TSG IntelBrief: US-Pakistan Relations: Afghanistan, Aid, Drones, and Delusion
October 29, 2013
• The meeting last week between Pakistan’s Prime Minster Sharif and President Obama signals that both leaders want a cooperative relationship as the US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014
• US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal region continue to fuel hostile rhetoric, but they do not represent a make-or-break issue between the two sides
• A workable accord between the US and Pakistan involves a resumption of aid money meant primarily for Pakistan’s military, and Pakistan’s diplomatic assistance in engaging with the Afghan Taliban
• Former Pakistani Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, refers to the current bilateral arrangement as “the magnificent delusion,” a phenomenon ongoing since the early Cold War.
The Drones: Masking What Each Party Really Wants
On October 23, 2013, President Obama hosted a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in order to discuss a bilateral relationship strained by a numbers of events in the preceding years: a US embassy-assigned contractor’s shooting of two Pakistani citizens in Lahore in January 2011, the May 2011 raid on Usama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad, and the subsequent suspension of $1.6 billion in US aid. Moreover, the interaction between the two countries has been defined by acrimonious rhetoric on the issue of drone strikes and Pakistani sovereignty. The drone program remains somewhat of a diversion for more practical demands each side has for the other.
Elected as Prime Minister once again in June 2013 (his third time since 1990), Sharif has candidly rebuked US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal region. During his conversation with President Obama last Wednesday at the White House, Sharif listed drone strikes as the Pakistani people’s primary grievance against the US and “emphasiz[ed] the need for an end to such strikes.” However, there is not likely to be any such acquiescence from the US, as officials have said they are “reducing, but not ending, the use of armed drones.”
While drone strikes are an issue of overt contention between Pakistan and the US, Pakistan’s leaders are ambivalent about pushing to end the program anytime soon. Pakistan’s military has historically inflicted significant civilian casualties with its own ground warfare in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of the northwest, and according a Washington Post article from October 24, the country’s leaders have been ardent supporters of the (comparably discriminate) use of American drones against militants who are, in reality, mutual adversaries. The Washington Post reported that despite Sharif’s criticism of the drone program, “top officials in Pakistan’s government have for years secretly endorsed the program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts.” In the end, the issues most relevant to each side are not simply drone-related, even if Western media affords a preponderance of coverage to the story.
The Real Quid Pro Quo
If the most pressing point of discussion was not drones, the focus of Sharif’s meeting with Obama was the near term bilateral relationship. Speaking to reporters prior to the White House meeting, Sharif’s adviser on national security and foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, said: “The aim of the visit is to start building a post-2014 relationship…and there are a lot of dimensions—peace in Afghanistan and the overall shared economic relationship.” It is significant that there was no mention of ending drone strikes when describing the “post-2014 relationship.” In Aziz’s estimation, the most pressing issues between the US and Pakistan involve Afghanistan’s internal security and Pakistan’s economic prosperity. At the heart of the US-Pakistani relationship is large-scale foreign aid, the fundamental arrangement that has defined it since Pakistan’s establishment in 1947.
What Obama wants is for the Pakistani government to broker some form of an accord with the Afghan Taliban, where it ceases attacks on Afghan security forces and respects the upcoming Afghan elections scheduled for April 5, 2014. Even more optimally, though unlikely, Pakistan would influence Taliban participation into the political process. As post-2010 Iraq has demonstrated, leaving behind a disenfranchised insurgency for a nascent government to deal with makes for a poor legacy and even worse outcomes.
At first glance, Sharif’s government appears disposed for negotiations with Taliban entities on both sides of the border. He immediately opened dialog with a seemingly implacable foe in the Pakistan Taliban, after his election as prime minister in June 2013. As recently as October 24, the day after his meeting with Obama, state-run Pakistani media reported that Sharif is considering opening an office in Peshawar to facilitate dialogue with the Pakistan Taliban.
What Sharif wants is a renewed economic relationship, one in which the US unfreezes aid packages and agrees to increase trade between the two countries for the immediate term. Last summer, Aziz told Secretary of State John Kerry, “We hope that we can double our bilateral trade to something like $11 billion USD in the next five years.” More immediately, however, Sharif has asked for (and received) a resumption of aid money to Pakistan’s military and economic sector. On October 21, the US State Department officially announced it would resume its $1.6 billion aid package (frozen in 2011). Among the economic initiatives funded is a project to continue construction of the Diamer-Bhasha dam in northern Pakistan, which, according to USAID, “could provide electricity for 60 million people and a ready supply of water for millions more.” Yet, as usual, the vast majority of aid money is designated to equip the Pakistani military.
Husain Haqqani’s “Magnificent Delusion”
Former Pakistani Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, recently characterized the US-Pakistan quid pro quo of the last 66 years as a “magnificent delusion.” On one hand, Pakistan deceives itself into thinking it can take US largess without entirely committing to America’s strategic goals in the region. On the other hand, the US believes it can use aid money to steer Pakistan’s foreign policy and achieve regional goals by proxy. Since the early Cold War, this arrangement has defined the US-Pakistani relationship. Last week, Sharif’s government agreed to vague promises of reining in the Afghan Taliban, just as the US expects Pakistan’s complete commitment to that outcome. When the arrangement fails, according to Haqqani, it feeds a mutual mistrust that has become compulsive over time.
• US aid money will begin to flow to Pakistan and fund several initiatives, from equipping the Pakistani military to launching infrastructure projects designed to improve basic services for rural Pakistanis
• Prime Minister Sharif will engage the Afghan Taliban and encourage the movement’s leaders to declare a ceasefire as US forces prepare to withdraw from the country
• Drone strikes in the FATA will continue in accordance with US counter terrorism goals for the region
• Acrimonious rhetoric between the country’s leaders over the drone program will continue with little practical effect
• Economic aid from the US will have a long-term positive effect by providing water and electricity to millions of rural Pakistanis, though it will hardly improve popular opinion of the US inside Pakistan
• Pakistani-sponsored negotiations with the Afghan Taliban will not be sufficient to dissuade the Taliban from violence, and a deeply entrenched Taliban movement on both sides of Pakistan’s western border will burden the Sharif government after the US withdraws in 2014
• The “magnificent delusion” as bilateral relationship between the US and Pakistan will continue: aid money as for Pakistan’s influence at home and in the region.
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