Daniel Markey, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, discusses U.S.-Pakistan relations, Pakistan’s domestic situation, the U.S. drone program, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and reconciliation with the Taliban.
Daniel Markey is Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Prior to CFR, he served taught at Princeton University and served in the U.S. Department of State between 2003 and 2007.
How essential is the relationship with Pakistan to U.S. national security interests?
Pakistan occupies a key geo-strategic location and is important to the long-term strategic interests of the U.S., especially in Asia where it is a potential peace spoiler. We cannot easily walk away from the relationship, but Pakistan also needs us. They have no viable alternative.
China was quoted as an alternative in the wake of the Osama Bin Laden raid, but a China-Pakistan relationship has a lot of potential to end up like the China-North Korea relationship. Pakistan has concluded that they need to resume cooperation with the U.S.—it’s a practical recognition of their vulnerability, and it’s a recognition the U.S. can’t avoid. Pakistan is a hotbed of extremism—extremist ideologies, networks of terrorist financing and interests, militant groups. It is also armed with nuclear weapons and investing in a significant expansion of its nuclear arsenal, including tactical nuclear weapons. These are problems that aren’t going away any time soon.
What dynamics are driving radicalization and instability in Pakistan?
I see four different pictures, four different vignettes, none of which alone tells the whole story. The first picture is that of a basket case. Pakistan has a massive youth bulge—over 60 percent of the country is under 23, and this is going to persist for several decades. It’s also experiencing enormous population growth and is expected to grow by 85 million people over the next two decades—that’s the size of Iran. Economically and in terms of the delivery of basic social services, it’s a disaster. It only meets two-thirds of its electricity demands, which is helping to cripple its economy.
The second picture is that of a garrison state, one of military dominance. Pakistan is a military that has a country. The military has its own public services for its members, and its decision makers receive perks, rewards, and privileges setting them far apart from most Pakistanis. The distribution of national resources is heavily tilted their way, and this is detrimental to economic growth. But, it’s the most effective and capable institution in the country.
The third vignette is that of Pakistan as a terrorist incubator. Al Qaeda’s roots in Pakistan run deep (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Bin Laden were found there). Its intelligence services have connections with various terrorist groups. What’s more, Pakistan is an incubator for new forms of extreme and potentially violent ideologies, even if most Pakistanis don’t subscribe to these views. There is evidence, however, of changing trends in how Pakistanis view Islam and the role of the individual within society. The final picture of Pakistan is that of the youthful idealist. Pakistan’s enormous population of young people is hungry for change. Imran Khan has seized on the urban youth movement and made serious political in-roads.
What is clear is that Pakistan is in a precarious situation. It has all the reasons for popular alienation and anger, but the people haven’t consolidated enough to overthrow the overarching feudal and military structures. It does look like a matter of time however, unless Pakistan changes.
What is the basis of popular Pakistani resentment towards the U.S.?
The liberal left and the well-educated, well-heeled, influential individuals look at the U.S. and see that we don’t live up to our own principles in our interactions with their country. They see the U.S. as having a narrow security focus as it relates to its relationship with Pakistan. This dates back to the treaty signed in 1954 cementing the U.S.-Pakistan alliance and continues through the 1960s and 1970s until now.
The nationalists argue the U.S. has abandoned Pakistan at key times (at the end of the Cold War in Afghanistan and in its numerous wars with India) and is likely to do the same post-Afghanistan. They have the sense that Pakistan needs to be able to stand on its own and that it can’t trust the U.S.
Then there are the jihadists who ideologically oppose the U.S. They disagree with our ideals, goals, principles and aspirations. But, they are a narrow band.
What options does the U.S. have for managing its relationship with Pakistan?
There are three strategies the U.S. can take moving forward. The first is defensive insulation, which is the idea is that Pakistan is a mess and a danger to the U.S., to the region, and the world, and we should wall it off. Developing military, intelligence, and economic tools to contain it would do this. The problem is that it is difficult to contain a huge society of 200 million people, and in doing so you would create more enemies in a society that is not implacably hostile to the U.S.
The second strategy, variants of which have been tried in the past, most recently when Colin Powell was head of the State Department, is military to military cooperation. Essentially, you buy the Pakistani military’s cooperation. The problem is that this encourages military domination of Pakistani society, which is dangerous in the long-term for everyone, is uncomfortable for us, and dangerous for the Pakistani military itself (especially after the Pervez Musharraf regime).
