The news from Pakistan is grim. Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) helicopters engage suspected militants inside Pakistan, killing three, only to discover they are Pakistani soldiers. The angry Pakistani government blocks Nato fuel shipments at Khyber Pass, and militants attack the stalled trucks. An Obama administration report charges that the Pakistanis aren’t doing enough against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Press accounts quote unnamed officials asserting that elements in Pakistani intelligence are encouraging the Taliban to step up attacks on Nato forces.
One could easily conclude that the US is describing an enemy, not an ally. Many in Pakistan feel the same way. And yet the prospects for stabilizing Afghanistan and defeating Al Qaeda are a direct function of that strained alliance. It is time for a collective deep breath.
Pakistan’s historical narrative focuses on how the US worked with Pakistanis and Afghans to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s: Washington succeeded—and then it left. And on its way out, it slapped sanctions on Pakistan. It left Pakistan alone to deal with a destabilizing civil war in Afghanistan, and when the Taliban emerged as a dominant force in the mid-1990s, Islamabad supported them as a means of ending the conflict.
Then came 9/11 and the US was back. Pakistanis welcomed the renewed assistance. But a constant question I heard while serving as ambassador to Pakistan from 2004-2007 was “How long will you stay this time, and what mess will you leave us with when you go?” For a fragile state with innumerable problems, these are existential questions.
Never in Pakistan’s six decades of existence has the US sustained a long-term, strategic commitment in the country. The Bush administration recognized this and enacted security and economic assistance programmes designed to make a long-term difference in education, healthcare and governance. In 2006, I argued successfully for a five-year assistance package for Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which are notable both for chronic underdevelopment and extremism. The Obama administration has built on this, and last year’s Kerry-Lugar Bill provided $7.5 billion in assistance over five years. So the US has the architecture in place to build a strategic relationship.
Still, short-term pressures risk undermining long-term strategy. When I was ambassador, voices in the US Congress, the media and the administration were constantly calling for the US to get tough on Pakistan, make Pakistanis do more, threaten them with consequences. Such exhortations were—and remain—generally counterproductive, as they fuel fears that the US will again abandon Pakistan.
The US can better work with Pakistan if it improves its understanding of history: Given its rivalry with India and its organic disunity, Pakistan fears for its basic survival. The country has always had a difficult relationship with Afghanistan, not least because the British deliberately drew the border Durand Line to divide the Pashtun people. The Durand Line also set the groundwork for the tribal areas, which are legally distinct from the rest of Pakistan because the British could never exert direct control over them. No central authority ever has. Winston Churchill’s first published work, The Story of the Malakand Field Force is about fierce tribesmen declaring jihad against a Western army. It could be a contemporary account.
So what does this mean in concrete terms?
First, the US should appreciate Pakistan’s challenges and support its government in dealing with them. This summer’s devastating floods have disappeared from the US media, but will continue to wreak havoc in Pakistan for a long time to come. In 2005 and 2006, after an earthquake in (occupied) Kashmir killed almost 80,000 Pakistanis, the US organized the largest relief operation since the Berlin Airlift. The floods’ toll is lower, but their long-term damage will be far greater.
Second, the US should not carry out cross-border military actions, which I strongly resisted as ambassador. They are clearly counterproductive, and not just because they hit the wrong target. If Nato can carry out military actions in Pakistan from the west, Pakistanis wonder, what stops India from doing the same from the east?
Third, with Pakistan’s government, we must be private in our criticism and public in our support. Private talks should deepen regarding challenges such as the insurgent Haqqani network in North Waziristan, and we need to listen at least as much as we lecture.
Fourth, any talks between the US or Afghanistan and the Taliban must be transparent to the Pakistanis. A nightmare for Islamabad is the prospect that the Americans and the Afghans come to some accommodation with Taliban elements that would leave them hostile to Pakistan. If Pakistan is not part of the process, we will be working at cross-purposes and only the Taliban will benefit.
None of this will be easy, but it is essential. A sustained US-Pakistani partnership after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan could have produced a very different history than the one we wrestle with today. Writing a different future requires making long-term commitments, on both sides of the Durand Line.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ryan Crocker is dean of Texas A& M’s George Bush School of Government and Public Service. He was US ambassador to Pakistan from 2004 to 2007 and US ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009.
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