Commentary

Pakistan and U.S.: A Troubled Marriage of Convenience

Yesterday, in response to Pakistan’s conviction of Shakil Afridi — a Pakistani citizen, a physician who helped America track down Osama bin Laden — the Senate Appropriations Committee cut U.S. aid to Islamabad by $33 million. The legislation, which comes less than a week after a deal to reopen supply routes through Pakistan into Afghanistan crumbled, is a striking reminder that Washington’s relations with Islamabad still remain in shambles.

Pakistan is key to stability in Afghanistan and a major contributor to its security challenges.

Islamabad’s growing anti-Western posture, coupled with its reluctance to tackle its militants more vigorously, suggests that mutual interests would be best served not by the United States paying more in transit fees and remaining hostage to Pakistan, but by phasing out the substantial aid it currently sends there.

From 2002 to 2010, about $13.3 billion in U.S. military aid flowed to Pakistan, while other economic assistance amounted to more than $6.5 billion. This largesse has lacked adequate appraisal of whether aid has enhanced bilateral trust, reached those who need it most or persuaded Pakistan to help avert a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

During the Cold War and after 9/11, U.S. assistance mostly served to further entrench Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders, who routinely diverted aid toward themselves rather than the economic and social development of their people. The majority of Pakistanis therefore connect U.S. aid to their country’s deteriorating situation.

Nonetheless, aid flows even as controversies fray relations nearly beyond repair, prompting observers to dub the partnership “transactional.” A long-term view of the partnership must go beyond the current news cycle.

In March, a joint session of Pakistan’s parliament unanimously approved resolutions calling for an end to U.S. drone strikes, “hot pursuit” military raids and the use of Pakistani airspace for the transport of arms and ammunition into Afghanistan. The proposals, sharply at odds with U.S. policies, reflect a divergence of interests between the two countries that existed long before last year’s Navy SEAL raid against Osama bin Laden.

There is little evidence that U.S. aid has ever served its interests in Pakistan — and, unfortunately, ample evidence that much of it has been funneled to U.S. enemies. A year before 9/11, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf declared at a news conference, “Afghanistan’s majority ethnic Pashtuns have to be on our side… This is our national interest… The Taliban cannot be alienated by Pakistan.”

Yet in 2006, as Pakistani officials were busy cutting peace deals with militants, President George W. Bush said of Musharraf: “When the president looks me in the eye and says, ‘The tribal deal is intended to reject the Talibanization of the people,’ and that there won’t be a Taliban and won’t be al Qaeda, I believe him.”

President Obama came into office hoping to improve relations, even backing a bipartisan plan for nonmilitary aid. But among Pakistanis, the conditions attached to that aid are widely viewed as infringements on their sovereignty. Combined with the quadrupling of drone strikes under the current administration, relations hit an all-time low.

Whether under Bush or Obama, the Washington-Islamabad partnership has been a marriage of convenience confounded by irreconcilable differences. The feuding couple has few constructive high-level meetings and mutual commitment to the union is meager.

Islamabad has been distancing itself from Washington and forging stronger ties with Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states. Anti-Western orientation is even codified in several parts of Pakistan’s 1973 constitution. In a verbatim nod to Marxist ideology, one notable passage reads: “The state shall ensure the elimination of all forms of exploitation and the gradual fulfillment of the fundamental principle, from each according to his ability to each according to his work.”

The United States must carefully calibrate a policy with Pakistan that continues diplomatic relations absent large sums of aid. While cutting aid to Pakistan might be temporarily destabilizing, Pakistan’s support for militant Islamists is arguably more harmful to regional stability. Moreover, while emergency-type humanitarian aid can be beneficial to the Pakistani people, economic development aid intended to promote growth has been detrimental, allowing Islamabad to avoid confronting its rampant corruption and budgetary problems with the necessary urgency.

The Pakistani government and people stand united in their belief that Pakistan does not need the United States. Phasing out U.S. aid to Pakistan benefits both parties and better reflects strategic realities.

Malou Innocent is a foreign-policy analyst at the Cato Institute. Aimen Khan is a defense policy researcher from Islamabad, Pakistan.