There are no more illusions in US- Pakistan relations. Pakistan feels bitter about Washington’s embrace of India and the blowback from US counterterrorism policies. Washington feels embittered by Pakistan’s decisions and seeming incapability of changing course.
In retrospect, the last stand of wishful thinking in the US was the 2010 Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation. Washington’s strategy then was to put more money on the table to incentivise a reconsideration of Pakistan’s policies towards internal threats, Afghanistan, ties with India, and its nuclear posture.
From Washington’s perspective, the timing of KLB seemed right. A new civilian government was in place and in need of reinforcement. A thaw with India — a necessary condition to spur Pakistan’s economic growth — seemed possible. Perhaps Pakistan could be persuaded to not veto negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, since it was harming Pakistan’s standing without constraining India. And maybe both countries could collaborate on finding a workable political settlement in Afghanistan.
KLB did not fare very well. Well-meaning but tone-deaf members of Congress included a provision supporting civilian control of the military, prompting a backlash and antagonising those capable of changing Pakistan’s national security policies. Pakistan took the money and didn’t change most of its policies. The big exception was that Pakistan’s military took on the Pakistani Taliban.
Six years after KLB, relations have reached another low point. Messages to move past the ‘blame game’ will again be heard, but this talking point has lost its powers of persuasion, as has the theme of betrayal. On Capitol Hill, members of Congress are losing sympathy with Pakistan. Afghan Taliban leaders still find refuge on Pakistan’s soil where they are periodically targeted by drone strikes that damage the standing of both Pakistan and the US. Hope has waned on negotiations over Afghanistan’s future and Pak-Afghan ties. The Indian prime minister makes a surprise visit to Lahore to jump-start improved ties, only to be stymied by the usual blocking action — an attack on a sensitive Indian target allegedly by cadres of an extremist group that finds safe haven in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal continues to grow faster than India’s.
Pakistan’s equities in the US have shrunk.
The end of illusions helps to explain Capitol Hill’s behaviour towards the F-16 sale. The only choices Congress seriously considered were to block the sale or to require payment in full. Yes, Washington appreciates the sacrifices made by Pakistan’s military in dealing with the Pakistani Taliban — a campaign that relies partly on F-16 sorties. But members of Congress also recognise that money is fungible; helping Pakistan to finance the purchase of F-16s will free up money for choices that are contrary to US foreign policy and national security interests.
The Obama administration has lost leverage it previously had on Capitol Hill in support of Pakistan. Its talking points are no more persuasive than Pakistan’s when it comes to the Haqqani network. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker fought back efforts to kill the sale, while insisting that Pakistan prioritise between its desire for more F-16s and outlays for other military initiatives. This outcome is likely to become the template followed by the next administration, as well.
A realistic appraisal of trend lines, stripped of illusion, leads to the following, inescapable conclusions. The US will grow closer to India. Pakistan’s equities in Washington have shrunk with the declining US troop presence in Afghanistan and with Pakistan’s perceived need to hedge its bets with the Afghan Taliban. US defence assistance to India will continue to expand, while US coalition support funding to Pakistan will diminish. The pro-India caucus on Capitol Hill will gain strength, and the pro-Pakistan caucus will shrink.
The US will, however, continue to offer Pakistan assistance because of residual common interests —
especially on counterterrorism. Because perceptions of common US-Pakistan interests have narrowed, Pakistan’s ties with China will become stronger, as they must. In time, Pakistan will find reason to be displeased with Chinese support, just as it found reason to grumble about US assistance. Even the most artful diplomacy cannot alter these trends.
Pakistan will continue to chart its own course towards internal threats, Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban, India, and nuclear issues — regardless of what Washington says or does. If Pakistan changes its national security policies, it will be because change is perceived by Pakistan to be in its interests, not because of Washington’s incentives, or penalties.
US-Pakistan relations have been transactional, but both sides now have good reasons to be unhappy with transactionalism. From Washington’s perspective, Pakistan’s compensation has been generous. From Pakistan’s perspective, the compensation seems insufficient. Washington’s transactional calculus has now changed. It’s no longer about the sum total of US assistance; it’s about Pakistan’s choices.
The writer is the co-founder of the Stimson Centre. His latest edited book is The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age.
Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2016