President George W. Bush is talking to Pakistan's civilian leaders, but the US presidential administration continues to exhibit a stubborn preference for maintaining close ties with the Pakistani military, an institution that is widely discredited inside the South Asian state.
Bush welcomed Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to the White House on July 28 for talks that focused on the deteriorating security situation along the Pakistani-Afghan border. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Gilani said the Pakistani government is determined to contain Islamic militants. Bush told journalists that the Pakistani leader had "made a very strong commitment" to restoring Islamabad's control over the tribal areas. Questions remain, however, over whether the Pakistani government, even if it has the will to take action, possesses the means to break up the militants' safe havens.
Amid the speculation, the Bush administration has clung doggedly to policies that have proven ineffective in curbing the militant threat. The US strategy to date has centered on the personality of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the leader of the country's military establishment, and a man who, from the popular viewpoint, is easily the most reviled figure in Pakistani politics today. Indeed, Gilani's rise to power was the direct result of parliamentary elections that were widely interpreted as a repudiation of Musharraf's policies, as well as the military's control of the political process. Over 80 percent of the Pakistani people want Musharraf to go, according to a recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute.
The parliamentary elections presented US officials with an opportunity to reevaluate Washington's policy dependence on the Pakistani military, but, to date, the United States has not followed up on that opening. The bulk of US assistance to Islamabad continues to be funneled through the military establishment. Administration critics argue that diverting assistance toward civil society and economic development initiatives would be more effective in winning the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people, and in making the country's tribal areas more secure.
Despite fresh strains in Pakistani-American military ties, the Pentagon remains committed to continuing close military cooperation with Pakistan, according to David Smith, senior country director for Pakistan at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy). Smith, a retired US army officer whose last military assignment was a three-year tour military attaché in the US Embassy in Islamabad, spoke July 22 at a Heritage Foundation panel, titled "The Future of US-Pakistan Military Ties: Weathering the Strains of Regional Terrorism."
Smith denied that the US approach to Pakistan was unduly militarized, claiming that the Bush administration was taking a broad view of the security challenge. "Even though Pakistan is an indispensable ally in the War on Terror, our desire for a long-term relationship is not confined to this military aspect alone," Smith said. "We are working very hard to find ways to increase our economic and social development programs in Pakistan and to find ways to demonstrate to the people of Pakistan the value of the strategic relationship with the United States. We certainly applaud Pakistan's return to democracy and plan to dramatically increase the non-military component of our bilateral relationship in the coming years."
Overall, the United States has delivered about $11 billion in economic and military assistance to Pakistan since 2002. According to Smith's calculations, "Since 9/11, we have extended to Pakistan approximately $5.2 billion in economic and military assistance," with the latter amounting to only $2.1 billion. Smith argued that an additional $5.9 billion military aid, provided under the auspices of "coalition support funds (CSF)," should be considered separately, since these funds supposedly reimbursed the Pakistani military for its contributions to anti-terrorist operations.
Independent surveys have found that the Pakistani military has used US coalition support funds to purchase high-tech weapons, such as anti-missile systems, that have no practical application in combating low-tech Islamic militants, but do enhance Pakistan's security vis-à-vis its long-standing hostile neighbor, India. A report issued by the US Government Accountability Office in June found that the Pentagon, in making assistance available to Pakistan, "did not consistently apply its existing CSF oversight guidance, and that certain deficiencies existed in [the Pentagon's] oversight procedures."
Smith characterized the US-Pakistani military relationship as "a rollercoaster with dizzying highs and equally dizzying lows." Despite the currently close ties, Smith acknowledged that, "there are several significant challenges that must be overcome in order to sustain and maintain a relationship at its current level." First, Smith pointed to a considerable "trust deficit" among officials on both sides, adding that "many Pakistanis doubt both our sincerity in the present relationship and our staying power in the region, fearing that we will once again abandon Pakistan, as they believe we have done so many times in the past, once our current objectives are met."
"It's incumbent that we demonstrate, or find a way to demonstrate, to Pakistan first of all that we are in Afghanistan to finish the job, and then, secondly, that we are a reliable security partner, now and well into the future," Smith continued.
The trust level between the two sides was unlikely to receive a boost from a July 28 missile attack in the Pakistani region of South Waziristan, near the Afghan border. The missile killed six people, including a suspect Al Qaeda operative. The United States is widely viewed as being behind the attack, but Bush made no mention of it during his public appearance with Gilani.
Beyond the trust issue, a host of other problems has hampered the development of US-Pakistani security ties. For example, a perception gap divides Washington and Islamabad concerning Islamic militant safe havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). "Many in Pakistan believe that we've failed to appreciate their sacrifices that have been made" in combating militants in the Northwest Frontier province and the FATA, Smith said. "But, as our leaders have told Pakistan fairly recently, Pakistan can and must do more. We simply cannot allow Al Qaeda and other militant groups that are in the FATA time to plan and execute another 9/11."
Washington also takes a dim view of the Pakistani military's tactic of negotiating peace deals with tribal leaders and local militants in the FATA. Smith said that deals sealed in 2005-06 have ended in failure, adding that cross-boarder militant attacks have increased sharply this year over the previous year. "Now we are not opposed in principle to negotiating agreements, but if they are to be negotiated, we have made it clear to the government of Pakistan that certain conditions need to be met," Smith said. "The agreements need to be enforceable, they need to call for the elimination of foreign elements and extremists in the FATA, they should not require the withdrawal of the Pakistan army or other security forces from the area, and they must have provisions that prevent cross-border attacks being mounted on coalition forces in Afghanistan and other targets in Pakistan."
On a practical level, US and Pakistani officials, along with authorities in Afghanistan, are striving to improve coordination along the Pakistani-Afghan border. More open channels of communications might have prevented an incident in June, when American forces inadvertently killed several Pakistani troops amid an assault on Taliban militants who were in the process of fleeing across the border into Pakistan
Another question hovering over relations concerns India. Smith acknowledged the long history of antagonism between Islamabad and New Delhi. He added, however, that Pakistani leaders had to understand that developing relationships involving the United States, Afghanistan and India should not be seen as "a series of zero-sum games, in which one gains and one loses at the other's expense."
Smith strongly opposed the idea of making US military assistance to Pakistan conditional upon Islamabad's making verifiable progress in the areas of democratization or security. He also expressed the belief that Washington had no choice but to maintain the "business-as-usual" relationship with the Pakistani military. "I have a great deal of difficulty in imagining any scenario for military success in Afghanistan that does not depend on close cooperation with Pakistan and its armed forces," he said.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.