Can US-Pakistan Relations Survive China’s Involvement?

Recent news that in a seemingly unprecedented move, the Trump administration froze most of the security aid to Pakistan due to its failure to curb terrorism shook the international community. The logic there was quite straight-forward: if Pakistan can’t or won’t do whatever it takes to secure the access to borders against terrorist infiltration, and harbors groups dangerous to the US and her allies, there is no reason to waste further money that could be better used elsewhere. Pakistan, meanwhile, seems positioned to try to have her cake and eat it too.

China is giving string-free money for big infrastructural projects, while the US, for decades, has been giving security money that in reality was appropriated by corrupt officials. ISI, the country’s shadowy security service, has been cultivating relationships with Islamist groups. The country’s conservative culture, coupled with an influx of poorly educated, foreign-trained imams, online propaganda, and proliferation of these groups has led to an increase in violent crimes against minority groups, women, and anyone deemed not religious enough or not conforming to social norms.  Pakistan has been waging war on atheism, and the government has not crackdown on local vigilanteism.

Blasphemy laws facilitated mob lynchings, as with a student beaten to death on campus after being accused of blasphemy. And despite new laws, honor killings continue unabated – with no effort by the government to facilitate education and culture reform. Same groups that contribute to the climate of hatred internally are responsible for mosque bombings, and other sectarian violence. However, suicide bombings are not contained locally; terrorists utilize porous borders with Afghanistan to launch attacks against both local targets and US troops.

Indeed, continuous attacks perpetuate destabilization and contribute to an already chaotic situation. to make things worse, there are state actors directly involved in the funding of some of these groups.  After 9/11, and during the Obama administration, Iran worked with US intelligence to hunt down some of the Sunni terrorist groups in the area. That was ironic, because simultaneously, Iran had been funding Fars and Shi’a terrorist groups, while also recruiting Afghanis into militia groups and “foreign legion” of fighters that are now active in Syria and hostile to US interest. Pakistan benefited from allowing high crime areas, smuggling, and terrorism to perpetuate.  Terrorism weakened its longtime rival, Afghanistan; there was a financial benefit to corrupt officials. The Pakistani government could also justify continuous and growing request for US security aid to fight the very same terrorists that were allowed to proliferate.

That such dubious alliance would come into question sooner or later should obvious to anyone who has observed the history of US-Pakistani relations. Indeed, although the US has not previously fully cut off Pakistan from aid, in the past it has refused to get involved or abet Pakistani efforts against India, even during the height of Cold War tensions when India was more closely aligned with the Soviet Union. Pakistan was part of a US-backed and largely perfunctory alliance against the Soviet Union; however, over time, Pakistan has changed its position and under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, moved to improve relations with Moscow.

Pakistan, however, continued backing the US and became a conduit for the supply of weapons to the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many of the mujahedeen moved to Pakistan to start the next phase of the holy war; some continued onwards to Bosnia, others remained local or went on to join the ranks of the growing Al Qaeda. By that point, Pakistan was trying to maintain independent relations with all sides in all conflicts – Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States. People like AQ Khan were later willing facilitators of Iran’s nuclear program, which the Shah had put aside, but which was rekindled after the Islamic Revolution.

US was willing to overlook the growing extremism in Pakistan and the funding of various groups during the Soviet Union. Pakistan’s acquisition of the nuclear weapons alongside India made US relations with both countries a delicate task. The 90s were largely an inward-looking period for the United States; there were no significant large-scale threats of the sort the Soviet Union had provided during the Cold War; and while international terrorism was already a worldwide phenomenon, it presented a relatively limited and isolated challenge to the United States.

9/11 was a real wake up call in that regard; however, despite the fact that much of Al Qaeda eventually relocated to Pakistan, and Osama bin Laden took cover there before finally being hunted down, the United States, perhaps out of habit, perhaps out of fear of having to face the world in which Pakistan is a foe, rather than a friend, continued to act as if Pakistan was an ally, and moreover, an ally in the War on Terrorism. Still, the US, as it is wont, pushed for some accountability with regards to human rights and counterterrorism, when allocating its security aid.  China, on the other hand, did not, and the moment US’s attention was elsewhere, moved in quickly to take advantage of an opportunity and coopt Pakistan as an ally.

China’s interests in Pakistan are multifold and include:

1. building a military base
2. part of the path in its ambitious Belt and Roads initiative
3. A bulwark against its primary regional rival India
4. A way to counter US influence in the region
5. An opportunity to raise her profile as a serious geopolitical player by playing peacemaker between Pakistan and Afghanistan (with someone misplaced trust and backing from the United States) – and engaging in trilateral dialogue aimed at resolving the territorial disputes and other differences between the two countries.
6. Furthering the path towards regional hegemony

Even China is not immune to terrorist threats and may find her interests threatened by the Pakistani extremists.  For now, however, economic interests, and the possibility of furthering its New Silk Road trump political risks. For that reason, China’s attitude towards internal Pakistani matters has been significantly laxer.  And with China’s generous promises, Pakistan has been emboldened to react to US ultimatums with countermeasures, including threats to cut off intelligence sharing, rather than with contrition and immediate steps towards addressing the demanded report. Curiously, however, the value of Pakistan’s intelligence has been in warnings against threats not generated by the attackers and suicide bombers it failed to prevent, but other threats by other groups and state actors.

