The Obama administration is increasingly facing a new foreign policy challenge, which could derail America’s grand strategy in Central Asia. Crucially, as America struggles to stabilize the volatile landscape in Afghanistan, assert a long-term strategic presence in Iraq, and contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is gradually confronting a new foreign policy challenge: a precarious and consequential estrangement from its long-term strategic ally, Pakistan. With rising dissatisfaction among the Pakistani political elite and growing popular anger against America, Washington is on the verge of losing another vital ally. After a decade of compliant and subservient partnership – coupled with endemic corruption and a severe economic downturn - the Pakistani leadership might face the same fate as other fallen pro-US leaders across the Middle East, from Iran’s Shah in 1979 to Arab autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011.
Crucially, Pakistan is uniquely important, not only for its sheer size, geopolitical position, and powerful army, but also because of its possession of one of the world’s most potent nuclear arsenals. For decades, Pakistan has been the backbone of America’s strategic designs in the region. During the Cold War, Islamabad was the U.S.’ main ‘buffer’ against Soviet expansionism. In the 1980s, Pakistan’s unremitting cooperation was a key element of America’s efforts in pushing the Soviets out of Afghanistan. It was precisely such close strategic partnership that encouraged America to turn a blind eye on Pakistan’s burgeoning nuclear program and A.Q. Khan’s plethora of proliferation shenanigans across the continent.
An Ancient Partnership
In the post-Cold War era, Pakistan’s continued pivotal role in America’s regional designs discouraged any serious rhetorical or diplomatic censure in the wake of General Pervez Musharraf’s military take-over, which ended, albeit temporarily, an era of unstable and corrupt civilian politics. After all, Musharaf was simply exposing the real character of the Pakistani political system: the intractable dominance of a generally revered military establishment, which views itself as the guardian of the Pakistani state – mainly against India’s perceived expansionism.
The military is the very backbone of the Pakistani state, which exerts influence on all major organs of the state, especially in the realm of foreign and domestic security policies. It receives around a quarter of the national budget, and it has historically blocked any attempts by the civilian politicians to change the overall make-up of the country’s domestic political system and foreign policy architecture. When Nawaz Sharif contemplated on normalizing relations with New Delhi, he was ousted by a coup. The military was also swift in ousting Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, when he allegedly prepared a memo calling for a US-backed ‘coup’ against the establishment. President Zardari’s plans to improve economic relations with India might spell him a similar fate.
The post-9/11 era witnessed a ‘renaissance’ in Pakistani-US relations. The strategic and security-intelligence exigencies of the so-called ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT) proved as a sufficient basis for further cementing bilateral ties. Initially, both countries seemed to share a common enemy: fundamentalist movements and extremist organizations. They were confronting the specters of the very ‘freedom fighters’ – and their underlying ideology -, which they sponsored and supported against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Basically, they were dealing with the Frankenstein of their own making. However, it was precisely such ‘revival’ and ‘elevation’ of relations that paved the way for a series of crisis, which are increasingly hunting Pakistan, and its alliance with America.
An Alliance of Convenience
Fundamentally, there is a profound ‘strategic gap’ that divides America and Pakistan. While Washington’s main interest has centered on eliminating extremist elements in the region, and creating a stable, pliable, and democratic Afghanistan, Islamabad’s calculations were focused on counter-balancing an increasingly ascendant India.
Pakistan is mainly concerned with leveraging it’s growing alliance with the US – enjoying around $20 billion in military aid – and increasing its strategic depth in Afghanistan. Washington seemed to have overlook this crucial ‘security dilemma,’ which has guided Pakistan’s – and especially the military’s - strategic calculus, since its very inception. Determined to exact justice and neutralize extremist foes, the Bush administration – as well as the Obama administration – was determined in its conviction to intrumentalize Pakistan’s cooperation as to achieve America’s strategic objectives. The underlying assumption was that Pakistan would be content with Washington’s continuous aid and politico-strategic support even as the battle against extremist elements intensified in scope and costs. Well, General Pervez Musharraf would eventually pay the price for his continued ‘formal’ support to America’s GWOT as problems in Afghanistan spilled over into Pakistan.
Over the years, inevitably, underlying differences came into the forefront. For Washington, Pakistan’s – or elements within the security establishments - ‘double-game’ of funding, training, and sponsoring Taliban and other insurgent Pashtun forces in Afghanistan-Pakistan border, on one hand, while aiding America’s efforts in Afghanistan, on the other, has become untenable.
America’s sense of betrayal was magnified when it discovered that its number one enemy, Osama Bin Laden, was for years residing in the vicinity of Pakistan’s elite military academy for years. Not only was Osama’s whereabouts unreported, but he went undisturbed for years, despite America’s continuous and desperate efforts to hunt Al-Qaeda’s elusive chief. Unsurprisingly, Washington presumed that the Pakistani military was, all the while, providing cover for the world’s leading renegade as well as other extremist groups.
This sentiment was evident in Adm. Mike Mullen’s comments before the US Senate, when he said that Pakistan was using, “extremism as an instrument of policy,” where the Haqqani circle, one of the region’s deadliest extremist insurgent groups, “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Internal Services Intelligence Agency.’
