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Pakistan, not Afghanistan, poses the most significant security threat in Central Asia. Pakistan is a nuclear state with a history of proliferation. If terrorists are going to acquire a nuclear weapon, their best chance to do so is in Pakistan, which provides them safe haven, and where they often work hand-in-hand with Pakistani intelligence services. A stronger civilian government in Pakistan that can govern effectively is essential to decreasing these security threats.

So what should we do?

Isolating Pakistan would only exacerbate these threats; so would putting our support exclusively behind the military and intelligence services. Instead, while maintaining our military ties, we need to focus on strengthening the civilian government.

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A Serious Threat

  • Pakistan poses a serious threat to American security.
  • It is a nuclear-armed country with an unstable civilian government.
  • Pakistan is the most likely place for a terrorist to get a nuclear weapon.
  • Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies have connections to terrorist groups.

Tough Choices

  • Pakistani support is essential to ending the war in Afghanistan.
  • Making our aid to Pakistan more effective is a better choice than ending it.
  • Our long term focus should be building the strength and influence of the civilian government.

Key Issues

Pakistan is a nuclear state with a history of proliferation.

Pakistani scientists developed a nuclear weapon and then began selling that technology on the black market to countries like Iran, Libya under Qaddafi, and North Korea. Internal fissures in the Pakistani government and the presence of extremists in northwestern Pakistan raise questions about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile. If al Qaeda were to acquire nuclear material, it would most likely come from Pakistan.

See also: WMD Nonproliferation

Elements in Pakistan’s military and intelligence services support terrorist groups.

Pakistan’s military positions itself as the only effective counterweight to extremist organizations. It is true that the Pakistani military has fought some of these groups. However, elements in the military and intelligence services (“Inter-Services Intelligence,” or ISI) have also created, supported, and bankrolled regional terrorist groups. Top generals in Pakistan’s military—including individuals who work closely with the U.S.—are among thost supporting these extremist groups.

Pakistan supports these organizations as a low-cost means of fighting and deterring India, which they view as their greatest threat. Pakistan’s fear of India fuels its continued support for terrorist organizations, despite the fact that these groups have de facto control over large swaths of Pakistani territory and have increasingly begun to turn on their hosts, attacking Pakistani government targets.

Key Fact

Drone strikes eliminate individual terrorists, but don’t stop state support for terrorism and may increase government instability.

Pakistan plays a key role in a political solution for Afghanistan.

Pakistan has been playing both sides of the coin in Afghanistan. They fear a strong Afghanistan allied with India—for that reason, they support extremist groups who keep Afghanistan unstable, using the country as a buffer against India.

Because they have a strategic interest in the future of Afghanistan, Pakistan must be involved in peace talks or they will be meaningless. Many of the most dangerous insurgent groups, including the well-known Haqqani network, operate on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and use Pakistan as a safe haven.

See also: Afghanistan

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, a.k.a. drones) in Pakistan have proven tactically effective but not strategically decisive.

The U.S. has sharply escalated its use of strikes by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, known as drones) in Pakistan since 2010, and is estimated to have killed hundreds if not thousands of militants. These drone strikes have taken a significant toll on al Qaeda and other extremist groups. But drone strikes also lead to civilian deaths, cause rifts in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, and may lead to increased extremist recruitment. President Obama announced in May 2013 that armed drones would be under the purview of our military through the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) instead of the CIA. This change allows for greater congressional oversight and must be fully implemented. Guided by a strong system of checks and balances, targeted strikes by UAVs should be nested in a larger regional strategy for countering violent extremism that also incorporates diplomacy, development, and security cooperation.

Pakistan is essential to ensuring Afghanistan doesn’t become a terrorist safe haven again.

The Policy Landscape and Recommendations

The United States needs to work with Pakistan, even though it’s complicated.

