Just over a month after the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan continue to deteriorate. Business Insider Politix checks in with Pakistan expert Daniel Markey, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, to learn more about how the U.S. is dealing with its problems in Pakistan, including the ubiquitous nuclear threat. 1. In your opinion, what would an effective U.S. strategy for dealing with Pakistan look like?
Daniel Markey: Let me begin by saying it’s not entirely clear what the strategy is in this post-bin Laden period. It’s clear that a number of steps have been taken; there has been an active effort at engagement at the senior-most levels. But precisely what that engagement is intended to accomplish is not clear. I believe that the Obama administration seeks to repair what was a relationship in crisis and to find a more stable footing for U.S.-Pakistan relations across the board. What I don’t know is what would have to be the foundations of that — whether Pakistan will have to make significant changes in order to make that possible, or whether the U.S. has accepted that cooperation is going to be frustrating and perhaps inadequate, but that frustration and inadequacy is perhaps better than no cooperation at all. I’m not clear what the overarching strategic ambition is for the relationship, but it is clear that there is the desire to at least avoid further deterioration and a greater crisis that would probably lead nowhere good, from either side’s perspective.
I recently wrote a Policy Innovation Memorandum for CFR, “Next Steps for Pakistan Strategy,” that gives a sense of what I would advocate: The killing of bin Laden and the overall position of crisis in the relationship should be seen as an opportunity to press the Pakistanis to take very clear and concerted actions against not just militant groups, but also against individuals and institutions within the Pakistani state — including within its intelligence apparatus — that are working against U.S. interests. Through a concerted effort — which would include lobbying influential Pakistanis, threatening to cut off U.S. assistance, especially military assistance, working with other Pakistani allies, particularly China and Saudi Arabia, and pushing our military effort in Afghanistan — we could, I believe, create leverage in our relationship with Pakistan, especially at a time when their civilian leadership seems to be caught off guard and may be more open to change.
My concern is that this may be a fleeting opportunity. I am not sure how quickly that window will close. Some would suggest that maybe its already closed, maybe we ought to simply settle for less at this stage. I’m not so sure, I’d like to give it a try.
2. What do you think we can expect from the new Pakistani commission tasked with probing the U.S. raid? How serious do you think Pakistan is about its efforts to clean house of militant elements in the military and in the ISI?
Markey: Remember that the commission is as much to find out about what happened with the U.S. raid as it is about how bin Laden was allowed to live there for so long. The emphasis in the Pakistani public, media and the political rhetoric tends to focus more on how the U.S. could have done this than how bin Laden could have done this.
The Pakistanis don’t have a particularly good track record for conducting commissions of inquiry. There have been a number of investigations into the assassinations of political leaders that have never amounted to much. Part of the problem is that the Pakistani political leaders and civilian authorities – including within the judiciary – have not had the authority to force the military to answer their questions. They have also not always had an interest in publicizing whatever those answers might be.
No Pakistani leader, including [Pakistan’s top military leader] General [Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani, wants to believe that there is a widespread conspiracy within the military, but they are willing to admit that there might be a small number of people who have been led astray. They are willing to accept the narrowest version of what the problem may be and they are willing to tackle that. The problem, however, is deeper than that.
I don’t believe that it is the case that there is some sort of rogue ISI that has a mastermind, but there is a far more pervasive and troubling problem than just small groups of people who have decided to work with the militants and against the state. It’s larger numbers [within the intelligence communities], it’s more deeply entrenched, it enjoys the support of people both inside and outside government.
The intelligence community is historically connected to very powerful militant groups [that are] then connected to some very dangerous sectarian groups and Islamist political parties. All of these connections mean that rooting out the problem is enormously challenging; it’s not just a matter of finding and jailing a few traitors. It requires a much broader effort at reforming the intelligence institution, moving a large number of people out of jobs, bringing new people in, and then reforming the way that the intelligence agency operates so the problems don’t replicate themselves in the future. This is tough stuff, but it needs to happen.
If it becomes clear that that is the direction the Pakistani military is starting to take, then these steps really could amount to something. We’ve seen piece-by-piece [reforms] before, but we’ve never seen an overarching transformation. That’s what we would need to see to have confidence in them as a partner in the future.
If Pakistan had organisations within its state that we thought were entirely trustworthy, then we could invest in them far more heavily even than we do now. Together, I think we could, in relatively short order, counteract the activities of the militant and terrorist organisations inside the country.
Because we don’t have that, we lack the tools that we need to go after these militant groups. The rot within [the ISI] creates a permissive environment and also poisons the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Of course, the immediate threats are posed by the militant groups themselves. It’s not the ISI that is going to plant the bomb or send the suicide bomber directly, but it is because of the activity of the Pakistani intelligence establishment that makes it possible for the militants to operate in the way they do.