Indeed, the challenge for the United States has been the duality of the seemingly cooperative government that would hold joint training with the United States, allow the passage of weapons through its territory,  and collaborate on various matters – and the ISI, which shared intelligence, but also cultivated the extremists of whom the US would have to learn from other sources. In other words, US finds herself in an interesting position in that neck of the woods – having to deal with several state actors perfectly willing to share intelligence on existing outside threats, while incapable or unwilling of controlling internal threats, and furthermore to some extent abetting them – all pointing at each other, and all running to the US to tattle on the others, while demanding support and praise for such “cooperation”.

Still, even if the current step taken by the Trump administration will save taxpayers the money otherwise used to subsidize corrupt Pakistani officials and human rights violations under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, it does not necessarily address the wider geopolitical repercussions of Pakistan’s increasingly failed state, and China’s role in its bailout.  To make, therefore, effective use of the status quo, the US should

Increase its military presence in the area. The US has had an exclusive use of an air force base in Sindh near the border with Baluchistan. The military has used the base since at least 2002 for drone strikes against terrorism. If US-Pakistani relations continue to deteriorate, and in particular, if Sino-Pakistani relations continue to grow, US may lose strategic access to this site. Though US and India relations have been growing, the likelihood of getting a military base there right now is not great, as India has not offered any other nation a military base since its independence. Perhaps, with time, it is a possibility worth aiming for.  However, for the time being, if the US wants to make good use of its money it should push  Bangladesh to allow a military base there. It will not be helpful as an exact alternative to the Sindh base, but it may provide additional back-up against Chinese encroachment and the disincentive for Chinese-Indian skirmishes at the borders.  Additionally, terrorist groups, perhaps inspired or connected to Pakistani ones, are proliferating in Bangladesh. Despite being the third largest recipient of US aid in Asia, Bangladesh has not been able to eradicate these extremist influences. Islamist politics in Bangladesh have always been independently violent; additionally, Pakistan has backed Islamist terrorist groups in Bangladesh as a military tactic that would use Bangladesh as a launching pad for attacks against India. The fact that the current government in Bangladesh refuses to acknowledge its terror groups’ global links does not bode well for the future.

Go after Pakistani corruption, off-shore accounts, and any government links to terrorist groups. Watch and support any reform-minded groups that in the future would be willing to battle this widespread phenomenon. Push Pakistan to get rid of blasphemy laws and pursue measurable reform in exchange for releasing funding. Private groups may play a positive role here by educating and empowering reform-minded Pakistanis and create an internal movement for change.

Be ready for the possibility that China’s investments in Pakistan may not pan out. Pakistan will be much more likely to cooperate if left with few options. If China disappoints, it will actually be in a more vulnerable position, as the extent of its own weakness will be revealed.
Work closely with India to eradicate terrorist presence in the area, whatever the source and whenever it will lead. US cannot afford to lead these groups to remain intact in Pakistan if the US has any hope of ever making progress in Afghanistan. And if these groups are behind attacks on US forces, and Pakistan refuses to deal with them, they are fair game for elimination even on Pakistani territory.

The insanity of the various state actors funding their own terrorists while informing the US about rival groups is the obvious reason for this self-perpetuating cycle of violence. There may be the little US can do about Iran at the current juncture, other than making any Iranian international adventures so costly to the Islamic Republic that it is finally forced to reconsider its priorities. However, US can and should work with Saudi Arabia to cut off the funding for the Deobandis and provide a much more moderate and thorough training to local imams. In fact, KSA, if it so wishes, can play a moderating influence on Pakistan, and likewise, put pressure on the country’s corrupt leadership to deal with the terrorist problem – at the cost of deteriorating relations. Balance should be kept from pushing Pakistan in the arms of Iran, which is already happening. Pakistan has concluded some defense treaties with the Islamic Republic. And as pressure from the United States increases, Iran may see Pakistan as more than just a temporary pragmatic tool and more as a strategic asset for undermining the US in the area. For that reason, top-level pressure should not be the only tool; soft power through private initiatives and grassroots influence is essential in combating further deterioration that can lead to significantly greater radicalization in the region.

Work with China to pressure Pakistan on terrorism. China’s leadership should be based on credible dedication to stability rather than the self-centered pursuit of a short-term advantage at the expense of region’s freedom, prosperity, and peace.  If China’s presence in Pakistan actually emboldens the government to ignore the issue of terrorism, China then becomes an enabler and part of the problem.

Increase our focus on human intelligence in the region; the less we depend on other state actors for vital information, the less we can be misled, betrayed, manipulated, or ignored. If we develop our own sources of intelligence, we can wield a lot more influence on all fronts.

Recognize that President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” was an abject and unacceptable failure, and once again, reorient our foreign policy towards that vital region, which includes increased encouragement for specialists, linguists, and cultural diplomacy and building of stronger relationships with neighboring countries to prevent the spillover effect from rotten apples.

Revisit the issue of TPP and multilateral treaties; China’s growing influence is directly connected to our own unwillingness to step up to the plate and play a leadership role on a variety of trade issues that would ultimately benefit us. That is not at all separate from the Pakistan issue; Pakistan gravitates to stronger actors – China is perceived as stronger and growing; and if it starts attaching strings to its investments, Pakistan is still more likely to lean towards Beijing than towards disaffected Washington which seems to view these interconnected issues in isolation.

There’s never a quick fix for long-festering problems; however, if we don’t want to end up living with yet another enemy that is growing stronger by virtue of support from other threats and rivals, we need to take affirmative, strategic, and long-term action to ensure the greatest possible knowledge, understanding, and control of the situation. If we remain passive in the face of growing threats, those threats will find us.

By Irina Tsukerman