U.S.-Pakistan relations have reached a new low this year, and Washington bears a significant amount of the blame. The American use of drone strikes in western Pakistan has always been unpopular with the Pakistani public, but these strikes are now being done in defiance of the formal demands of the Pakistani government. While effective in taking out targeted individuals, drone strikes are the embodiment of the short-sighted nature of U.S. policy toward Pakistan, which privileges short-term gains and assistance in the Afghanistan war over the strategic relationship with and internal stability of Pakistan.
On April 12, Pakistani officials confirmed that they had demanded an end to all drone strikes, many of which had been operated from Pakistani airfields in the past. But in the last two weeks the U.S. has nonetheless proceeded to launch at least two attacks on targets inside Pakistan. As has so often happened before, there were civilians reported killed along with the intended targets in the second strike. In addition to the public anger and political backlash that civilian casualties create against the Pakistani government and the U.S., the drone strikes represent the arrogance of the U.S. in Pakistan, as the U.S. is now attacking Pakistani territory without any official connivance or approval from Islamabad. As David Ignatius says of the decision to use drones in the Libyan war, this tactic “projects American power in the most negative possible way.” The negative effects aren't limited to public hostility, but also include increasing pressures on key Pakistani institutions.
The pressure that U.S. actions put on the Pakistani military is particularly worrisome. And the danger this poses to the U.S. is much greater than it may seem. Anatol Lieven, author of the new book Pakistan: A Hard Country, described the potential for disaster in The National Interest earlier this year: “The greatest potential catalyst for a collapse of the Pakistani state is not the Islamist militants themselves… it is that actions by the United States will provoke a mutiny of parts of the military. Should that happen, the Pakistani state would collapse very quickly indeed, with all the disasters that this would entail.” One of the stated goals of U.S. “Af-Pak” policy is to secure Pakistani stability, but in practice, the U.S. is undermining its own ally, and the situation is reaching a point where Pakistani authorities can no longer tolerate our behavior.
Relieving this pressure is the first thing that the U.S. can do, and one practical step is to halt drone strikes in Pakistan. This can actually serve U.S. goals in Afghanistan by making it easier for Pakistan to help facilitate a political settlement with the Afghan Taliban, and finally allow U.S. forces to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan in the near future. There is no question that withdrawing all American forces is ultimately in the best interests of both the United States and Pakistan. But it will become more difficult if Pakistan is alienated from the U.S. by actions that are radicalizing the population and the military rank and file. Whatever immediate value the U.S. derives from killing individual al Qaeda members, it is risking far more by jeopardizing the sustained, significant security cooperation that Pakistan still provides.
The fraught U.S.-Pakistan relationship is only the most recent example of how Washington often mismanages its alliances and expects allies to act more as subordinates than partners. Given the patron-client relationship that the U.S. has with many allies, it is understandable that this might happen, but it is an impulse that needs to be resisted as often as possible. We have seen this in the administration’s heavy-handed dealing with Japan over Okinawa basing rights, and the dismissive attitude taken toward Turkish mediation efforts related to Iran. Most recently, the administration used American diplomatic and military resources to facilitate military intervention in Libya over the strong objections of many of the most significant NATO allies, and it has now potentially put the future of the military alliance on the line, all for a war that doesn’t seem to be in the security interests of any U.S. ally.
The more strategically significant the ally, the more that Washington needs to take its perceived national interests and grievances seriously. In Pakistan’s case, this doesn’t mean that the U.S. should embrace antagonism toward India, but simply that it should stop imposing intolerable pressures on an ally that, while far from perfect, is more supportive of U.S. security interests than we have any right to expect.