The Pakistan Conundrum

When bad relations are more important than none at all.

Pakistan is a country that appears to echo Winston Churchill’s description of Russia: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Even though it acts like an enemy at times, strategic necessity dictates that it must be treated as an ally. And despite the animus directed toward the United States by the majority of the populace and several factions in the government, both nations must pretend that all is peaches and cream and that the nearly $7 billion in aid the US is doling out over the next 5 years has a chance to alter the fact that much of the country wants to see the US defeated in Afghanistan.

A delegation headed up by Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi visited Washington last week to hob nob with American officials on aid packages, military cooperation in the war on terror, and other bi-lateral concerns. But in many respects, it is what wasn’t discussed that reveals more about the current state of our relations with Pakistan than anything else.

Foreign Policy's David Rothkopf describes our relations with Pakistan as "making love to a cactus." He writes:

The contrast between the meetings and the report reveal the core conundrum the Obama administration faces with regard to Pakistan. No country is home to more urgent risks. While near the top of the list of those risks are the presence and day-to-day violent agenda of al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other such militant organizations, at the very top is that the rational elements in the Pakistani government might lose control of some or all of the country's nuclear arsenal. The United States seeks to shore up those rational elements -- led in a practical sense more by [Army CIC General] Kayani than civilian officials -- and collaborate with them in addressing the threats that President Obama himself has famously likened to a "cancer." But in so doing, the United States must embrace a government that is fractured -- divided in and against itself (within every sub-unit it seems, you find another split).

The catch is to figure out who's on our side and who isn't -- a task made all the more difficult because for some of the players in Pakistan, it depends on which horse they are backing. For example, the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, apparently not only knew about the Mumbai attack before it happened, but was also in on some of the planning according to this article in the British Guardian. So the ISI is our enemy, right?

Not exactly. The intelligence agency has also been very generous in sharing information on the location of Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders hiding in the mountainous regions of Pakistan which has facilitated drone strikes that have killed many terrorists. And if that doesn't confuse you, the fact that this same ISI assists the Afghanistan Taliban in planning operations that kill Americans will almost surely have your head spinning.

This is a conundrum without an easy solution. Pakistan is vital to our efforts in Afghanistan. It is a nuclear power at loggerheads with another ally and nuclear power India. It is on the frontline of the battle against terrorists, while engaging those terrorists at times to serve its own interests.

To make matters worse, the civilian government is on the knife's edge of instability as riots continue in the city of Karachi and the authorities seem completely unable to quell the disturbances. The unrest began last summer when Raza Haider, leader of the Muttehida Qaumi Movement (MQM), was gunned down at a funeral. The MQM blamed a rival political party, the Awami National Party (ANP), who denied involvement. Since then, the violence has ebbed and flowed, starting up again last week as dozens have been killed. The divisions causing the riots are not just political, but religious as well. There is also an ethnic component to the rioting that reflects the tribal nature of Pakistan and its many fractious parts.

As with the catastrophic floods, the government of President Asif Ali Zardari seems too paralyzed to act in a decisive manner. The people have lost all faith in the civilian government, largely due to the extraordinary corruption at the highest levels, including Zardari himself whose nickname in Pakistan is "Mr. Ten Percent," referring to the cut he is reportedly taking on many government contracts. But there are also questions of competence, as the only entity that appears to engender confidence is the military -- not a good sign for President Zardari and his squabbling coalition partners.

The words not being spoken at this round robin of meetings between Pakistanis and Americans last week in Washington have a lot to do with the future prospects of civilian government in Pakistan. Can Zardari survive? There are some in the American government who won't come out and say it, but they wouldn't mind seeing army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani take over if things get much worse. Rumors of coups in Pakistan are very common, and it is not likely that the unrest in Karachi alone, or the corruption scandals, or even Muslim extremists could unseat Mr. Zardari. But a combination of all three plus any threat to the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal might force Kayani's hand in the matter. If so, the situation would become even more dangerous.

Kayani is nominally pro-American. He attended staff college in the states and has a good relationship with our military and the CIA. But he has also shown that he is no American toady, resisting calls by the US government to prosecute the war against extremists more vigorously in order to relieve pressure on our troops in Afghanistan. In short, Kayani would be likely to continue the two-faced policy of assisting us in some areas, and opposing us in others.

As the meetings in Washington are demonstrating, the United States has little choice but to continue the unsatisfying and derelict policy of pretending that Pakistan is a good ally, while turning the other way when it proves the opposite. It is, as Mr. Rothkopf says, "realpolitik at its most stark, loaded, and complex." He adds:

And it underscores that within every compromise or look the other way associated with the "swallow-hard and pursue the national interest" dimension of realpolitik there are the seeds of the strategy's own destruction. Embrace flawed allies and the relationship turns on whether it is driven by the objectives of the alliance or the flaws that are being overlooked in its favor. And -- as we have seen from Saigon to Baghdad to tin pot dictatorships worldwide -- more often than not the flaws win out in the long run.

There is almost something nightmarish in being forced to walk this path -- knowing it will probably fail in the end, knowing that it must fail -- and yet being powerless to stop it due to geo-strategic necessities having to do with the war in Afghanistan and the security of nuclear weapons. It's no wonder the Obama administration wants out of Afghanistan and is now desperate to bring the Taliban to the table and manage an agreement with the government of Hamid Karzai that would almost certainly be unsatisfactory but would allow for an orderly withdrawal of most American combat troops.

What happens in Afghanistan will not greatly affect the long term challenges we face in Pakistan with extremists, international terrorists, and the reality of two nuclear powers eying each other nervously across one of the most militarized borders in the world. But as maddening and complex our relationship with Pakistan can be, the consequences of having no relations, or bad relations, is even worse.