U.S., Pakistan: Bilateral Problems Blocking Progress on Afghanistan

6 MINS READApr 11, 2012 | 12:29 GMT
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides (L) with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in Islamabad on April 4

As the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan continues, Washington is trying to set up a security framework for the country after the U.S. and NATO military withdrawal is complete. The United States will need Pakistan's help to implement any sort of arrangement involving Afghanistan, but recent cross-border incidents have brought relations between Washington and Islamabad to a new low point. Pakistan is pushing for a complete renegotiation of its security relationship with the United States — especially U.S. policy on unmanned aerial vehicle strikes in Pakistani territory — before it will consider providing the assistance that Washington desires.

After an avalanche April 6 buried 124 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians under 30 meters (100 feet) of snow in a bunker near the northern tip of the India-Pakistan border, the United States sent an eight-member team of experts to help Pakistani forces in their search and rescue mission. This development takes place at a time when Washington and Islamabad have been engaged in talks to improve relations, which reached an all-time low when U.S. aircraft attacked a Pakistani military outpost along the country's northern border with Afghanistan in November 2011, resulting in the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers.

In response to that incident, the Pakistanis shut down the NATO supply route through their territory to Afghanistan, forced U.S. military personnel to vacate Shamsi air base in Pakistan and suspended most intelligence and military cooperation on Afghanistan. Since then the two sides have been trying to return relations to normal, but they have not made much progress, primarily because Pakistan has demanded a complete redefinition of its security cooperation relationship with the United States. Three senior U.S. officials — Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis, top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan Gen. John Allen and Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides — have traveled to Islamabad in the past two weeks to meet with Pakistan's civil and military leaders in an effort to reach a compromise.

The media focus on this issue has centered on the potential reopening of the supply route but misses the wider issues. The supply route was rendered insignificant by the existence of the air bridge and the Northern Distribution Network, which runs through areas of the former Soviet Union. This is something of which Islamabad is well aware (although it is not acknowledged publicly). Pakistan's civilian government is thus trying to steer the Obama administration away from the unwritten and vague agreement that existed between the previous administrations and that gave U.S. forces a great degree of freedom to operate on Pakistan soil, an arrangement Washington has used to engage in unilateral action.

The U.S. Dilemma

After the series of events in 2011, culminating in the Nov. 26 incident that left two dozen Pakistani soldiers dead, Islamabad could no longer permit unilateral military and intelligence operations by the United States on its soil. It would be difficult for any state to allow another to conduct unilateral operations within its borders, and for Pakistan the stakes are much higher.

Already politically and economically unstable, Pakistan has been weakened by the U.S.-jihadist war, especially due to the spread of the Taliban movement into Pakistan from across the border with Afghanistan. In addition, the country's political and economic problems became too great for the military to directly manage, and it was forced to cede authority to a democratically elected government. Pakistan's current civilian leadership cannot afford to give the impression that democratic governance is also failing because that would only reinforce the argument made by the country's radical Islamist forces. 

For this reason, various parliamentary forces — despite their being locked in a vicious power struggle — and the security establishment in Pakistan have united in their call for Islamabad to establish unambiguous boundaries in its security cooperation relationship with Washington. Consequently, Pakistan's parliament has been working on a strategic guidance document that will form the basis of a new understanding between Islamabad and Washington. This democratization of the policymaking process has created a dilemma for the United States.

The United States cannot be seen as undermining a young democratic system that is beginning to gain strength. At the same time, the rise of the rule of law inhibits the U.S. ability to conduct its war against transnational jihadism given that Pakistan is a central location from which jihadists operate. Conducting war against these militant actors was much easier in a military-dominated state.

It is not in Washington's interest to undermine a civilian government composed of players ideologically opposed to Islamist extremism and terrorism. Instead, Washington needs a stable government in Islamabad to prevent the country from deteriorating further, especially since it needs Islamabad's assistance in managing post-NATO Afghanistan.

UAV Strikes

Before the sides can substantively reach an understanding on negotiations with the Taliban, they need a new understanding on bilateral security cooperation. The United States has relied heavily on unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes to prosecute its war against international jihadist forces, and these UAV strikes are at the center of the current set of problems between Islamabad and Washington. The United States cannot afford to relinquish these strikes, especially as it moves closer to withdrawing forces from Afghanistan.

The key will be to find a way to continue UAV attacks without undermining the Pakistani state, because a weaker Pakistan would force the United States to deploy greater military force in the country, which itself could spark regional chaos. Pakistan also realizes that the United States cannot entirely stop the UAV strikes. This means a compromise will likely be worked out whereby Islamabad has a greater stake in how the strikes are conducted.

CIA Director David Petraeus reportedly submitted an offer to the former director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, retired Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, that would have allowed the Pakistani intelligence agency to coordinate the UAV attacks, but the ISI rejected it. The rejection can be partly understood as Islamabad trying to push for more concessions in its efforts to overhaul the security cooperation relationship.

However, if the Pakistani government had a stake in the process, it could not avoid the accusation that it was complicit in the United States' violation of its own territory and killing of its citizens. Therefore, the current position is better for Islamabad because it can say that it is opposed to UAV strikes and that it is trying to put an end to them. In any UAV deal, Pakistan would have to be seen as pulling the trigger, as opposed to the current situation in which the United States is seen as striking at a time and place of its choosing.

Until the United States and Pakistan sort out their disagreement on UAV policy and their wider security relationship, the bilateral disconnect will stand in the way of reaching an agreement on how to deal with post-NATO Afghanistan.

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