Striking Out: Harvard Political Review
Harvard Political Review; November 5, 2008 at 11:35AM
The importance of preserving the U.S.- Pakistan alliance
The seventh anniversary of the beginning of the war in Afghanistan marked another year of bloodshed, attributed to militants who strike unexpectedly from safe havens in neighboring Pakistan. American officials have accused Pakistan of wasting billions of dollars in U.S. aid and being unable or unwilling to deal effectively with the militants. Simultaneously, in the past few months the U.S. has been launching air strikes into these regions without permission from the Pakistani government.
Viewing Pakistan as hired help rather than a valued ally is detrimental to American interests. The two countries have a common interest in stable governance on both sides of the border, and earnest cooperation is required to achieve this. Unilateral attacks on Pakistani territory will undermine President Asif Ali Zardari’s democratically elected and pro-Western government, which will fuel militant extremism in Pakistan while undermining U.S. objectives in Afghanistan.
The “Tough Terrain” of Tribal Relations
Pakistan’s mountainous border with Afghanistan is home to ethnic Pashtuns, whom Robert Grenier, former CIA station chief in Islamabad, described to the HPR as “a religiously radicalized people resistant to the central government.” Pakistan’s government has historically lacked strong control of this area, making it a haven for al-Qaeda and other militant groups plotting attacks in Afghanistan. According to Grenier, some Pashtun clerics and tribal leaders sympathetic to those they see as Muslim brothers liberating “American-occupied Afghanistan” provide “psychological and physical space for plotters of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan”—space that undermines American objectives in the region.
The border regions are problematic for the Pakistani government as well. Hassan Abbas, author of Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror, expressed to the HPR that “the spread of militant power in the border area is a very serious threat to Pakistan.” The threat is compounded by the presence of Pashtun tribes that see the border as simply a “line in the sand.” Pakistan’s difficulty lies in projecting force in tribal areas, solidifying its authority and stemming the flood of attacks, while gaining the allegiance of the fiercely independent Pashtuns who live there. This task seems nearly impossible in its complexity as well as in the resources required.
Investing in a Strategic Alliance
Although Taliban militants are a common enemy of the U.S. and Pakistan, Americans and Pakistanis alike believe that the two countries are fighting separate wars. In June 2008, a poll by the International Republican Institute found that 71% of Pakistanis do not think that Pakistan “should cooperate with the United States in its war on terror.” In an interview with the HPR, Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S., explained that, to Pakistanis, “the idea of a transactional relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan is deeply resented.” For successful cooperation, both countries must work to re-frame the perception of the war as a joint mission between partners who understand one another’s security concerns.
Indeed, Grenier considers Pakistan’s cooperation “required” for progress in Afghanistan, citing intelligence-sharing between Pakistan and the CIA that helped destroy al-Qaeda logistics centers in government-controlled areas. He noted that it would be difficult to find an alternative to Pakistani ports for shipping American supplies and troops into Afghanistan. In order to ensure success in Afghanistan, the U.S. must support a strong pro-Western government in Pakistan willing to recognize the interests it shares with America.
Betting on Pakistan
If Pakistan is unable to control its own territory, should the U.S. bother to honor this “line in the sand” border with Afghanistan at the expense of more lives? This seems a questionable proposition. Yet American air strikes on Pakistani soil have, to date, resulted in a high civilian death toll, sparking domestic resentment against the Zardari government. Abbas explained that if air strikes continue, “The new democratic government, the hope for Pakistan’s future, will get discredited.” If, by engaging in unilateral strikes, we destabilize an important ally that shares an interest in achieving stability on both sides of its porous border, we will be harming its cause as well as our own.