Without Pakistan’s cooperation, Afghanistan will never stabilize. Pakistan has ties to many of the groups we are fighting in Afghanistan and is able to effectively veto efforts to make peace when it chooses, even if the Afghans involved wish to end the fighting. Meanwhile, we need to work with Pakistan to ensure their nuclear weapons are secure, to continue dealing with al Qaeda in Pakistan, and to ensure that the extremism in that country does not spawn more anti-American terrorist organizations or recruits.

Focusing on the military relationship alone is not enough.

Some, seeing the civilian government as corrupt and ineffective, would prefer to work only with the Pakistani military. But our ultimate interest is a stable government in Pakistan. That goal is harmed by increasing the power and prestige of the military and intelligence sectors at the expense of the civilian government. Historically, frequent intervention by the military, including several coups since independence in 1947, has destabilized the country and prevented political stability.

Support the civilian government.

The U.S. should balance our relationship with Pakistan’s government away from the military and towards support for the civilian government. Pakistan has been ruled by its military for over half of its existence. For too long, the U.S. tacitly supported the military’s efforts to undermine civilian rule as the price for keeping Pakistan safe from extremism. Even now, with established civilian authority, the military still sets foreign and national security policy. This has allowed the military to manipulate Islamist groups in the country to advance its own goals, while contributing to the weakness of civilian institutions and authority.

Secure Pakistani nuclear weapons.

Pakistan believes that we want to eliminate their nuclear weapons. America’s greatest concern, however, is securing Pakistan’s nuclear material to prevent nuclear terrorism. President Obama set a goal of securing all loose nuclear material worldwide, and his administration has prioritized programs that will do so. We should work with Pakistan to reassure them that we will not remove their weapons, but rather help the government to make their weapons secure.

Work with Pakistan to eliminate extremist safe havens.

Terrorists move through northwestern Pakistan with relative freedom. From there they gather resources, recruit new extremists, and plan attacks against our troops in Afghanistan. To continue a mutually productive relationship with the U.S., Pakistan must take responsibility for what occurs within its borders by either enforcing law and order itself, or by allowing other countries to defend themselves within Pakistan’s ungoverned provinces.  Negotiating with these groups has proven unfruitful; military and intelligence services must continue to root out extremists within Pakistan’s borders. Military cooperation between Pakistani and Afghan security forces will be critical to denying these fighters a safe along the border.

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Policy Choices

  • Work with Pakistan to stabilize Afghanistan, restart peace talks, and secure their nuclear weapons.
  • Ending aid would make things worse.
  • Make our assistance smarter and predicated on improvements in governance.
  • Work with the civilian government to create a more stable partner.

Key Fact

The civilian leadership of Pakistan has considerably less power and influence than the military, which has overthrown civilian governments multiple times since the country’s independence in 1947.

Ending assistance to Pakistan would make things worse.

Absent economic development in tribal areas, extremist groups fill the void and provide charity and schooling to win recruits. Additionally, oil-rich countries in the Persian Gulf fund thousands of schools and mosques that feed extremism and buy the support of the poor. It is in our interest to provide development support that builds a more stable country, avoiding far more costly military operations. Moreover, the Pakistanis already consider the U.S. a “fair-weather friend;” completely cutting off aid would only feed anti-Americanism.

Make our assistance work better and increase trade.

Our aid would be more effective if we funded government projects through reimbursements after they are completed, rather than giving aid on a promise to act. This reform, spearheaded by the Center for Global Development, is called “cash-on-delviery.” We also need to ensure that significant assistance is focused specifically on strengthening the country’s civilian government’s ability and accountability so that it can be a more reliable partner. Examples of this include creating effective civil society oversight groups to reduce government corruption and strengthening the role and culture of a free and responsible press to avoid ISI and military press manipulation. Finally, we should work to increase trade with Pakistan, not just aid. Trade helps strengthen the country’s middle class and is the foundation for prosperity over the long term.

It is imperative that U.S. resources do not end up funding weapons used against our servicemembers in Afghanistan. Therefore, we must be careful about how we allocate U.S. military aid to Pakistan and re-evaluate how much military assistance we provide.

 Ending development programs in Pakistan would mean leaving it to the terrorist groups recruiting against us.

