Part II - U.S.-Pakistan Go Back To The Future
A potential agreement between the two countries will pose its own set of unique challenges.
Yesterday’s post argued that “some sort of agreement between the U.S. and Pakistan is a win-win outcome for all.” This is my view on the larger question of whether or not Pakistan should cooperate with the U.S. as it seeks the ability to conduct kinetic and non-kinetic operations in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
But it is important to also consider the potential issues such an agreement could create for everyone, including Pakistan and the U.S.
In this post, I will argue for why not having an agreement could be fruitful for the key parties involved.
Pakistan has been down the route of supporting the U.S. in Afghanistan before and there should be no doubt that this support has inflicted tremendous socioeconomic and political costs on the country.
If Pakistan were to cooperate with the U.S. and play a key role in ensuring that American forces can conduct kinetic and non-kinetic operations in Afghanistan, it would have a direct target on its back from radical militant groups in the region, especially the Taliban and the TTP.
Additionally, this would further reinforce negative perceptions about Pakistan among certain segments of Afghan society, who would view this as a continuation of Pakistan’s overt and covert role in destabilizing Afghanistan.
On the economic side, any U.S. assistance, including in the form of relaxed conditions from the IMF, would only reduce the incentive for Pakistani policymakers to make the difficult decisions that need to be made in order to reform the country’s political economy. Easy money in the form of increased military assistance and donor funding will only exacerbate the Dutch Disease issue that has plagued Pakistan’s economy for decades, hurting prospects for long-term sustainable development.
Public opinion in Pakistan has historically turned negative towards the U.S. when Pakistan has cooperated militarily with Washington. If a decision to covertly cooperate with the U.S. is made without unifying the country’s political leadership and marshaling public opinion, the social blowback from such cooperation is likely to inflict tremendous political costs on the government.
Finally, in the extremely unlikely event that Pakistan cooperates with the U.S. without taking the Chinese into confidence, it would create volatility in ties with an all-weather strategic ally.
For the Chinese, ensuring that the U.S. continues to have the capability to keep a lid on the threat of transnational terrorism may not justify the presence of increased U.S. military and intelligence presence in Pakistan. This is mainly because of concerns related to the U.S. utilizing these resources to spy on China and gather intelligence on Chinese economic and military cooperation with Pakistan, especially in Gwadar.
Additionally, the U.S. maintaining influence in the region through its military presence would stand in the way of China’s long-term geopolitical ambitions in the region.
The Iranians would have even greater concerns than the Chinese when it comes to the U.S. using its presence in Pakistan to spy on Iranian activities, especially when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. While there is room for cooperating with the U.S. when it comes to keeping radical Islamist groups, especially ISIS, on the backfoot, the Iranians are likely to prefer dealing with these threats through cooperation with regional powers.
Which means that should Pakistan cooperate with the U.S., Iran may increase its support for militant groups that foment violence in Pakistan.
I apologize for my oversight related to Afghanistan’s role and needs in the previous post. My view is that broadly speaking, the Afghan government would prefer cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan in order to strike back at the Taliban and other militant groups that are targeting Kabul.
However, increased cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan would also mean that Kabul’s role in deciding what happens in Afghanistan will erode over time, while at the same time it would face domestic backlash due to kinetic strikes conducted by U.S. forces on Afghan soil.
Additionally, Afghanistan is also likely to perceive that these strikes are targeting militant groups that are targeting Pakistan, China, the U.S., and others, but not the Taliban. This could create diplomatic challenges for both Pakistan and the U.S.
While the U.S. wants to maintain some level of influence in Afghanistan in order to prevent another Iraq-like scenario, it may also conclude that it is best to walk away from the Afghan theater.
After all, increased instability in the region would first create a fallout within the region, forcing Pakistan, China, and Iran to deal with the emerging militant and terrorist threat. The U.S. may conclude that it is in its interest to see how the Chinese deal with an emerging transnational terror threat in the region, especially given the Chinese regime’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.
In this context, it may be best for the U.S. to only engage with Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and Iran through diplomatic channels and resist the urge to continue military and intelligence operations in the region.
This is not going to be a black and white decision. Which is why it is important that the debate with regards to what Pakistan must do in light of U.S. requests be conducted in public. The decision to not cooperate will create its own set of issues, while the level of cooperation, overt and / or covert, will have both short- and long-term ramifications for Pakistan.
This is why, in my opinion, the debate with regards to how Pakistan cooperates with the U.S. (if at all) should be conducted in parliament. We will know where things are going in the coming weeks, but my hope is that Pakistani scholars, policymakers, and citizens are able to engage in a vociferous debate before a decision is made.