This season may go down as the one where Pakistan nearly ran out of friends in Washington. Let's be frank, the blatant duplicity, harboring and use of terrorists and unvarnished threats against the U.S. by Pakistani leaders is finally forcing a reexamination of an already sputtering relationship.
While a more honest relationship with Pakistan. combined with the cultivation of alternatives would be welcome, the link between Washington and Islamabad will have to persist on some level.
A new book by James Farwell, "The Pakistan Cauldron: Conspiracy, Assassination & Instability" clarifies anew the dysfunction of Pakistan and the challenging path for U.S. policymakers as President Obama begins to draw down troops from neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s sins and duplicity have long been apparent, but recently have been unmistakable.
On May 2, terror mastermind Usama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs in...Pakistan. He was not in the lawless frontier with Afghanistan but found alive in a garrison town where knowledge of his presence was likely.
In September, terrorist in Afghanistan attacked the U.S. embassy. The infamous Haqqani network was fingered. Last month, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen said the Haqqani were a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s intelligence service. He had been the foremost advocate of engaging with Islamabad and trying to iron out differences.
All of this fits a broader fact pattern of Pakistan employing terrorists against Americans and Afghanis in Afghanistan, and against our increasingly good friend India within its borders. Lest we forget, the stunning 2008 Mumbai massacre is widely believed to have been conducted with Pakistani help.
Farwell does far better than most in explaining this behavior in “The Pakistan Cauldron,” which is due out later this month.
The author sets off on the unenviable task “to understand how Pakistan’s politicians, including its highly political military and intelligence establishments, have seen themselves.” He does so through three telling episodes in Pakistan’s recent history. These include the political and smuggling-related milestones on Islamabad’s way to a nuclear capability, including the dealings of the infamous A. Q. Khan; the remarkable, promising and conceited Benazir Bhutto, as well as her assassination; and the “impossibly cross-pressured” Pervez Musharraf.
The verdict on these people and events is depressing. Summing it all up, Farwell writes that “Americans want to think of Pakistan as a ‘strategic ally.’ Pakistanis view the relationship as transactional.”
Farwell comes back time and again to the device of “strategic communications,” which in a less politically correct time was known as “political warfare.” He defines it as the “use of words, actions, images, and symbols to mold or shape the attitudes and opinions of target audiences to influence behavior and advance interests, policies, and objectives.”
The U.S. used to excel at this practice—especially out of necessity in the early years of the Cold War. We no longer do.
Those who doubt this need only look at the bipartisan public diplomacy failures of the last decade, or today at the critical elections in Egypt, where the U.S. has an astonishing lack of situational awareness and influence.
Those who challenge us abroad face no similar deficiency. Farwell aptly captures our conundrum: “[Pakistan’s] strategic communication with the United States, on whom it has keenly depended for aid, has been measured, duplicitous, and calibrated to providing a stream of misleading information and outright lies. Its disingenuous behavior offers an object lesson in dealing with other states: The Pakistanis’ own interests come first, and their use of strategic communication reflects that reality.”
And yet, despite this atrocious reality, the U.S. must persist with Pakistan.
The looming drawdown of U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan will provide relief but new challenges. The ability to ship goods through Central Asia instead of Pakistan, and the decline in quantity of those goods as U.S. force in region ebbs, makes Pakistan less indispensible. Thus Washington’s paychecks for Islamabad, which have rewarded bad behavior, can be curtailed. Other steps, including a greater partnership with India and cooperation with Delhi on missile defense, could be pursued.
But President Obama’s determination to hasten a drawdown in Afghanistan will only increase America’s reliance on political interaction with parties in that dangerous region—including Islamabad.
As with other unpalatable alliances the U.S. has been forced to stomach in wartime—not the least of which was our partnership with Stalin in World War II—our current and future presidents cannot afford the luxury of complete detachment from Islamabad.
We’ll have to understand better, trust less, and figure out how to influence more by overt and covert actions.
Looking ahead, Farwell calculates the risks correctly—and better than a Washington foreign policy establishment too focused on the remote threat of loose nukes and not concerned enough with the political dimensions of the current world situation. He writes: “The real threat to Pakistan is that absent social transformation, violent extremists may capture the mantle of nationalism and discredit their enemies as secularists.”
Indeed. It would be gratifying to wish our duplicitous friends among the secularists good luck and hang up the phone.
Unfortunately, if America continues to care about the region that brought us 9/11, it is an indulgence we cannot afford.
Christian Whiton was a senior advisor in the Donald Trump and George W. Bush administrations. He is a senior fellow for strategy and public diplomacy at the Center for the National Interest and the author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.”