Finally, there is a strategy of comprehensive cooperation. The U.S. previously attempted this with Pakistan. The problem is not with the strategy itself, but with our inability to implement it and live up to the promise. Right now there doesn’t seem to the will in Washington to support this type of cooperation with a country that is viewed to have aided our enemies.
Each strategy is deeply flawed. We need to pick out the pieces that work and also plan for the worst. We have to contain the possibility of the breakdown of the state by developing military and intelligence cooperation and preserving drone capabilities to go at terrorist leaders. We need to avoid past mistakes by not investing in a single military or civilian leader, and we need to aim for the best— economic development, regional integration, and growth.
Right now, the program is not regulated to the same extent that it would be if it were a law enforcement exercise, as it is categorized as a covert operation. However, in terms of deciding who the targets are, it is a more tightly controlled program than any other program we have. Unfortunately, the public has almost no way of assessing the strategic utility of killing these individuals, and it is hard to weigh the use of the program against the cost in civilian lives.
The U.S. needs to bring the drone program more out in the open, transfer authorities to the Pentagon, give the Pakistanis some control over targets, (while they take responsibility for allowing it to take place on their soil), and then institute mechanisms for civilian compensation. This creates potential for a compromise. No one is willing to do it right now, but the two sides may be getting closer to a deal.
The fact is that if drones didn’t exist and the terrorist threat was as real as Washington thought it was in 2007, we would have had to deal with it with a very costly military campaign. Drones probably saved an enormous number of American and Pakistani lives. You absolutely must have a more comprehensive drone policy, but we also have to think about what this weapon has meant in a broader strategic context.
On South Asian Regional Dynamics & Kashmir
If you look at the history of U.S. engagement on Kashmir, we have not been very effective in many ways, and the more the U.S. involves itself, the less likely India and Pakistan will come to their own mutually agreeable solution. This does not mean we should not try again, because there is still the sense that it is important, but I am not sure about how the U.S. can be particularly helpful, aside from cheering from the sidelines.
Kashmir has always been a localized story, which has its own dynamic that is a larger symptom of the India-Pakistan relationship. Kashmir is a convenient place for trouble to happen, and so in this regard, we need to address the broader India-Pakistan bilateral relationship first.
The regional dynamics are affecting Kashmir. The U.S. is leaving Afghanistan a mess, which is creating more opportunities for insurgent groups in Kashmir. We are asking India to help stabilize Afghanistan by using their influence to convince President Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). But, India has been reluctant to get more heavily involved in Afghanistan. They would prefer to have the U.S. there long-term. This agreement is in India’s interest.
On Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his influence
He may end up in a stronger position depending on how he manages the army-chief transition, and this will be a critical test of the civil military relationship in Pakistan. He hasn’t yet shown that he can deliver on his talk about India. This is not just his fault. The timing is not right for him to make a major push on India, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is weak and elections are coming up. A deal with India may be on hold for the medium term. Sharif would likely anger the far right of the Pakistani political spectrum by pushing any deal with India now. Sharif might have been able to do that just after he was elected in May, but violence spiked on the border during this time—we still don’t know why that happened. Those border incidences spoiled the initial opportunity.
The question is, will he be able to gain some momentum over the next nine months to a year that would put him in a better position to deal with the next Indian government once it is consolidated and give him the flexibility to pursue a deal? Can he pull off a balancing act of utilizing civilian authority, but not imposing himself too directly to threaten the military and create pushback? Can he deliver on all the other things he is promising on the economic front so that he gains a certain popular legitimacy with the broader public and feels he has the political strength to sell a difficult deal with India?
Sharif can only do this from a position of strength; by showing he can actually run the country—addressing the power shortages, making a deal with the IMF, reducing internal violence. If he can do these things, he would have popular legitimacy and could balance the relationship with the military. In terms of the military, they do not appear totally opposed to a normalization of their relationship with the government.
What does Nawaz Sharif’s selection of Raheel Sharif (who was not the military’s hand-picked successor) as army chief suggest for the future of civil-military relations in the country?
(Excerpted with the author’s permission from his recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times)
In selecting Raheel Sharif, the prime minister chose the third-most senior army officer, showing due deference to the norms of the status-conscious military. Yet the prime minister passed over the candidate rumored to enjoy [previous army chief Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani’s favor and left aside another general said to have Washington’s stamp of approval.
