The South Asia Channel

Pakistan and the United States: Frenemies Forever?

Following the annus horriblis of 2011, U.S.-Pakistan relations are finally looking up. The strategic dialogue between the two countries has resumed with a realistic scope and calibrated expectations. The defense relationship is settling back into polite engagements focused on multi-year assistance planning. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, is distracted by crises in Syria and Ukraine, and the Pakistani elite are focusing their anxieties on militancy at home and the upcoming elections in Afghanistan and India.

These apparent signs of normality are just enough to make longtime Pakistan-watchers nervous. There are many changes afoot in the region -- among them, civil-military developments in Pakistan, elections in India and Afghanistan, and the ongoing drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- that have the potential to bring about a shift in Pakistan's relationship with the United States.

Two such changes deserve particular attention. The first is what is bound to be a dynamic political environment in Afghanistan following the presidential elections on April 5, and the new government's eventual decision regarding a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States. The second concerns the prospect of a large-scale Pakistani military operation in North Waziristan, many times rumored and many times deferred.

Time to Get Tough on Pakistan?

Regardless of who wins the Afghan elections, the outcome is bound to shape the contours of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, though perhaps not right away. Each of the leading candidates has pledged publicly to sign the BSA with the United States, which would enable an ongoing U.S. military presence in the country and would presumably form the basis of a similar agreement with NATO.

If the new Afghan president promptly signs the BSA, the United States would likely leave a small residual force focused on security cooperation and counterterrorism -- one that Pakistan expects and in private may even welcome. If, on the other hand, there is an election deadlock or the new Afghan leader delays ratification of the BSA until late summer or beyond, logistical considerations alone could make it difficult for the U.S. military to retain a force of more than a couple thousand soldiers.

What does the BSA have to do with U.S.-Pakistan relations? Behind closed doors, some close observers of the bilateral relationship have speculated that something approximating a "zero option" in Afghanistan would free the United States from the shackles of its dependence on Pakistan's ground lines of communication, enabling Washington to take a much tougher line with Islamabad. They further imagine that faced with vastly reduced force protection concerns in Afghanistan, the United States could work quietly with the Afghan government -- or unilaterally -- to more aggressively target militants in the troubled Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas.

The reality, however, is more complicated. A zero option would set into motion two contradictory trends. First, while no one is under the delusion that a small U.S. military presence can guarantee political cohesion in Afghanistan, withdrawing training support and counterterrorism infrastructure would arguably increase the likelihood of political instability, which in turn could raise the chances over the mid- and long-term of Pakistan pursuing an interventionist policy across the disputed Durand Line that separates the two countries. That alone would inevitably prove a point of tension in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

Second, the zero option or something close to it would highlight for U.S. policymakers the risks associated with a rupture in U.S.-Pakistan relations. A precipitous draw-down from Afghanistan would leave the United States with less visibility on -- and fewer options to deal with -- new militant networks that are emerging along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Even though Pakistan is only selectively cooperative in going after these networks, the United States may well conclude that, with few assets remaining in Afghanistan, selective support from the Pakistanis is far better than nothing at all. Even narrow cooperation with Islamabad against anti-Pakistan groups like the Pakistani Taliban, known formally as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has the benefit of buttressing Pakistan's internal stability, which remains a key U.S. objective.

A zero option, in other words, may not appreciably change the risk calculation that has, since 2001, led U.S. policymakers to assess that the benefits of modest (if often frustrating) partnership with Pakistan outweigh those of more coercive or punitive options.

The Mythical North Waziristan Operation

The other notable development that has the potential to bring about a shift in Pakistan's relationship with the United States is the much talked-about Pakistani military operation in North Waziristan. After several weeks of drawn out, bizarrely mediated, and politically damaging negotiations with the anti-state TTP, the Pakistani government appears to be inching closer to a large-scale operation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Whether or not it will actually happen remains a mystery. Regardless, there are two important dynamics worth watching in the coming months: first, the scope of any such operation; and second, what that scope means for the future of U.S. defense assistance to Pakistan.

Most commentators have assumed that an operation would be narrowly targeted against Taliban assets in the tribal areas, North Waziristan in particular. After all, the TTP is the primary anti-state umbrella organization, and the one with which the government has been negotiating. This is a reasonable assumption, and it comports with the Pakistani way of war: negotiate with the enemy to build political support, isolate the enemy by cutting short-term deals with other problematic groups, conduct a narrow and high-intensity kinetic campaign, and then step back to reevaluate the new environment.

