First, Do No Harm
The US needs more than an exit plan for Afghanistan. It needs a new strategy for South Asia, starting with Pakistan.
While Washington and Kabul debate military withdrawal from Afghanistan, South Asia is wondering what comes next. NATO’s campaign has skewed US policy towards the entire region, and not for the better. As troops withdraw America will have increasing latitude to radically redefine policy towards the failing states and kleptocracies of South Asia, starting with Pakistan.
While the US has begun scaling back drone operations, it is yet to articulate a new strategy for Pakistan. Last October in Waziristan the CIA finally caught up with Hakimullah Mehsud. His death by drone was somewhat satisfying – in 2009 Mehsud orchestrated the death of seven US operatives in Khost, Afghanistan. But the assassination also complicated Pakistan’s efforts to resolve its own insurgency. Around the same time Washington resolved to release more than $1.5 billion of aid to Islamabad (after cutting aid to India to a paltry $91 million a year).
The dichotomy of drone violence and economic largesse continues to cause more harm than good. After more than a decade of increasing distrust, it is time for the US and Pakistan to walk away from the September 11 agenda, and each other. Since 2001, the US has delivered nearly $26 billion in aid to Pakistan. US national interests have expanded over time to include democracy promotion, the strengthening of civil institutions, human development and resolution of the Kashmir dispute.
Instead of achieving these noble aims, US military assistance is diverted to menace India, rule of law is diminishing, while generous dollops of aid undermine local governance and foster corruption on a sub-continental scale. Pakistan continues to drift through political instability, amid rising sectarian violence in Kashmir and elsewhere. Despite impressive economic growth, the UNDP reports Pakistan is still outpaced by India and Bangladesh according to most indices of human development. Meanwhile, the most significant US intelligence coup since 2001 – the Bin Laden raid – was conducted unilaterally, prompting a significant backlash from Islamabad. US policy has delivered few friends and created more enemies in Pakistan.
This abusive relationship with Washington erodes the popular legitimacy of civilian government, while nourishing the same discontent and religious extremism which America then tries to destroy from the air. Throughout much of Pakistan, the US is not represented by diplomats, aid workers, or even Hollywood. America falls from the sky, fuelling hatred and conspiracy on the ground.
Pakistan is a more dangerous place today than in 2001 because it remains the resupply route for both sides of the Afghan conflict. Some describe Pakistan as ‘the most dangerous country on Earth’. That may be true, but this is not necessarily an argument for sustained, or increased US involvement. Foreign policies should be governed not only by perceived dangers, but also by a sense of fiscal constraint - and a realistic appraisal of diminishing US influence in the region.
It is time to reinvest US strategy with a pragmatic sense of the possible. Washington should redefine its interests in Pakistan according to one simple principle – first, do no harm. Once that principle is applied, only one overriding, specifically American interest remains – nuclear containment.
The US remains a primary target for terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction. No other country has a greater stake in preventing extremists from acquiring nuclear weapons or materials from Pakistan, a known sponsor of radical Islamist groups. This should be considered America’s most important national interest.
Counter-terrorist operations in Pakistan’s lawless tribal districts (including drone strikes) contribute to the force protection of coalition personnel in Afghanistan. This requirement should diminish in parallel with the reducing exposure of troops. Once this occurs, Pakistan should not be considered a higher priority for US intelligence than other places.
For at least two more years it will probably remain necessary to resupply coalition forces by sea from Karachi, then through the Khyber Pass into Southern Afghanistan. This should continue to be facilitated through private transportation companies, who funnel cash to corrupt officials and insurgents in exchange for safe conduct. This harm is unavoidable, but will reduce.
Afghanistan laid bare the distinction between American ends and means. As the military means to a peaceful end are withdrawn from the Afghan conflict, the US can also afford to reassess its harmful relationship with Pakistan and South Asia more broadly.