Key People

Nawaz Sharif (Nah-WAS shah-REEF). As Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Sharif won 124 out of 272 seats in Parliament in the May 2013 elections. He is the leader of the Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and, as owner of the business conglomerate Ittefaq Group, he is also one of Pakistan’s wealthiest men. Sharif served as Prime Minister from November 1990 to July 1993, and then again from February 1997 until he was ousted in October 1999 in a bloodless coup orchestrated by General Pervez Musharraf. Sharif was elected in 2013 on promises to transform Pakistan’s infrastructure and economy, and to tackle the rampant corruption that has plagued the country. Sharif’s landslide victory in the 2013 Parliamentary elections allows him to govern without having to form a coalition. Besides grappling with domestic issues, Sharif has sought to improve historically thorny relations with India and the United States; he has also publically condemned the use of drones by the U.S. in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt.

Asif Ali Zardari (AH-seef AH-lee zahr-DAH-ree).  Zardari stepped down as President of Pakistan in 2013, becoming the first civilian president to finish a term of office without a coup or assassination. He was elected after the death of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, the scion of an illustrious political family. He is credited with returning civilian rule to Pakistan after forcing Pervez Musharraf’s resignation and with leading constitutional reforms to limit presidential power over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. However, Zardari was also popularly known as “Mr. Ten Percent” in reference to allegations about corruption. He now heads the opposition Pakistan People’s Party.

General Ashfaq Kayani (ASH-fahk kai-AH-nee). General Kayani is consistently ranked as one of the most powerful people in the world. Until November 2013, he had been Pakistan’s Army Chief, the Pakistani equivalent of the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. He previously served as Director of the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Kayani had been a key interlocutor for many leaders in the U.S., but many Pakistan experts and Pakistani civil society leaders believe he actively plays both sides of the coin, supporting terrorist organizations and insurgent groups as a hedge against rival Indian influence.

Imran Khan (IM-ran KAHN). Khan, a former national cricket champion, emerged in 2012 as one of Pakistan’s most popular political leaders. After studying at Oxford and then leading Pakistan’s cricket team in the 1992 World Cup, Khan formed Pakistan’s Tehrik-i-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) political party, which has campaigned on promises to crack down on corruption. He has led protests against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Both a reformer and a critic of the West, he made a respectable showing in Pakistan’s 2013 elections.

Iftikhar Chaudhry (IF-tik-ar CHOW-dree). Chaudhry became Pakistan’s Chief Justice in 2005 until he was replaced in December 2013 by Tassaduq Hussain Jillani.  His suspension by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2007, after a series of rulings challenging Musharraf’s authority, sparked a nationwide movement for judicial independence that helped lead to Musharraf’s eventual downfall. Chaurdhry was reinstated as Chief Justice in 2009. He was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012, and continues to preside over Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

The Haqqani Network (Hah-KON-ee). Led by Jalaludin Haqqani and his sons, the Haqqani Network is a Taliban network with close affiliations with al Qaeda, and a relationship with Pakistan’s ISI. It has engaged in multiple attacks in Afghanistan against coalition forces and civilians in recent years, operating primarily out of havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan; it is estimated to have about 3,000 fighters and operatives. In September 2012, the U.S. State Department designated the Haqqani Network as a foreign terrorist organization. The Network has, however, recently indicated a willingness to participate in peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

Ayman al-Zawahiri (EYE-mahn al zah-WAH-ree). Following bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri was named as al Qaeda’s leader. Zawahiri is an Egyptian surgeon, founder of the terrorist group Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and, in 1981, was part of an attempted coup in Egypt. He was imprisoned and tortured for his role in the operation. Zawahiri served as bin Laden’s operational and strategic commander before bin Laden’s death. He is more controversial and less charismatic than bin Laden and, as a result, he is not universally accepted within the global network. Zawahiri is believed to be hiding in Pakistan.

Going Deep: Background

Pakistan views the world through its relationship with India.