The United States would like to see the government of Pakistan additionally target elements of the Haqqani network, whose key Pakistani infrastructure is also found in North Waziristan. Given that the Haqqani leadership has not demonstrated an interest in attacking the United States homeland, American pressure regarding the organization may seem anachronistic. When U.S. forces had a large presence in Afghanistan, the Haqqanis were enemy number one: drawing on their sophisticated tactics and presumed links to the Pakistani government, they proved highly capable of inflicting casualties on U.S., coalition, and Afghan security forces. Now that the American footprint is dramatically smaller, and shrinking by the day, U.S. concerns about the Haqqanis have shifted to mitigating the Haqqanis' destabilizing impact on the government in Kabul, and minimizing the risk of a high-profile Haqqani attack on residual U.S. facilities. (The enormous 30-ton vehicle-borne improvised explosive device intercepted last October starkly highlighted this risk.)

For reasons that have been well argued elsewhere, the Pakistani government appears loathe at this time to give up its linkages to the Haqqanis, particularly on the cusp of a season of political uncertainty in Afghanistan. (To put it bluntly: if civil war broke out again, the Haqqanis would have the capability and intent to support Pakistani interests.) At the same time, however, the United States may have quietly put Pakistan on notice that it would be held accountable for a major Haqqani attack on U.S. facilities in Afghanistan.

It is worth watching to see whether, in the course of any Waziristan operation, Pakistan leaves the Haqqanis alone to focus solely on the TTP, or tries to thread the needle -- making a public demonstration against the network or its assets, while reserving the full force of its efforts for anti-Pakistan militants. To be frank, American expectations of Pakistani military action against the Haqqani network are low. But Pakistan presumably knows, particularly in the wake of ongoing Haqqani plots against U.S. facilities, that it would run a risk by ignoring the network altogether, and that U.S. officials will be closely watching the scope of any operations in the tribal areas.

Whither CSF

This is an important year for the U.S.-Pakistan defense relationship. After the high drama of 2011, the Obama administration consciously scaled back the scope and frequency of its interaction with Pakistan on defense issues, focusing attention on areas of shared interest. The United States, for example, appears to be extending Pakistan's Foreign Military Financing (FMF) facility to the tune of $295 million a year. In the context of the global FMF program this is a large sum, but it is not sacrosanct; it could be affected by trends in the bilateral defense relationship, or the perception of Pakistan's internal security needs. Both countries are also beginning to discuss Pakistan's requests for decommissioned U.S. frigates, a topic that has taken on even greater urgency following the recent announcement that the U.S. Navy will accelerate its plans to retire the existing frigate force.

The real question, however, is what happens to Coalition Support Funds (CSF), the reimbursement program for which Pakistan receives over $1 billion per year in support of its counterterrorism efforts. While the perceived value of that funding stream may diminish in light of Pakistan's recent receipt of $1.5 billion from Saudi Arabia, Islamabad is still quite intent on keeping the reimbursement funds flowing. The authorities under which CSF operate, however, will presumably expire with the conclusion of Operation Enduring Freedom at the end of 2014. Taking into account the reimbursement lag, that means that Pakistan stands to lose a significant source of budget support -- and, perhaps more importantly, foreign reserves -- by the middle of 2015.

U.S. officials are already talking about possible successor programs to CSF, operating under new authorities post-2014. There are myriad questions to be worked out over the coming nine months: Is there political support for a successor program? Funded under what authorities? At what level? With what reimbursement rules or conditions?

These conversations about the future of CSF will inevitably be shaped by what Pakistan does -- or does not -- decide to undertake in North Waziristan. There is openness on Capitol Hill to a CSF successor, but plenty of questions as well. (Recent reporting suggesting that Pakistan knew about Osama bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad will only increase Congressional skepticism about bilateral security assistance.) As Pakistan draws out yet another negotiation with militant groups, critics rightly ask what the United States gets for over $1 billion per year. Defenders rightly answer that, in the absence of some kind of regular reimbursement, avenues of counterterrorism cooperation (both seen and unseen) may well atrophy.

Simply put, Pakistan would significantly bolster its case for CSF successor funds if it demonstrated over the coming months that its forces on the western border -- the ones that American taxpayers have been supporting to the tune of billions of dollars -- were actually engaged in activities worth reimbursing. This is not to say that a Waziristan operation will be a litmus test for follow-on U.S. assistance, only that Pakistani action or inaction against militants, including the Haqqanis, will set the tone for the future of a key support program, but also more generally for the trajectory of U.S.-Pakistani defense cooperation.

Joshua T. White, PhD, is the Deputy Director for South Asia at the Stimson Center. He previously served as Senior Advisor for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Follow him on Twitter: @joshuatwhite.

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