In so doing, Nawaz Sharif demonstrated political independence from both the army and America, two of three forces popularly said to dominate so much of what happens in Pakistan (the third force being Allah). The prime minister kept his choice a secret until the very last moment, frustrating observers who saw his delays as evidence of indecision, but in fact shrewdly denying opportunities to potential troublemakers.
Pakistan desperately needs capable civilian leaders who can manage their relations with the military. If the two Sharifs can see eye to eye on the main security threats that plague their country, starting with Pakistan’s homegrown Taliban and Karachi’s ethno-political violence, they could form a more potent duo than Pakistan has seen in decades. That would be no small feat. Given recurring U.S. fears that Pakistan could unravel at its seams, Washington has every reason to root for success.
On the Future of Afghanistan
Nothing in the region has so fundamentally changed since the war that prevents civil conflicts emerging again from a resurgent Taliban. However, if the U.S. can maintain a minimal military presence in Afghanistan through a signed Bilateral Strategic Agreement (BSA) and continue to fund the Afghan national army, the Afghans will have the capacity to prevent another civil war. Many Afghans are not willing to let a new civil war happen. India has every reason to fear it, and Pakistan should fear it too. The U.S. can and should do what it can to stop it.
This would require a commitment in the realm of $3 to $6 billion per year, as compared to an enormously larger figure associated with maintenance of a larger U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The costs to train, equip and support the Afghan army are bearable and sustainable. However, they won’t be if the Afghans decide they don’t want the U.S. there.
What are your thoughts on President Karzai’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S. until certain conditions are met? What does he aim to gain from stalling approval for a deal that is widely supported by Afghans and the international community?
Reading President Karzai’s mind is an impossible task, but there are several plausible ways to interpret the way he has chosen to handle the BSA negotiations.
First, he clearly prefers not to go down in Afghan history as an American lackey, and he has been quite clear about his reservations about NATO military operations for years. So he may have decided that the BSA just isn’t something he needs to sign, no matter the short-term negative consequences.
Second, he may be seeking to hold on to relevance until the very last minute of this time in office. He knows that as soon as he signs the BSA, Washington and nearly everyone else will have less of a reason to deal with him directly. So this is an argument for playing the negotiation to the bitter end.
Third, he may have concluded that the most important ways to stabilize Afghanistan are not through NATO forces but through political deals among Afghan powerbrokers. By this logic, Karzai’s future and that of his nation are not really hinging on whether the BSA enables Washington to leave a military contingent in Afghanistan, but on whether Afghanistan’s next ruling regime can hold together in the face of internal and external pressure. If that’s Karzai’s perspective, he would want to deliver a BSA signature only if it suits the purposes of the next regime, and he doesn’t know the answer to that question yet.
In any case, the BSA drama is but one more example of how far Karzai’s relationship with Washington has fallen from the early post-9/11 period, and of the broader frustrations and disappointments felt by both sides.
On Political Reconciliation with Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan
I’m a reconciliation skeptic. This first got a lot of attention during the surge. But how can you couple military surges with political/ diplomatic strategy—trying to seek peace at the table while fighting? If you are trying to negotiate with the adversary, you have to have the upper hand. As soon as the U.S. announced the surge, it announced the end of the surge, so it somehow traded away what leverage it had to put pressure the Taliban. As a political negotiation strategy, it made no sense. The broader problem is we are very bad at combining elements of U.S. national power to advance a strategic agenda. We can do a military surge, or separately, pursue a reconciliation agenda, but we are terrible at linking the two.
Political accommodation may be necessary in the long term, but it can only succeed if our military puts pressure on the groups we are trying to bring to the table. Our military strategy has not been designed to accomplish that goal. Now, we are in a situation where we look desperate. How can we push the Taliban to accept a compromise as we are leaving?
On the Pakistani Taliban side, I have similar skepticism. I don’t think the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) wants to reconcile with the Pakistani state. They have consistently viewed opportunities to make deals more as tactical opportunities. They do not appear to have a broad political strategy; they just want the government to agree to a ceasefire. The Pakistani government also appears to be thinking tactically. But, if the talks fail, the government will see that it does not have a partner in the TTP. They could use that to mobilize a national movement behind another SWAT Valley-type operation.