The relationship between America and Pakistan is nearing a crisis point.
The Obama administration’s justified frustration over a variety of military and diplomatic issues has led to the suspension of up to $800 million in military aid — more than a third of the $2 billion in security assistance U.S. taxpayers send annually to our ally.
Among American complaints are that Pakistan has made it difficult to maximize this investment by denying visas to Americans who are needed to operate some of the military materiel, as well as by expelling U.S. military trainers sent to teach the Pakistani security services how to best use the equipment.
What’s more, early indications are that elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus are implicated in the kidnapping, torture and murder of a Pakistani journalist, Saleem Shahzad. If these allegations are true, the incident could trigger the Leahy Amendment, which cuts off funds to foreign security forces guilty of human rights abuses. Re-establishing them would require a waiver from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
It’s also true that Pakistan, despite billions in U.S. aid, has been reluctant to truly take the fight to extremists within the country. Many take sanctuary in Pakistan after fighting U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan. The proposed cuts led Pakistan’s defense minister to threaten to pull troops from near the Afghan border.
This litany of grievances — and there are others — raises a fundamental question: Why not just cut off aid altogether? After all, the extremists are targeting Pakistan’s government even more directly than they are the United States. And our fiscal crises highlight the need to cut wasteful spending.
While tempting, it would be unwise to cut off Pakistan altogether.
Despite being reluctant warriors, Pakistani forces can help protect our troops in Afghanistan even with a depleted effort. The Obama administration has announced a planned drawdown in Afghanistan that will accelerate in the next few years. Pressuring the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaida, and the equally extremist Haqqani network with NATO troops to the west and an eastern presence of Pakistani troops facilitates an orderly exit out of Afghanistan.
Pakistan is also the major supply route for our Afghan war effort. Losing those routes would further endanger our troops, and spike the war’s cost considerably, as the alternatives are vastly more expensive.
With America showing more willingness to target extremists than the Pakistanis, it’s important to maintain the freedom to use Predator drones to conduct airstrikes in Pakistan, which the public and government do not like but tolerate.
Despite our protests, Pakistan is a nuclear power; we have a vital national interest in ensuring that these weapons do not fall into the wrong hands. Extremists might use them against India or Israel or both, igniting conflicts into which we would be inevitably drawn.
The Obama administration is right to withhold the military aid as leverage to get satisfactory resolutions to the military issues plaguing the relationship. For their part, Pakistani civilian and military leaders need to realize that a full breakdown in our alliance would create a direct threat to their government.
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship will never be like the “special relationship” between Britain and America. It won’t even be like the strained relationship between Israel and the United States. But it has to be a working relationship, because the lives of our troops, and millions of others in the region, depend on it.
The Star Tribune (Minneapolis), July 17