After that tweet, the U.S. has suspended security assistance to Pakistan and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif, has declared that the two countries are no longer allies.
It has been six years since I first used the metaphor of a bad marriage to characterize the US-Pakistan relationship. I had suggested that the two countries should stop pretending they are allies and amicably ‘divorce’, citing unrealistic expectations in both countries that included US hopes Islamabad will sever its links to extremists.
“If in 65 years, you haven’t been able to find sufficient common ground to live together, and you had three separations and four reaffirmations of marriage, then maybe the better way is to find friendship outside of the marital bond,” I had said in a speech at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank.
My recommendation was that the United States and Pakistan should downgrade the status of their relationship to break from what has been a dysfunctional relationship since its inception.
At the heart of that dysfunction is the divergence of core interests in South Asia. Even at the height of the alliance, the United States never shared Pakistan’s views about its co-leadership in the region and its envisioning of India as a major threat to its neighbors. Pakistanis first started burning US flags in protest over America’s refusal to support them in the 1965 war that had been started by then dictator Field Marshal Ayub Khan in the hope of wresting Kashmir from India.
After many more flag burnings, and a much improved post-cold war India-US relationship, it should be obvious to Pakistanis that the transactional relationship that they have carefully nurtured cannot work to their advantage forever.
The Americans doled out military assistance and economic support in return for favors such as intelligence bases against the Soviet Union and China during the 1950s and 60s as well as for using Pakistan as the staging ground for jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
The US overlooked broken promises over development of nuclear weapons because, on balance, they saw advantage in creating a Vietnam-like situation for the Soviets. But once the Soviets left Afghanistan, American interests changed.
Pakistan, on the other hand, single-mindedly defined its national interest in terms of rivalry with India. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was not the end of jihad for Pakistan but the beginning of an opportunity to expand jihad to Kashmir and even India.
Turning Afghanistan into a satellite with the help of obscurantist proxies like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network became an obsession for the all-powerful Pakistani military and intelligence services. Even blowback in the form of extremist attacks inside Pakistan did not alter that calculus.
After 9/11, the US returned with a new bargain. It would pay Pakistan to fight the jihadis and to allow American use of Pakistan’s ground and air space to wage war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
General Pervez Musharraf saw it as an opportunity to replenish Pakistan’s coffers and modernize its military with better quality US equipment. But he did not envisage changing anything that involved the military paradigm of permanent conflict with India. With that began the double-game that Trump referred to in his candid tweet on New Year’s Day.
The US understood that Pakistan was not on board with its vision for Afghanistan as well as the entire region. But there were NATO trans-shipments and intelligence sharing to consider. Presidents Bush and Obama also hoped that incentives, and occasional threats, would eventually lead Pakistan to change its strategic calculus.
For that reason they put up with a situation in which American troops died in Afghanistan at the hands of fighters who received assistance and protection across the border in the territory of an ostensible ally who received economic and military assistance from the U.S.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military believed that the policies it was pursuing are in the country’s national interest as the generals define it. They would not change their definition of national interest until the cost of pursuing it became higher than what they are willing to bear.
As a businessman, President Trump probably understands the nature of transactions better. Given that American and Pakistani interests in Afghanistan do not coincide, it works for Pakistan to take US support and still do what it does while denying that it is doing anything wrong. But that does not work for the United States.
Trump seems ready for divorce with Pakistan in a way his predecessors were not. He is willing to use greater force to ensure that the Taliban and Haqqani Network cannot easily use their safe haven in Pakistan. But to do that he would have to end dependence on Pakistan as the principal supply route to NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Having fewer troops on ground already means that fewer supplies need to be transported for them. The U.S. can fly them in if it so chooses. Other arrows in the US quiver include ‘hot pursuit’ raids inside Pakistan, some economic sanctions, and targeted sanctions against ISI’s terrorism facilitators.
Many officials in the Pentagon and the State Department might find entering uncharted territory in relations with Pakistan somewhat daunting. There will still be strong voices advocating caution and advising restraint. Trump will face calls for another trial separation or new co-habitation arrangements even if arguments for a relationship with Pakistan that retains engagement without alliance remain overwhelming.
Pakistan’s initial bravado indicates that it is ready for divorce. After all, it is already in China’s arms and the Chemistry between the two is much better. But China gives credit for projects, not hard currency for budget support and with low exports, Pakistan is chronically short of hard currency. Also, China is not a high-tech weapons supplier.
Pakistanis integrated in Western ways generally prefer American goodies and the existing assistance model. They might find China’s terms onerous and might not easily adapt to being exclusively beholden to China. Having options is better, which is why intimate ties with Beijing dating back to the 1960s have not stopped Pakistanis from seeking closeness with the Americans.
As in all divorces, the temptation to string along rather than taking the final step might still prove too strong to resist.