For decades, U.S. policy toward Pakistan has been predicated on America’s goals in Afghanistan. Pakistan both helped and hindered the U.S. war on terror, making for a notoriously dysfunctional relationship. Now the United States is out of Afghanistan, and the relationship is on shaky footing. It’s time to reimagine it.
The United States must treat Pakistan as a country in its own right, not as a fulcrum for U.S. policy on Afghanistan. That starts with America disentangling itself from the close military relationship with Pakistan.
A reset won’t be easy: Resentment is rife. America sees Pakistan’s support for the Taliban as one reason it lost in Afghanistan; Pakistan sees the Taliban insurgency it faced at home as blowback for partnering with America next door. In Washington the grim mood has led to talk of disengagement and sanctions. Neither approach will work or be satisfactory in the long run.
Pakistan, meanwhile, wants a broad-based relationship with the U.S. focused on geoeconomics — which is not realistic.
Instead, the Biden administration seems to be defaulting to the status quo: largely limiting engagement with Pakistan to Afghanistan, mostly for over-the-horizon counterterrorism options. This sets up a repetition of the old, failed cycle, missing the opportunity to steer Pakistan away from its own harmful overreliance on the military to a more productive future.
It would be smarter and safer for the United States to pivot to a multidimensional approach that acknowledges the realities of the country and its neighborhood. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country with a population of more than 220 million, neighboring not just Afghanistan but also Iran and Pakistan’s close friend China and nuclear-armed rival India. Pakistan faces immense domestic challenges, including with governance and terrorism. It also has unrealized economic potential.
The first and most important step to this pivot would be explicitly reducing American dependence on its usual partner in Pakistan: the military and intelligence services. While Pakistan’s military is perceived as more efficient than its civilian institutions, it has repeatedly shown that its incentives are not aligned with America’s.
U.S. reliance on Pakistan’s military has weighted the civilian-military equation — evidenced in how military spending accounts for about 16 percent of Pakistan’s annual expenditures. (U.S. military spending accounts for 11 percent.) Pakistan’s dominant military has kept active the specter of potential conflict with India, and its intelligence services have cultivated relationships with an array of dangerous nonstate armed actors.
A civilian-focused U.S. policy will help Pakistan begin to shift the balance away from its military and will, in the longer term, bolster Pakistan’s democracy. While that certainly won’t guarantee liberalism in Pakistan, it can in time curb approaches favored by the military — including relationships with jihadists — that have proved harmful for the region and Pakistan itself.
In practical terms, that will mean U.S. cabinet secretaries make fewer calls to Pakistani army chiefs and more to civilian ministers. It will mean that President Biden should finally make a long-awaited call to Pakistan’s prime minister to discuss China, India, counterterrorism and the economy, not just cooperation on Afghanistan.
There are risks to this approach. The military and intelligence services in Pakistan won’t be thrilled about this downgrade in their status, and they may choose to retaliate by reducing cooperation in areas like intelligence sharing or by limiting access to Pakistani airspace for counterterrorism operations. This approach might also seem to be asking the U.S. government to overlook past issues with Pakistan (especially its support of the Taliban) and will require a level of generosity that some believe Pakistan does not deserve. But the benefits from such a reset — stronger Pakistani civilian institutions, which will mean a more reliable partnership both diplomatically and militarily for the United States — will ultimately outweigh short-term risks.
Once America’s reliance on Pakistan’s military is explicitly and clearly reduced, U.S. policy toward Pakistan can be steered toward economic and other forms of engagement. This can be a step-by-step process.
First, America and Pakistan should look for avenues to boost trade. (The United States is Pakistan’s top export destination, but Pakistan is America’s 56th-largest trading goods partner.) Washington could, for example, provide technical support to industries like textiles while making clear Pakistan must produce and market its goods at competitive prices. Second, U.S. firms should be encouraged to consider investments in Pakistan — which could be a strong incentive for Pakistan to further improve its investment climate.
America can also engage with Pakistan in other ways, like helping it tackle its massive air pollution problem. Engagement that is not conditional on security concerns wins hearts and minds in Pakistan.
That’s not to say there won’t need to be an Afghanistan element to this new approach, given that America still needs Pakistan’s help for over-the-horizon counterterrorism options to deal with any threats from militant groups in Afghanistan. Plus, America wants Pakistan to withhold recognition of the Taliban. But it should be only one aspect — not all — of U.S.-Pakistan policy.
This new approach can reset the relationship in a constructive direction in the longer term, compared to the alternative: a policy menu of disengagement and sanctions.
Disengagement may satisfy Pakistan hawks in Washington, but it makes for disingenuous policy. It reduces America’s leverage with Pakistan in the event of a conflict with India and ignores the reality of Pakistan’s nuclear status and domestic struggle with terrorist groups. Disengagement also risks pushing Pakistan further into China’s arms, which is not inevitable. (China has promised Pakistan $62 billion under the Belt and Road initiative, though the project has seen slowdowns.)
As for sanctions: Not only did U.S. sanctions against Pakistan in the 1990s fail to curtail its nuclear program, but also Pakistan’s takeaway was to hedge against future American abandonment — which in turn partly contributed to its dual-track policy after 2001.
What’s more, a wealth of evidence shows broad-based sanctions make for ineffective foreign policy. And their effect is limited when other countries don’t sign on. More effective and multilateral tools exist to shape Pakistan’s behavior, like the Financial Action Task Force, an international watchdog monitoring terrorist financing. Its graylisting of Pakistan in 2018 prompted the country to crack down on Lashkar-e-Taiba and other jihadist groups.
To be fair, shifting the U.S. approach to Pakistan wholesale will not be easy. Decades of American policy have seen Pakistan squarely through the Afghanistan prism, and government inertia makes change difficult. Mr. Biden’s focus is on the Indo-Pacific. Critical statements by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan regarding the United States haven’t gone over well in Washington, and his move to skip Mr. Biden’s summit for democracy may have left a sour taste. Pakistan’s military won’t be happy. But such a policy change is possible, if done deliberately and done right.
This shift would be in line with the Biden administration’s foreign policy frame of great power competition, helpfully keeping Pakistan from gravitating further toward China.
Pakistan is simultaneously important and complicated. There is no magic bullet when it comes to reimagining a new policy, but the United States now has an opportunity to steer the relationship in a potentially more productive direction. Washington should give it a shot.
Madiha Afzal (@MadihaAfzal) is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her research focuses on America’s relationships with Pakistan and Afghanistan and on Pakistan’s politics and policy. She is the author of “Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State.”
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