Brinksmanship Renewed: The Current Phase of U.S.-Pakistani Relations

August 9, 2016

It is clear that relations between Pakistan and the United States are deteriorating once again. The May 2016 drone strike that killed Mullah Mansour in Balochistan ushered in another round of questions about the life expectancy of the bilateral relationship amid harder bargaining and brinkmanship between the two countries. These relations have been zigzagging from high to low for a long time. Both states have managed to avoid complete breakdown since resuscitating the relationship after 9/11. Even if the United States and Pakistan are able to avoid a complete breakdown, it will only postpone the reckoning for a future date. Neither side has given any indication of making a fundamental change in its approach to the other or on the policies and actions over which the two countries disagree.

A History of Mistrust

Pakistani-U.S. relations have always been based mainly on opposition to other actors rather than trust and commonality of long-term goals and interests. Throughout the Cold War, the on-again, off-again alliance was against the Soviet Union, though Pakistan used it to balance against India. This trend has continued and arguably gotten worse in the post-9/11 era. The relationship has most frequently been referred to tactical or transactional. Both side have managed their bilateral relations rather well considering the mutual suspicions, mistrust, and divergence of views on the region and on the purpose and scope of counterterrorism cooperation. Pakistani decision-makers look with suspicion at growing U.S. relations with India and view this relationship through the zero-sum dynamics of the region. America’s policy of keeping its relations with Pakistan separate from its relations with India is neither understood nor accepted in the Pakistani establishment.

Pakistan has always feared being sandwiched between two hostile states: India to the east and Afghanistan to the west. As a result, its Afghan policy has always been driven in part by the desire to keep India out of Afghanistan. The Taliban era is the only time in modern history when Pakistan managed to accomplish this objective. Pakistani decision-makers believe that the U.S./NATO presence in Afghanistan has facilitated Indian influence in Afghanistan and view the U.S. targeting of the Taliban through this prism. Pakistan thus finds it difficult to give up totally on the Afghan Taliban, though fears of a domestic backlash are also relevant. This reluctance feeds U.S. mistrust of Pakistan, to say the least.

In U.S. foreign policy circles, there is an ongoing debate whether to continue partnering with Pakistan or give up on it. The view from Pakistan is that those who argue for dumping the relationship gained strength after the Taliban took control of Kunduz. It was retaken only with active U.S. military support and the whole affair probably contributed to the decision by the United States to abandon its planned 2016 complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. This incident must be viewed within the context of ongoing U.S. anger over Pakistani support for the Haqqani network and frustration about Pakistan’s failure to deliver on a peace settlement in Afghanistan. After Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the United States banked on Pakistan’s cooperation to deliver the Taliban, the continued Taliban offensive and the Quadrilateral Group’s failure to make any breakthroughs in negotiations have led the United States and Afghanistan to give up any hope for a settlement in the near term.

Mounting Tensions All Around

The targeting killed of Mullah Mansour followed two other points of friction: the U.S. refusal to subsidize the sale of F-16 fighters and the brief closure of the Torkham border in response to armed skirmishes. Although the skirmishes and border closing are technically a matter between Pakistan and Afghanistan, these incidents have direct bearing on Pakistan’s role in counterterrorism. The United States also cares about bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, because improved relations are necessary for reducing violence and ultimately reaching a peace settlement. The refusal by the U.S. Congress to subsidize the sale of F-16s after others in the government promised to do so was a sign of U.S. frustration and contributed to tensions. The same is true for decisions to once again condition a portion of U.S. reimbursements on action against the Afghan Taliban, specifically the Haqqani Network.

Then came the drone strike on Mullah Mansour. Independent analysts considered close to the military and government spokesmen saw this as clear evidence that the United States wanted to pressure Pakistan. After announcing an enquiry into how an Afghan got a Pakistan National Identity Card and passport, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar reiterated the original Foreign Office condemnation of the drone strike as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Sartaj Aziz, a senior advisor to the prime minister, called the United States a selfish friend, and Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif demanded the United States launch drone strikes against the Pakistani Taliban inside Afghanistan. These condemnations and demands should be seen as evidence of tough bargaining by Pakistan intended to blunt U.S. pressure and a sign that Pakistani decision-makers will not budge when it comes to action against the Afghan Taliban or its approach to a peace settlement in Afghanistan.

