31 March 2016

Pakistan: Friend and Foe?

MARCH 29, 2016

If you attend a Congressional hearing on the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations, you’ll probably hear one of the lawmakers refer to Pakistan as a “frenemy,” sometimes friend, sometimes enemy. It is one of the more contentious relationships the United States has with a nation that is ultimately so critical to American and regional security.

Some of the concerns are longstanding, such as Pakistan’s tense standoff with India and its growing nuclear arsenal. Others became more prominent following 9/11, as ungoverned regions of Pakistan transformed into safe havens for al Qaeda, the Taliban and other extremist groups. Today, Pakistan is seen as key to ensuring that the Taliban sit down at the negotiating table with the Kabul government in hopes of ending the insurgency in Afghanistan.

At the urging of the U.S., the Pakistani government and military has taken steps in the last couple of years to go after extremist groups within its borders. Beginning in June 2014, Islamabad launched a major military operation against militant strongholds in the North Waziristan tribal area. Although there was initially tepid support for the military action, that changed in December 2014 after the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), known as the Pakistani Taliban, attacked a public school at an army base in Peshawar killing 144 people, most of them school-aged children.

Over the past couple of years, the Pakistani Taliban, and specifically its Jamaat-ur-Ahrar faction, has carried out several attacks against Pakistani civilians. This past Sunday, a suicide bomber from the Pakistani Taliban struck an Easter celebration at park in Lahore, Pakistan, killing more than 70 people and injuring more than 300. In response, the Pakistani government is set to conduct new counterterrorism operations in Punjab province, similar to the crackdown undertaken by the Pakistani army against militants in the city of Karachi.

Thus far, however, the Pakistani military has focused its campaign on rooting out extremist organizations that seek to overthrow the Pakistani government, such as the TTP, and not on groups that have aimed to destabilize Afghanistan for years, such as the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG). Some suggest that the Pakistani government has reached pacts with these organizations, enabling them to use Pakistan as a base of operations in exchange for them conducting attacks strictly outside of Pakistan. Regardless of the motive, the willingness demonstrated by the Pakistani government to draw distinctions between militant groups has served as a critical point of tension between the U.S. and Pakistan.

Members of Congress openly criticize Pakistan for playing this “double game,” fighting the terrorists who attack inside the country, but providing support to those extremists who threaten other nations. At a recent hearing, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Rep. Ed Royce said, “With its security services supporting what it considers to be good Islamist terrorist groups, these good groups—under Pakistan’s calculus—destabilize Afghanistan and threaten neighboring India while the government simultaneously opposes what it considers the bad Islamist.”

Richard Olsen, the State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan told congressional lawmakers that although Pakistan’s counterterrorism cooperation has been critical against al Qaeda, the U.S. is pressing Pakistan to target all terrorist groups that maintain safe havens in the country, in particular the Taliban, the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT). “We have made it clear to the Pakistanis that these organizations threaten Pakistan, the region, and the panoply of our mutual national security interests, and they must be addressed rigorously,” Olsen testified.

Pakistan’s counterterrorism policy is not the only area of sensitivity in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Hard feelings still remain over the 2011 U.S. raid on Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, when the Obama Administration decided it couldn’t trust telling the Pakistani’s in advance about their plans to take out the al Qaeda leader.

Furthermore, Pakistan publicly bristles at what it considers the U.S. drone-driven counterterrorism policy, which has eliminated much of al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan, but for all intents and purposes, the government and the military give a wink and a nod to allowing those strikes to continue. After all, the Pakistani Air Force could easily stop the drone operations, but it doesn’t.

And Islamabad is not happy with the United States warming relations with India. The decades long dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir continues to simmer with occasional skirmishes. An attack in January at an Indian Air Force Base near the border was seen as an effort to undermine renewed efforts by the Indian and Pakistani leaders to initiate a peace process. And Islamabad’s failure to sufficiently clamp down on LeT, the Pakistani terrorist group responsible for the deadly 2008 attacks in Mumbai that left 164 people dead and more than 600 injured, remains a point of contention with Delhi and Washington.

The U.S. also continues to press Pakistan about its growing nuclear arsenal, in particular, small tactical nuclear weapons that the Pakistani’s say are necessary to deter a sudden attack from nuclear armed India. But such weapons are certainly vulnerable: they are more tempting to use and harder to prevent from falling into militant hands. 

Recently, U.S. lawmakers have turned their attention to approving a new aid package to Pakistan. Since 9/11, the U.S. has provided approximately $30 billion in economic and military assistance to Pakistan. The current budget proposal calls for another $860 million for counter insurgency programs, energy, economic growth, and social reform. However, the U.S. has threatened to withhold about a third of that money if Pakistan does not do more to eliminate the militants along the Afghanistan border.

On Capitol Hill there have been reservations about the overall aid package as well as the announcement from the Pentagon and the State Department last month of the sale of additional F16 jets to Pakistan. As Senator Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, “…many Pakistani activities are immensely problematic and continue to point to a duplicitous partner…”—the so called “frenemy.”

The Cipher Brief experts point out that although the U.S-Pakistan relationship is tumultuous, it is one of necessity. Daniel Markey , a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, calls on the Obama Administration to launch a ‘comprehensive review of existing and planned projects in Pakistan” to help with the countries “development and/or reform.” And former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eileen O’Connor says it is time to “lower the rhetoric enough to begin to identify confidence building measures” that will ultimately benefit the region. Despite Pakistan’s labeling as a “frenemy” U.S. policymakers understand that rocky cooperation with Pakistan is better than none at all.

Pam Benson is the Managing Editor for News at The Cipher Brief.

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