After harboring Usama bin Laden for nearly a decade, Pakistan has agreed in a “joint statement” with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to work together in any future actions against “high value targets” in Pakistan. This assertion will be soothing only to those in the Obama White House and Washington foreign policy establishment unwilling to recognize that U.S. policy toward Pakistan has failed.
After all, both governments have repeatedly and habitually asserted a partnership in good order, all evidence to the contrary.
In decade since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has showered Pakistan with increasing quantities of aid that was supposed to achieve an alternating list of outcomes. This included encouraging Pakistani cooperation in neutralizing Al Qaeda and Taliban elements within their own territory.
On the U.S. side, in December of 2004, George W. Bush said that the Pakistani president “has been a determined leader to bring to justice not only people like Usama Bin Laden, but to bring to justice those who would inflict harm and pain on his own people.”
In 2006, Pakistan’s president said of the U.S. that “We cooperate on the intelligence. We have great understanding on the intelligence and what action [is] to be taken. That is our understanding, and I think we have succeeded in many areas.”
In 2009, Senator Kerry defended not only Pakistan’s president, but its army chief and intelligence agency as exhibiting encouraging signs of “transforming” and confronting terrorists.
This month, in addressing the nation about the killing of bin Laden, President Obama struck a similar tune, saying that “our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to Bin Laden.”
However neither he nor his administration have provided convincing proof of this or of other real cooperation. Absent this, the American people are right to conclude the worst about Pakistan’s harboring of bin Laden and failure in the past decade to control the Taliban and other terrorist networks within its borders, or its sponsorship of terrorists targeting democracies abroad.
Washington cannot even gets its story right in explaining why we shower Pakistan with billions of dollars in assistance each year.
In general, the rationale has been that Pakistan is working to suppress Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other violent jihadists within its borders. As this claim has worn thin with recent revelations, Pakistan’s status as a nuclear power has been cited as an alternate reason. The apparent implication is that if we curtail aid, Pakistan might proliferate or use a nuclear weapon. But if this is a serious and plausible threat, surely a combination of deterrence, counter-proliferation, missile defense or preemption would be better strategies than appeasement via foreign aid.
Another occasional justification for aid is that Pakistan’s economy is at stake. Indeed, in 2009, as Pakistan’s economy and government were thought to be facing elevated risks, the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill tripled non-military aid to Pakistan with a $7.5 billion pledge above existing levels of aid. But foreign aid dispensed through corrupt governments and institutions only augments corruption and economic malaise. In 2010, Transparency International ranked Pakistan 143rd out of 178 countries in anti-corruption, with an abysmal score of 2.3 out of 10. Pakistan’s score in 2001 before nearly a decade of massive U.S. aid: also 2.3 out of 10.
Finally, another reason cited for aid is the need to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This is the most justifiable, given the critical need to supply the counterinsurgency there. But presumably this transshipment access can be obtained for less than the $3 billion in new aid to Pakistan that President Obama has requested in his budget for the next fiscal year. If not, we should at least cease deluding ourselves as to what this money is buying and the true nature of our relationship with Islamabad.
Furthermore, the U.S. could be working much more determinedly on developing alternative means to access Afghanistan, which in turn can help diversify Afghanistan’s economy away from reliance on Pakistan. If the U.S. relationship with Russia has improved even a fraction of what the Obama administration says it has achieved with its vaunted “reset” policy with Moscow, surely Afghanistan can be supplied via the Central Asian republics that often follow Moscow’s lead on foreign affairs. If not, as is probably the case, then a trans-Caspian route can work with only Turkmenistan’s acquiescence, which ought to cost considerably less than Islamabad’s annual take of $3+ billion.
Instead the Obama administration appears intent to try again what has repeatedly failed. Senator Kerry, acting as de facto envoy, said that Washington wants “to hit a reset button” on our relationship with Islamabad.
Kerry said he was not in Pakistan to apologize for the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden, but nonetheless struck an apologetic tone: “Our relationship is too important to be stuck speculating about something there is no evidence about.” Bipartisan voices among leadership on Capitol Hill are calling for continued aid.
This is quite a good deal for Pakistan and other governments that are using terrorists against neighboring democracies, or building up a nuclear weapons arsenal, or leaving large swaths of their territory open to Islamist jihadists while complaining about foreign acts of self defense against those terrorists—all of which Pakistan does. The message is that you can do all of this, be forgiven without even acting contrite, and receive billions to boot.
Apparently that is easier for Mr. Obama’s Washington than admitting policy failure and considering alternatives.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).