3. How has U.S. military assistance worked against our interests in Pakistan?
Markey: The logic of our military assistance to Pakistan is really two-fold. First, we believe – I think rightly – that the Pakistani military would simply lack important capabilities to confront various militant groups that operate inside of country. To the extent that they want to do the things we want them to do, they need tools to do it and in many instances they can’t afford or don’t have access to those tools.
The other reason is that we believe cutting off military assistance will make them even less inclined to cooperate with us, and even less inclined to do the bare minimum of what we think is necessary for U.S. security. So if we threaten to cut off assistance — or actually do cut off assistance — we may be creating even more problems for ourselves. Even if their activities are inadequate, or frustrating, or double-dealing at worst, that may be better than being actively opposed to doing what we would like them to do.
The argument for why cutting off assistance, or threatening to cut off assistance, might make sense is that we have attempted over the past decade to improve their capabilities and convince them to work with us. But when push came to shove, we found that they were not trustworthy. It raises profound questions about whether we are making sufficient progress in building their capabilities or building their will to help us to warrant billions of dollars in assistance.
The final point I would make is that threatening to cut their assistance, particularly at a time of uncertainty like the one we are in right now, may provide political leverage to encourage them to do difficult things that they wouldn’t otherwise do, whether that’s a purge of elements within the ISI or taking steps to fight against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan along the Afghan border. These are difficult things to do and maybe suggesting that they would be in for a painful alternative future if they don’t do them would be useful. But, at the same time, we don’t want to close the door too quickly to the possibility of active cooperation. We have seen that, in the past, that didn’t help us either. So it has to be a pretty carefully used threat if we are going to use it.
4. Pakistan has moved closer to China as its relationship with the U.S. deteriorates. Is a stronger China-Pakistan alliance a threat to U.S. interests in the region?
Markey: China and Pakistan have always had a very close relationship, so to the extent that we are seeing anything different now, it’s mainly just the Pakistanis signaling to us, suggesting that they have other options in terms of their partners in the world.
I don’t think that the Chinese are especially interested in entering into a conflict between the U.S. and Pakistan. The Chinese tend to be very risk-averse, and they have tremendous interests in the United States, even if they do have a very long and close relationship with Pakistan. They don’t want to see those two things in conflict.
In terms of U.S. interests, I don’t think China is doing all that much inside of Pakistan that is threatening to U.S. interests. China has historically done some things we didn’t like — including assisting Pakistan’s nuclear program — and that continues to be of some concern. But mainly China has been, at least over the past decade, urging Pakistan to be more restrained in its relationship with India. It has also in some ways been investing to help Pakistan develop its infrastructure, which has had a stabilizing effect.
I don’t think that it’s a zero-sum game between the U.S. and China in Pakistan. More or less, our interests overlap, including our interest in advancing a counter-terrorism, counter-extremism and stabilisation agenda. We don’t necessarily put those interests in the same priority order and we certainly don’t relate to the Pakistanis in the same way. But there’s not a fundamental divergence — yet — between the U.S. and China on Pakistan.
5. What is the nuclear threat in Pakistan? How worried should we be that militants can get access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons?
Markey: You’ve characterised the primary threat that Americans are and should be worried about. It’s not the existence of a nuclear program in Pakistan, but it’s the prospect that that program could be compromised by terrorists and used in some way that would hurt us or hurt other innocents in the U.S. and around the world.
Many Pakistanis believe that the U.S. is simply opposed to their nuclear program. But I think that while Americans would have probably preferred that Pakistan not develop a nuclear program in the first place, now that they have it, we are mainly worried about the prospect of terrorist use, accidental use, or the possibility that India and Pakistan escalate in a conflict up and past the nuclear threshold.
As to how much we should be worried, I think people are increasingly concerned, not least because terrorist groups have been able to infiltrate many places that are very secure in Pakistan. This latest instance of an attack on a naval base in Karachi is evidence of a potential insider threat in a sensitive facility that allowed terrorists to get close to — and destroy — a lot of sensitive equipment, including planes provided by the United States. If they can’t protect that, there are questions about whether they can protect something even more sensitive like a nuclear warhead.
The Pakistani program is expanding rapidly; they are building a considerably larger arsenal. There are some reasons to believe they are attempting to take that arsenal and deploy it in a tactical way, which is to say smaller nuclear warheads more widely dispersed throughout the country. I think that would make them more prone to potential terrorist attack than they are now that they are stored in more centralized facilities that are easy to guard. The potential that this problem is going to get harder to deal with over time is quite real and that’s why I think we should continue to be focused on it.
The last thing I would say is that this is also an area where U.S. efforts are very limited, both because the Pakistanis don’t want us near their nuclear program — they believe that we threaten it and might seek to get rid of it — and also because our own laws prohibit the United States from getting too close to [Pakistan’s] nuclear program because [Pakistan] not part of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and therefore it’s not permissible for us to provide direct material assistance. That limits what we can do legally to secure their nuclear weapons. We can only do things that are somewhat more indirect. So, unfortunately, there has been rather little we can do to improve the confidence we have in their nuclear security.