- A Marriage Estranged:The Strategic Disconnect between Pakistan and the United States
Like a bad marriage that holds together only because the couple deems divorce to be cost-prohibitive, the United States and Pakistan remain locked in a deeply distrustful relationship. Both sides regularly accuse the other of being an insincere partner and complain of being cheated. Yet Pakistan remains a major non-NATO ally, and the two states continue to seek ways to overcome their differences to fight terrorism.
U.S.-Pakistan relations frayed considerably in the last eighteen months of the Obama administration. With President Donald Trump's entry into the mix, Pakistanis sensed an opportunity to work with an administration that seems to have no preconceived South Asia policy. But progress will not be easy. The roots of U.S.-Pakistan tensions in recent years lie in the most canonical principle of interstate relations: a fundamental divergence of priorities and self-perceived interests. Each country's policies in pursuit of its interests, perfectly rational in its own mind, have been antithetical to the other's vision for South Asia. But both sides have been reluctant to acknowledge this situation—perhaps concerned that doing so would unleash the dangers associated with a total rupture in ties. This essay will examine the divergence in U.S. and Pakistani interests and consider the prospect for improved relations during the Trump administration.
Real Divergences, Real Consequences
Since September 11, the United States' most urgent priority in Pakistan's neighborhood has been to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Its principal long-term strategic interest lies in cementing its burgeoning alliance with India as a means of checking China's rise.
Pakistan's foreign and security policy, on the other hand, is shaped by the perennially hostile relationship with India. Throughout the country's 70-year history, the Pakistani military has tried to ensure a semblance of parity with its eastern neighbor. This has been Pakistan's insurance policy against any Indian aggression that could threaten the state's collapse. [End Page 46] During the Cold War, Pakistan used the United States to bolster its economy and military capability against Soviet-leaning India. Pakistan's India calculus has not moved since this time, but the United States' strategy has flipped. And herein lies the problem.
The United States and India are now engaged in a multifaceted strategic partnership that is reinforcing India's rise. In Afghanistan, the United States has invested trillions of dollars to transform the country from a safe haven for anti-U.S. terrorist groups responsible for the September 11 attacks to a peaceful, democratic state. To achieve this goal, it created the NATO-trained and -backed 350,000-strong Afghan National Security Force, partnered with political forces opposed to the Taliban, and leveraged international economic support for Afghanistan. India has emerged as a key partner. It has pledged over $2 billion in assistance, making it Afghanistan's fifth-largest donor, and was the first country to sign a security pact with Afghanistan.1
Pakistan was pivotal for this U.S. vision in Afghanistan—without Pakistan, no victory was possible there. Pakistan provided the United States with subsidized transit facilities, deployment of over 100,000 troops to its western frontier to fight anti-U.S. terrorists who had crossed into Pakistan's border regions after the September 11 attacks, and significant intelligence cooperation on groups like al Qaeda. But this cooperation did not extend to the Afghan Taliban. U.S. policymakers offered several incentives to gain Pakistan's full support in Afghanistan while simultaneously trying to ensure Pakistan's internal stability. These included over $30 billion in monetary assistance, support to Pakistan's internal counterterrorism operations, direct use of aerial power through drone strikes against militants in the border regions, and signals of a long-term commitment to Pakistan that entailed broadening the conversation beyond Afghanistan and terrorism to economic and development issues through a "strategic dialogue" process. Such U.S. assistance helped Pakistan immensely—from critical budget support in times of economic crisis to much-needed resources to fight domestic terrorists.
But behind the veil of the two countries' crucial tactical cooperation remained...