America’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed Washington’s deep sense of outrage, when she called upon Pakistan to end its double-game, warning Islamabad by stating, “No one should be in any way mistaken about allowing this to continue without paying a very big price.” No wonder, President Obama ordered Osama’s assassination without even informing his Pakistani counterparts. Of course, understandably America’s unilateral action on the Pakistani soil, which constituted a clear violation of the country’s sovereignty, enraged the Pakistani establishment. Since then, bilateral relations have been on a fast-track downward spiral.
The Broader Geo-Political Shifts
There is another crucial geo-political development. Pakistan’s seeming ‘tilt’ to Iran has also drawn growing scrutiny from Washington. The country has been involved in growing economic cooperation with Tehran, mainly in the energy sector. The proposed IPI pipeline, which passes through Pakistan, could immensely strengthen Iran’s position in Asian gas and energy markets. This, in turn, would further deepen Tehran’s influence in Central and South Asia, while ameliorating the impact of sanctions on the country’s increasingly beleaguered economy.
Moreover, recent years have also witnessed an increasingly cozy relationship between Tehran and Islamabad, which has been animated by a growing number of bilateral agreements and high-level diplomatic interaction. Strategically, both countries share an interest in stabilizing the porous borders in the restive areas of Baluchistan, which hosts noticeable insurgency and separatist movements. In light of Pakistan’s growing economic woes, Iran has also emerged as an important supplier of electricity, energy, and even foreign aid in moments of crisis, from major flooding to other forms of natural disasters, which have ravaged parts of Pakistan.
For Pakistan, the war in Afghanistan is beginning to hurt the country, both strategically and politically. Strategically, the post-Taliban Afghanistan has swiftly become an important site for India’s maneuvering. The pace of India’s growing influence in neighboring Afghanistan has increasingly alarmed Islamabad and the Pakistani military. New Delhi is becoming a major economic and political player in the nascent country, causing much anxiety among the Pakistani leadership, who have obsessively followed and carefully monitored India’s strategic posturing in the region.
America’s growing embrace of India, as an emerging economic and political powerhouse, has also annoyed the Pakistani authorities. Faced with an America, under the Obama administration, that is increasingly pre-occupied with strategic economic considerations, Islamabad has witnessed a qualitative shift in India-US relations. It is increasingly clear that America is bent on solidifying its ties with India, which has emerged as one of the world’s leading economies. On top of America’s sale of military hardware and provision of civilian nuclear technology assistance to India, President Obama’s endorsement of New Delhi’s bid for a permanent seat at United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has clearly slighted many of America’s partners in Pakistan.
Pakistan is also losing interest in supporting America’s efforts in Afghanistan for purely domestic reasons. Islamabad is increasingly finding itself at the receiving end of a growing domestic, extremist insurgency against the regime. The country’s alliance with the U.S. has created considerable popular backlash, which has intensified in light of increasingly deadly American drone attacks in heavily-populated areas. These drone operations have particularly intensified under Obama’s watch. The latest Pew Survey suggests that only 12 percent of the people express a favorable view of America, ranking Pakistan as one of the most anti-American nations.
Pakistan has become one of the greatest victims of extremism with the Pakistani Taliban and other fundamentalist organizations stepping up their operations against military and civilian establishments. Most alarmingly, there is an increasing threat of a take-over of Pakistan’s nuclear warhead by emboldened extremist forces. The country is sliding into a state of chaos, and some are already talking about a potential failed state. The country is grappling with simultaneous political instability, streams of bombings, economic meltdown, and unprecedented natural disasters. In the end, the relatively intact, coherent, and capable Pakistani military might, eventually, decide to step-in.
Importantly, recent months have witnessed how bilateral relations have reached an all time low. America’s bombing of Pakistani military posts, leading to the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers, marked a dangerous escalation in an already tense and precarious alliance. Pakistan’s response was swift and unequivocal. It condemned the attacks, while boycotting the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan. The country has also warned America against further unauthorized drone attacks, threatening military retaliation if Washington fails to comply. It has also asked America to terminate its military operations in the Shamsi air base, where most of the drone operations are coordinated, while blocking the passage of NATO cargoes – destined for Afghanistan - through its borders.
Alarmingly, tensions are increasingly reflected in public statements of top officials. On Pakistan’s part, the country’s leadership has shown little reticence in articulating its growing frustrations with America. In a recent interview with the BBC, the country’s Prime Minister, Yousef Raza Gilani, admitted that both countries ‘do not trust each other.’
Given the depth of America’s strategic anxieties in the region, the ongoing estrangement with Pakistan is a dangerous blow to America’s interests. In the long-run, a further deterioration in ties could spell the end of the alliance. Pakistan could ultimately choose to turn to China, Iran, and Russia if it deems its partnership with Washington as a detriment to its national interest.
There are signs that Islamabad is already hedging its bets as it pushes for a full-membership status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is commonly portrayed as an Asian counterpart to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Unless there is a decisive turn in events, Washington might be getting closer to losing a powerful ally in a much-troubled and highly strategic region. America’s succeeding steps are crucial if Washington seeks to salvage the fading alliance.