Pakistan is nothing if not rugged. From the massive, often impassable Himalayas in the north to the powerful earthquakes, storms and floods of the regions below, it is forbidding and austere. And its harshness is not all geological: There’s the Northwest Frontier territory, known for its lawlessness, and the disputed region of Kashmir, which has been in violent contention for more than 60 years. There’s chronic underdevelopment, rampant corruption, tribal loyalty and a penchant for political intrigue. Carved from India at birth in 1947, Pakistan is a Muslim republic, but one in which militant fundamentalist groups threaten the government’s stability at every turn. And stability is as vital as it is elusive in a country with 80 to 100 nuclear weapons.
Pakistan’s geopolitical position is precarious as well. It is bordered by four countries: its longtime archenemy India; a rising China; a destabilized, war-torn Afghanistan; and the meddlesome Islamic Republic of Iran. Pakistan itself is ruled by a weak civilian government in the shadow of a powerful army. The current prime minister clings tenuously to power. His predecessor -- who was also his wife -- was assassinated in 2007, as was her brother a decade earlier when he became politically active; her father, also a former prime minister, was hanged in 1979 by his successor. It’s not an easy, peaceable part of the world.
Yet this is where the United States has found itself. In the aftermath of 9/11, at the beginning of the war against Afghanistan’s Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, the long-term cooperation of Pakistan grew more and more important to American policymakers. As Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders began creeping over the porous border, the U.S. sought a strategic partnership that would allow it to base troops in Pakistan and strike at militant strongholds while keeping the government on its side. To that end, the United States has sent billions of dollars annually in military and non-military aid to Pakistan.
The relationship has not been a happy one. Pakistani intelligence has long played a double game, seeing a strategic value in tolerating -- and sometimes supporting and sheltering -- militant groups that it hopes may help it in the future against India or serve as a hedge against potential instability in Afghanistan. This has been a source of frustration to U.S. diplomats and military leaders who view Pakistan as an unreliable ally (even as they acknowledge that it has its own strategic interests to defend). Pakistani officials, for their part, have been growing increasingly angry at the American drone strikes that kill civilians, and increasingly reluctant to sacrifice political capital to accommodate the demands of U.S. forces, which they don’t trust to sustain a long-term interest in the region; the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is scheduled for 2014. The strained partnership deteriorated further after the arrest of Raymond Davis, an American CIA agent who was accused of shooting two Pakistanis in January. The Pakistani government ultimately released him without charge, but grudgingly.
Now, with the killing of Bin Laden on Pakistani soil -- and suspicion that at least some portion of the Pakistani military and intelligence community may have known he was there -- many people in both countries are revisiting the premises on which the relationship rests. One camp, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), argues that the United States should consider easing its reliance on Pakistan, reducing or ending foreign aid to punish the country for its duplicity. This group argues that Pakistani and American interests simply don’t align closely enough, and that the U.S. should cut its losses before being burned more painfully. “We don’t have that kind of money to spend with people who are not our friends,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).
But alliances aren’t the same as friendships. The hard truth is this: Though no one likes doing business with shady regimes, the U.S. needs Pakistan and must preserve the uncomfortable bond, even if that requires more aid. Pakistan is unlikely to become fully trustworthy or to set its policies with a view to anything other than its national interests. But as long as the U.S. remains involved in Afghanistan and at war with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, it will need to move weapons and troops through Pakistan, and it will need actionable intelligence about militant groups. Equally important, the U.S. must not inflame anti-Americanism in such a volatile, strategically situated nation.
Pakistan relies on the U.S. as well -- in particular on its financial assistance -- and is unlikely to want the relationship to collapse. In recent years it has even cooperated, although reluctantly, in the drone strikes by U.S. forces within Pakistani territory. If indeed members of the compartmentalized Pakistani military and intelligence community were aware of Bin Laden’s presence in the country, that is, of course, very disturbing. The facts should be investigated and appropriate action taken. But unless it is determined that the overall Pakistani regime is untrustworthy and unwilling to cooperate, the U.S. will do better to encourage a partnership rather than allow an adversarial relationship to develop. To that end, the U.S. needs to redouble its efforts to reduce civilian casualties and to invest in political stability by encouraging governmental transparency, human rights and civilian democracy. It should continue to assist Pakistan on water, healthcare and power projects, and to make the case to Pakistani leaders that siding with militant Islamist groups is not the path to prosperity.
Pakistan can be a force for calm or instability. It’s not necessary that American policymakers like Pakistan’s political or military leaders, or even fully trust them, in order to work with them in ways that serve both sides’ interests.