The United States and Pakistan: Best Frenemies Forever?

    Laurel Miller

    Security, Middle East

    School boys stand near fuel trucks which were set ablaze in the Bolan district of Pakistan's Baluchistan province

    New political tensions and demands will create opportunities for Pakistan to build up other relationships in the region at U.S. expense.

    The United States is once again ratcheting up the pressure on Pakistan to fall in line with U.S. policy in Afghanistan by ending the Afghan Taliban’s enjoyment of safe haven. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan is once again pushing back. Amid the mistrust, mutual recrimination, and stale narratives that have increasingly characterized the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in recent years, there is one Pakistani talking point I have heard routinely from officials that should be taken at face value: Pakistan does not intend to fight the Afghan war on Pakistani soil. Although the reality of the situation is dissatisfying, the United States needs a strategy in Afghanistan and policy toward Pakistan based on the best Pakistani behavior it can have, not the Pakistani behavior it wants to have.

    The current military-centric U.S. strategy for Afghanistan—largely a bet on continuity, with a modest escalation—depends for ultimate success on reversing Pakistan’s practice of helping enable the Taliban to sustain its insurgency by, among other things, permitting its leadership to operate from Pakistan and facilitating activities of the Taliban’s especially deadly Haqqani element. Although Pakistan also has enabled the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan—in part by serving as the main supply route for U.S. and NATO forces—it does not judge its security interests to be served by going all-in to back a U.S. military strategy that it does not believe will succeed and an Afghan government whose durability it doubts. Pakistan is also unwilling to add the Taliban to its long list of militant adversaries.

    The United States has long found logical fault with Pakistan’s calculations, but has proven unable to change Pakistan’s perceptions of its own national interests in its own neighborhood—and not for lack of offering carrots, applying sticks and taking matters into its own hands (see the unilateral U.S. takedown of Osama bin Laden and drone strike on Taliban chief Mullah Mansur, both done on Pakistani soil). One of the constraints on American persuasiveness is the deeply entrenched Pakistani narrative that the United States left Pakistan with a mess next door in the 1990s and cannot be relied upon not to do the same again.

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