North Korea, with more than half the population now listening to foreign news, as grass-roots cynicism undercuts state myths and discontent riseseven among elites.

Germany might be closer to a compromise in the E.U. that would allow Greece access to aid without getting the blind rescue that Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to avoid.

Commentary of the Day

Walter Russell Mead says by responding sharply to Israel's plans for increased settlements, President Obama strengthened his hand abroad and at home.

The NYT editorial board argues that contract reform, payment changes, and confirmation of the White House Science Advisor are needed to fix missile defense programs.

David Ignatius cautions that the United States should be careful about encouraging the militarization of information and avoid the bleeding of the military into intelligence.

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