If you blinked you would have missed John Kerry’s one-day trip to Pakistan. The lightning visit barely registered next to the U.S. secretary of state’s talks this week with Israelis and Palestinians.
Although Kerry’s stopover produced the usual dutiful talk of friendship, “strategic dialogue,” and shared interests between the U.S. and Pakistan, both sides know that a true partnership is out of reach for the moment.
Nevertheless, Pakistan poses a crucial challenge. The country will soon have the world’s fifth-largest population, and its army is already the seventh-largest. Its huge nuclear arsenal is growing, and it has, in India, a nuclear-armed archenemy. The chances of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of a terrorist group or of an outright nuclear war breaking out may be small -- but they are greater in Pakistan than anywhere else.
Billions of dollars in military and civilian aid to Pakistan over the past decade have hardly dented Islamabad’s support for militants fighting U.S. forces across the border in Afghanistan. Once the bulk of those troops leave next year, many U.S. policy makers understandably see little reason to continue pretending Pakistan is an ally. But walking away would be disastrous.
Bad now, all the trend lines in Pakistan would move to the worse. Pressure to strike a deal with militant groups on the Pakistani side of the border -- something Nawaz Sharif, the new prime minister, has pledged to pursue -- would increase. Islamabad would probably ramp up its covert support for the Afghan Taliban to cement Pakistan’s influence across the border. And wink-and-nudge tolerance of U.S. drone strikes inside Pakistani territory would dry up.
Instead of assuming the only two choices are full-fledged partnership or enmity, the U.S. must focus on the one core interest it has in Pakistan: stability. Fortunately, several of Sharif’s initiatives would further that goal. The prime minister seems genuinely interested in rapprochement with India, for instance, not least because the businessmen who form his power base in the Pakistani Punjab want to increase cross-border trade. Officials in the Indian Punjab, who have proposed selling energy to their counterparts, seem equally keen. Washington could nudge the neighbors closer by offering to reduce U.S. tariffs on Pakistani and Indian textiles -- as long as they lower their trade barriers against each other, too.
Such measures would help the ailing Pakistani economy far more than the relatively small amount of non-military U.S. aid that Kerry himself pushed through as a senator. More important, they would raise the costs to Pakistan of continued cross-border tension. Right now many if not most Pakistanis simply do not see the urgency of fighting certain militant groups -- the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, anti-India insurgents such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, even brutal anti-Shiite extremists such as Sipah-e-Sahaba. Once they can rely on a regular supply of electricity and look forward to rising incomes, though, they may become less tolerant of the violence and chaos that such groups spread.
Sustained U.S. engagement is no less important in this region than in Israel and the Palestinian territories. A full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan next year -- the unlikely “zero option” -- would only encourage Pakistan to interfere in Kabul more in order to ensure its interests were secured. Washington could work harder now to restart talks, backed by Pakistan, with the Afghan Taliban. In the long term, the U.S. should offer more help with projects such as the TAPI pipeline, which would bring natural gas from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. Only when Islamabad sees profit in a stable Afghanistan will its insurgent proxies such as the Haqqani network begin to look like liabilities.
Such deals may be designed to increase stability in the region. They’re also the only way to restore some equilibrium to the perennially seesawing relationship between Pakistan and the U.S.
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