“We have to be willing to escalate the pressure, which, in my view, has to include Pakistan’s very difficult economic circumstances,” Khalilzad said. “Today, I think the Pakistanis can cover only about 10 weeks of imports. We also need to move diplomatically by engaging some key countries they rely on, like China and Saudi Arabia.”
A former senior diplomat intimately familiar with the decline in U.S.-Pakistan discussions agrees. “The message needs to be: What kind of future does Pakistan want? Does it want to be Iran—or does it want to be South Korea—in other words, rich and respected?” he said. “No one has delivered that tough message recently. So the assumption in Pakistan is that the Americans need us more than we need them. We can hold the Americans to ransom. They can’t get out of Afghanistan without our help.”
Instead, this critique goes, the U.S. has been too nice and too polite, to the point where the Pakistanis have come to expect American acquiescence. That is one reason the most recent issue over shipping rights has dragged on so long. “The Pakistanis have totally miscalculated. They thought NATO would buckle under in a few weeks. And it’s been six months,” said the former senior diplomat, who would describe internal deliberations between the U.S. and Pakistan only on condition of anonymity.
To be sure, U.S. nonchalance and miscalculation over the past decade have contributed mightily to the Pakistanis’ own strategic ambivalence. After 9/11, the Bush administration ignored its democracy agenda entirely when it came to Pakistan, refusing even to meet with exiled leader Benazir Bhutto; instead, the administration blindly supported the Pakistan coup leader, Gen. Musharraf, although the latter was fully vested in the military’s traditional support of jihadist proxies. True, in the early days of the war on terrorism, Pakistan was in fact helpful against al-Qaida, taking part in the capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani from Balochistan, in 2003. But Musharraf grew complacent, throwing up an assortment of “al-Qaida No. 3” leaders to appease the Americans while signing peace deals with Islamist parties to block the more-legitimate secular political parties that might present real opposition to him.
All the while, Washington looked the other way and hinted at its eventual departure from the region, thus robbing Pakistan of any motivation to reorient its army from India and toward pacifying its restive tribal regions. U.S. efforts have remained piecemeal and intermittent, at best, rather than focused on leveraging America’s, and NATO’s, expensive and long-term commitment into a diplomatic vision for the region that would have co-opted the Pakistanis: the kind of vision U.S. officials have developed vis-à-vis China, Russia, Iran, and even Latin America.
One example of what was missed was the tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. India has resisted any international mediation over the disputed province, which it claims, but New Delhi has also shown an eagerness to work with Washington, which proffered a generous strategic partnership to India beginning in the mid-2000s, much to the ire of the Pakistanis. Yet Washington did not demand a quid pro quo from Delhi, and the Kashmir issue continued to fester. Back in 1999, U.S. officials were rattled when the two countries—both of which tested nukes in 1998—fought deadly skirmishes along the so-called line of control that, since 1971, has divided Kashmir. Worried about a nuclear conflict, President Clinton in 2000 sounded a strong new U.S. diplomatic line, calling for “respect for the line of control.”
Then inattention took over again. Only when war threatened to erupt in 2002 did Bush send Secretary of State Colin Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage, to negotiate a de-escalation. As part of that effort, a senior administration official said, the United States briefly sought to play mediator in discussions over Kashmir once again. But Bush, distracted by Iraq, dropped the issue.
CHANGING THE CALCULUS
One reason some U.S. policymakers have been somewhat fatalistic about Pakistan’s behavior is that, until now, the typical view from Washington has been that Afghanistan will somehow always revert back to a state of war, and that its government is hopelessly corrupt. Certainly that was the view of Vice President Joe Biden, who argued in 2009 for a much earlier departure from Afghanistan. And the president seems to agree with him. Obama, sounding on Monday what has become a familiar note in the face of a tough reelection challenge, called for “a stable Afghanistan that won’t be perfect” so that “we can start rebuilding America and making some of the massive investments we’ve been making in Afghanistan here back home.”
But if Obama also believes his own rhetoric about an “Afghan good enough” state in which the center holds and the Taliban doesn’t take over; and if he wants to avoid a foreign-policy disaster that will forever be associated with his presidency, then he needs to take one more important step: Appoint a high-level representative, or perhaps delegate Secretary of State Clinton to the task. And he needs to rethink the whole region.
As we’ve learned so many times over the years, the permanent presence of American power and influence, and that of the international community, can fundamentally alter the equation—it can overturn the iron law of history that seems to doom backward countries like Afghanistan to ever-more war and repression. We saw it in Bosnia, when everyone expected the 1995 Dayton Accord to fall apart and the ethnic killing to resume. It didn’t, because NATO stayed. We saw it in Kosovo, which gained its independence under NATO monitoring. We saw it in the ultimate impact that the 1975 Helsinki Final Act had in undermining the illegitimate Communist regimes in the Soviet bloc.
In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, fear of U.S. abandonment has largely determined policy until now, causing both countries to revert to old habits. Now Washington has a chance to change those calculations—to alter the fundamental equation once again—because of its long-term commitment. But only if it deals in a whole new way with Pakistan.
This article appears in the May 26, 2012, edition of National Journal.