THE BLOG

Hope for a New Paradigm in U.S.-Pakistani Relations?

01/27/2014 10:55 am ET | Updated Mar 29, 2014

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates drew attention on the subcontinent when he wrote in his recently released memoir that -- even as he defended Pakistan before Congress -- he knew Pakistan was "really no ally at all." The book has attracted its share of controversy, and this comment can certainly be interpreted provocatively. But it is more productively understood as a blunt statement of the paradigm of mutual mistrust that has long characterized U.S.-Pakistani relations.

U.S. efforts to develop a new paradigm should rest on three complementary strategic prongs. First, and somewhat paradoxically, Washington can better achieve its security goals by reducing its rhetorical emphasis on counterterrorism and dehyphenating the "Af-Pak" construct. Second, Washington should further develop avenues of engagement with Islamabad across a broad spectrum of economic and political initiatives in order to obtain more long-term leverage on security issues. Third, the United States should promote commercial and cultural exchanges that strengthen the sections of Pakistani civil society who want to deepen democracy and temper anti-American and anti-Indian sentiments.

There is no question that security is and should be the primary U.S. priority in the region. With the drawdown from Afghanistan underway, and the details of force reduction still uncertain, Pakistan will play a pivotal role as a regional stabilizer or de-stabilizer. But a relentless spotlight on security and clearly divergent views on counterterrorism strategies (most notably on the use of drones in Pakistani territory) have eroded trust and hampered security cooperation.

A security-centric dialogue undermines Pakistanis who envision a less military-dominated future while incentivizing some deep state actors who believe that "managed" instability keeps the Pakistani military and intelligence services indispensable to the United States. "Af-Pak" has become a shorthand statement of counterterrorism challenges and a concept that restricts U.S.-Pakistani engagement to matters on which the two countries have little common ground.

Short of simply ignoring Pakistan, the United States has little choice but to widen the lens of the bilateral relationship. Experienced observers of the region advocate for de-emphasizing Af-Pak and pursuing broader engagement that recognizes Pakistan's role as an important strategic and economic player in Asia. Just as the decision to dehyphenate "India-Pakistan" in U.S. policy bore dividends for Washington's relationships with New Delhi, so might another conceptual decoupling create space for enduring, if comparatively modest, engagements with Pakistan. The bilateral relationship, long built around weapons and cash transfers, has been defined by Islamabad's fear that the Washington will promptly forget its partner whenever American interest in a regional security issue begins to wane. Dehyphenation and broader engagement would help to allay this concern.

Investing in a multi-faceted relationship might also create more powerful incentives for Pakistan to better tackle pressing security challenges. To that end, it is encouraging that both countries have revived a broader strategic dialogue that foundered over the past few years. On January 27, Secretary Kerry will host Pakistani National Security and Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz to take stock of the bilateral relationship and identify opportunities for collaboration across a range of issues "including law enforcement and counterterrorism, economic growth and finance, energy, defense, and strategic stability."

This meeting represents a modest step. But even ambitious new initiatives across the public and private sectors won't build paradigm-changing trust if Pakistan's domestic environment does not change. Pakistan is embroiled in a tortured internal political struggle that Bruce Riedel has called a "battle for the soul" of the nation. One issue at the center of this battle is the Pakistani state's ambivalent view of militants and its willingness to distinguish "good" terrorists from "bad" ones. This penchant for militant groups (sometimes encouraged by pre-2001 U.S. policy) has its roots in the birth of Pakistan and India during the horror of Partition. The countries' founding ideologies continue to resonate powerfully.

In his recent book about India's surprisingly enduring democracy, Ashutosh Varshney observes that India was built on a pluralist and largely inward-looking vision. India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, believed that a deeply diverse India should pursue a unifying program of economic development and social justice. India's early identity, at least in official terms, was defined more by a vision of democratic pluralism than by a focus on foreign policy.

By contrast, the young Pakistani state's central narrative was defined by martial opposition to the Indian "other," a symbol against which Pakistani identity had to be forged and re-forged. In Husain Haqqani's words, the "new country's national identity was being shaped around hatred of India and vague appeals to Islamic sentiment." A nation that needed to embrace economic development and diversity as much as India instead looked outward for a unifying principle, preoccupied with existential and ideological threats (both real and imagined) emanating from its larger neighbor.

These different views are not immutable or representative of supposedly "essential" Indian or Pakistani characteristics so often invented in ugly debates. But they do reflect the enduring legacies that state narratives of nationhood leave on governance and geopolitics. Pakistan and its civilian government must struggle against military-dominated history. Washington's role is limited to encouraging a range of commercial and social relationships -- both within Pakistan and across borders -- that promote diversification of the Pakistani economy and implicitly challenge a narrow conception of Pakistani identity.

The need for a paradigm shift in the bilateral relationship appears to be an idea whose time has come within the U.S. foreign policy community. A revived U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue has the potential to launch a different kind of strategic framework. Both Islamabad and Washington should embrace the opportunity.