Pakistan and India fought three full-scale wars, and relations between the two nuclear powers have been bitter since the two countries gained independence from Britain in 1947. They frequently clash over Kashmiri sovereignty and access to water resources. Pakistan also fears a strong Afghan state that has close relations with India.

Throughout the Cold War, America tended to be closer to Pakistan, which was aligned against the anti-religious Soviets. India was non-aligned, but its centralized and subsidized economy leaned towards the Soviet Union. In recent years, America has leaned towards India with its robust democracy, and away from Pakistan. Wary of this change, Pakistan now views the U.S. as “pro-India” and is increasingly suspicious of U.S. intentions.

Pakistan developed nuclear weapons in an arms race with India.

Pakistan became a nuclear state because of its rivalry with India, which had also illicitly developed nuclear weapons. The key scientist in Pakistan’s nuclear program, A.Q. Khan, also became the world’s greatest nuclear proliferator on the black market. Khan sold technology to Iran, Libya under Qaddafi, and North Korea.

Pakistan supports terrorist groups to destabilize India.

In a conventional conflict against India, Pakistan would be greatly outnumbered and highly disadvantaged. To even the playing field, Pakistan continues to expand its nuclear program, while elements within the government support terrorist groups that could destabilize India.

Mutual distrust lingers in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

Pakistan does not trust U.S. intentions in Afghanistan, and the U.S. is frustrated by Pakistan’s support of extremists. Yet both sides still need each other. Pakistan relies on U.S. arms sales for its military technology and on U.S. aid for its economy; the U.S. needs Pakistani cooperation to root out terrorists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Pakistan views the U.S. as a fair-weather friend.

U.S. assistance and commitments to Pakistan have been inconsistent over the years. We have a history of providing assistance when it’s in our interest and not providing it when it isn’t. The Pakistanis also believe we will abandon the region after our commitments in Afghanistan end, so they continue to hedge their bets to ensure future influence.

The U.S. has provided significant aid since 2008—but conditionality sparked resistance in Pakistan.

The U.S. has tripled non-military aid to Pakistan since 2008, and conditioned it on progress in improving democratic institutions and combating extremist militancy. Through the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, Congress committed $1.5 billion per year in aid to Pakistan over 5 years. However, worries about Pakistani corruption and poor governing capacity have slowed delivery of these funds.  Greater assistance to civil society and cash-on-deliver programs would improve getting assistance to where it is needed. The ISI does not like conditionality, which threatens its power. It manipulated Pakistani media to paint a negative picture of this conditionality, sparking riots against our assistance.

Anti-Americanism fuels extremism and affects the perception of any American actions in Pakistan.

Pakistan has a young population in dire need of jobs, food, and hope. The lack of opportunity combined with anti-Americanism creates a dangerous situation where young Pakistanis are more likely to turn to extremist groups that provide things the state cannot. In the past, U.S. favorability has gone up for short periods of time only to quickly return to low levels. ISI manipulation of the press makes it difficult to change these attitudes.

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship deteriorated rapidly in 2011.

In 2011 and 2012, a number of catastrophic events showed how quickly our relationship with Pakistan can deteriorate. In January 2011, a CIA contractor tracking militant groups in Pakistan killed two Pakistanis and was imprisoned for two months. In May 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in a compound in Abbottabad, about a half-mile from Pakistan’s premier military academy. In September 2011, Pakistani-connected Taliban attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and in November, a U.S. airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers who American forces claim were shooting at U.S. troops. The U.S. expressed regret for the deaths but did not formally apologize until July 2012.

Pakistan responded by closing military transportation routes into Afghanistan; it also closed a base used to launch U.S. drone strikes and boycotted an international conference on Afghanistan. And in May 2012, a Pakistani tribal court convicted a doctor of treason for having worked with the CIA in an attempt to collect DNA samples from Bin Laden’s compound. In July 2012, however, negotiations succeeded in reopening the supply routes. In return, the U.S. released more than a billion dollars in military reimbursements to Pakistan that it had frozen in the past year.

Unless we work to increase civilian control and bolster a free press, a young generation of Pakistanis will grow up in a nuclear country hating America.