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Getting Back to a Functional Relationship with Pakistan

The United States Needs to Stay Engaged

As the United States focuses on transitioning out of Afghanistan, rebalancing its national security strategy, and pivoting toward East Asia, it needs to remain engaged with Pakistan and encourage it to play a leadership role in its region. Even after a downturn in relations over the past year, disengaging and isolating Pakistan is not a practical option due to its size and impact on broader security. The news that Pakistan will participate in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s summit in Chicago next week is a small sign that efforts to get Pakistan to play a more constructive role in Afghanistan and the region are working. But much more needs to be done.

Late last year, Pakistan refused to participate in the international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany to protest a NATO air strike that killed two dozen Pakistani troops along the border with Afghanistan. It ended up isolating itself from an international effort to help Afghanistan stand on its own.

So its participation in the Chicago conference is a modest signal that it wants to rejoin the international consensus on Afghanistan. But it is only a small step. After perhaps the worst year in U.S.-Pakistan bilateral relations, the United States and Pakistan both need to take active steps to advance stability in the region. This requires both countries to change the way they do business. And it may require the United States at some point to build a broader international effort to address the challenges posed by Pakistan.

For Pakistan, one immediate question is whether it will reopen the NATO supply lines to Afghanistan it shut down after the air strike last year. The indications are those lines will reopen soon, and the United States and Pakistan continue negotiate over the financial terms of a reopening.

But more broadly, a long list of security issues require collaboration between the United States and Pakistan:

  • Unanswered questions about terrorist groups and militants including elements of the Afghan Taliban who use Pakistani territory to mount attacks
  • Whether Pakistan will fully cooperate with efforts to advance a peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan
  • Whether Pakistan can play a leadership role in building greater stability in the region’s security and economy

These are major issues, to be sure. But the United States needs to maintain relations with Pakistan given the important role it plays in shaping regional dynamics.

Pakistan’s internal dynamics are another reason for the United States to remain engaged. Just as we talk about the ongoing transition in Afghanistan, there is a very real prospect of some positive transitions inside of Pakistan in the coming years, as bleak as the past few years have been.

The parliamentary elections set to take place within the next 10 months offer a historic opportunity for Pakistan to hold the first peaceful democratic transition between elected governments since the country’s founding in 1947. The expiration of the senior military leaderships’ tenure in mid-2013 will also shake up the current civil-military and political dynamics in unexpected ways. Pakistan’s recent steps toward opening up trade with regional rival India is another sign of a possible evolution toward a more constructive approach.

Pakistan’s long-term stability ultimately depends on stronger democratic institutions that can hold Pakistani leaders accountable for the grievances and interests of a large population with complex challenges.

Even though the U.S.-Pakistan relationship remains focused on the security dimensions, supporting a possible democratic consolidation inside of Pakistan should remain a priority for the United States.

In order to do this, the United States needs to learn lessons from the last few years in Pakistan and make more investments in building “shock absorbers” for our bilateral ties. Millions of Pakistanis are clamoring for positive change in their own country’s policies and system, and building ties between different parts of our governments as well as expanding civil society and private-sector cooperation can help prepare us for further disruptions in bilateral ties and help Pakistanis build a more democratic society.

In particular, the Obama administration needs to develop a more functional and comprehensive interagency policy process on Pakistan. Right now too much of the focus is on what the U.S. military and intelligence agencies are seeking to accomplish, and the administration is not placing enough priority on what the State Department and civilian agencies like USAID are trying to do—which is to broaden and deepen U.S.-Pakistan ties beyond what our respective militaries and intelligence agencies do.

A return to the previous attempts of moving “beyond the transactional” relationship with Pakistan is impractical right now given mutual suspicions. But what U.S. diplomats are quietly attempting to do in their efforts to pragmatically support rebuilding U.S.-Pakistan ties is an essential part of a successful strategy to advance broader U.S. security interests and keep America safe.

At some point, as the United States and Pakistan continue to wrestle with the significant mistrust and dysfunction that plagues the bilateral relationship, the United States might look for ways to build a broader international group of countries that works together with Pakistan to address the significant internal divisions and problems it is facing.

A comprehensive “reset” of U.S.-Pakistan bilateral ties is not likely to take place anytime soon. But the United States needs to remain focused on an integrated policy approach that uses the full range of U.S. powers to deal with Pakistan. As the United States continues to transition out of Afghanistan, it will need to remain vigilant and seek new pathways forward with the country.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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