The entertainment world teems with bizarre relationships that thrill tabloid writers everywhere—think Sandra Bullock and Jesse James, Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, Larry King and his wives and the sisters of Larry King’s wives. In the world of statecraft, though, such odd pairings tend to be rare. Nations typically take a cold, hard look at shared priorities and interests before banding together in an alliance. Again, normally, but not always: danger and delusion, in particular, often create strange bedfellows.
The U.S. relationship with Pakistan offers a perfect example of a dysfunctional relationship that neither side seems willing to end. During the Cold War the United States had an on again, off again relationship with Pakistan, hoping that a pious nation would counter communist influence. When the Cold War ended, America lost interest, its sensibilities put off by the political meddling of the Pakistani military, and Washington looked to democratic India instead.
Then came September 11. With the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, Pakistan became a strategic ally once more. Taking a cue from the Bush administration, President Obama affords the creaky state the status of a proud and full-fledged partner in the war against Al Qaeda. In his December 2009 West Point speech, the president explained, "our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” adding that he was “committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust." Seldom, however, have two nations so mutually dependent been so deeply and plainly incompatible.
At the outset, the Obama team grounded its reliance on Pakistan on two assumptions, neither of them especially sound. The first was that Pakistan and the United States shared strategic priorities and ends. Both nations, members of the administration repeated at every turn, sought the destruction of al Qaeda and the stabilization of Afghanistan. Second, the anti-Americanism rampant among the Pakistani population was surely and simply the result of a nation feeling neglected by the United States.
As Secretary of State Clinton explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee in December 2009, she understood that the U.S. "commitment to Pakistan” had “been questioned by the Pakistanis in the past" but, really, the Obama administration intended to "make sure that the people of Pakistan know that we wish to be their partner for the long term, and that we intend to do all that we can to bolster their futures.”
A massive boost in financial aid provided the obvious answer—last year Congress approved a five-year, $7.5 billion civilian assistance package, on top of an already huge military aid program. And with that, muted critiques, fewer ultimatums, more effective public diplomacy, and the rest of the litany.
Unfortunately, both assumptions were soon revealed to have things exactly backward. As the White House conceded in a recent report to Congress, the Pakistani military continues to do everything in its power to avoid being on the wrong side of the Afghan Taliban, the violent Haqqani network, or even Al Qaeda in North Waziristan. As Bob Woodward's latest chronicle describes, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency remains deeply entwined with the Taliban while, America’s entreaties notwithstanding, it turns a blind eye to any group that doesn’t threaten Pakistan directly.
Far from having the insurgency on the run, as Washington claims, Pakistan maintains a close relationship with them and seems to have no intention of quelling them. Islamabad rightly fears that if it did, Kabul would tilt toward India, and that peace in Afghanistan would put an end to the flow of American lucre.
Nor, for anyone who’s picked up newspaper over the past few months, should it be necessary to point out that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign to win South Asia’s hearts and minds has accomplished nothing in terms of curing Pakistan’s delusional insistence on blaming Washington for each and every ill that plagues that benighted country. Ironically, Pakistan's shift from military rule to democracy seems, if anything, to have amplified the angry chorus, as an inept civilian government has proved ready and eager to assign blame elsewhere.
So what's a superpower to do? The Obama administration doesn’t seem to know. Even while he expresses obvious frustration, the president indicates that he does not see the need for major adjustments in U.S. policy "at this time." But facts are facts: Pakistan routinely impedes the ability of the United States to clear extremist sanctuaries even as it opts for inaction. As the United States has intensified its strikes at targets which Pakistan refuses to disturb, Islamabad has decided to shutter an important border crossing for NATO supply convoys headed into Afghanistan. And, by odd coincidence, the Pakistani Taliban proceeded to ignite NATO fuel tankers stuck on the same road. This is more than worrisome: Insurgencies with external sanctuary tend to be much more difficult to defeat than those without, perhaps impossibly so. Population security—the crown jewel of counterinsurgency—becomes a useless exercise when the enemy boasts a cross-border safe-haven.
In truth, then, America really has only one option left in its diplomatic toolbox: Cutting off U.S. assistance. So long as the United States refuses to walk away, Pakistan holds the trump card. True, halting aid could have cascading effects. Democracy may falter. Islamabad might abandon even its paltry efforts to rein in extremists. And there would at least be the possibility of the nightmare scenario: the collapse of the state and nuclear weapons up for grabs.
But the United States ought to take the risk. Al Qaeda simply cannot be defeated and Afghanistan stabilized so long as Pakistan offers the insurgents a room for the night. Washington needs to force—beginning with an explicit threat to cut off all financial and military assistance—Pakistan to move and secure North Waziristan. If it declines, the United States will have to devise unilateral solutions, up to and including the possibility of a large-scale military thrust across the border. Some partnerships are worse than none at all.
Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.