The question is whether both sides will stop short of total breakdown or control the worsening relations as they did on a number of occasions since 2001. The last glaring example of this tightrope walk was the Salala episode in 2011. In November of that year, U.S. jets bombed a Pakistani guard post, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers and resulting in a serious crisis in bilateral relations. Pakistan refused permission of the use of its territory for NATO supplies to Afghanistan until the United States offered a formal apology. The crisis ended after what I termed then an episode of hard bargaining between the two sides. Although Salala almost caused a full rupture, current conditions may be ripe for an even bigger crisis that would be harder to diffuse.

This is not just a two-player game. Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan are also mounting. In May, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani withdrew requests for Pakistani assistance on negotiations and instead demanded action against Afghan Taliban. Pakistan for its part sought to pressure Afghanistan by fencing and enforcing their shared border at Torkham, triggering a military confrontation that included cross-border fire and the aforementioned border sealing for a few days. This episode ended with the direct intervention by Gen. Sharif. The return of Afghan territory at Angoor Adda (also directed by Gen. Sharif), an action which could have helped thaw relations, was forgotten amid the tensions.

These tensions grew amid new border management practices initiated by Pakistan at Torkham in June. The new practices entail putting a stop to centuries-old free movement of tribes divided by the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This traffic increased considerably after 1990, when Afghan refugees started visiting Afghanistan, but not returning completely. Many Afghan men also began going to work in Afghanistan, but kept their families inside Pakistan. A large number of patients also started coming to Peshawar without visas. While Pakistan did not close the Torkham border crossing and had just started implementing normal and legal border crossing, the suddenness of these new actions without any reasonable warning created ill will. The latest round of clashes started when Pakistan began constructing a gate after first refusing entry to anyone without a visa. Pakistani policymakers calculated that pressuring Kabul would result in pressure on Americans.

Differential Leverage

Despite new pressure, Pakistan feels confident the United States will not cross the red line and totally give up on the bilateral relationship. The United States not only needs Pakistan for its Afghanistan and global counterterrorism policies, but it also cannot afford the collapse of Pakistan, a state larger than Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria put together and in possession of nuclear weapons. The collapse of the Pakistani state would create challenges requiring far more resources relative to American engagement in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria. Pakistan’s confidence has been beefed up by an increasing Chinese stake in its security as a result of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is central to China’s policy covering 60 countries. The caveat in this calculation is that United States and China share concerns about terrorism and Taliban. They also both want a peaceful Afghanistan under the current constitutional dispensation.

Pakistan could have improved its position with support from Russia, which considers the Islamic State a bigger threat than the Taliban. However, Russia is not a comparably sized player to China and the United States in the region. More importantly, Russia would not give up on India for the sake of Pakistan regardless of its concerns about the Islamic State.

Pakistan and the United States appear to be moving to manage bilateral relations without letting go of mutual mistrust. Senator John McCain’s (R-AZ) visited Islamabad just after Gen. Sharif’s statement about not permitting Pakistani soil to be used against Afghanistan, which was followed by a U.S. airstrike against a Pakistani-wanted terrorist. The U.S. Congressional hearing that asked “Pakistan, friend or foe?” strengthened the argument inside the United States to be stricter with Pakistan and not just postpone the breakdown if Pakistan does not relent. The blocking of $300 million of Coalition Support Funds in response to Pakistan’s inaction against the Haqqanni network is a further message of U.S. resolve to make Pakistan change its policy.

The crisis in U.S.-Pakistani bilateral relations has up till now been postponed, but never resolved. Both sides are calling each other’s bluff without wanting a complete breakdown of relations. The United States has to calculate which course of action costs more; staying engaged in Afghanistan and relying on Pakistan help while using sticks and carrots to increase Pakistani cooperation, or giving up on Pakistan and trying to find other alternatives. Pakistan continues to bank on the United States’ believing that giving up is too risky. In this diplomatic brinksmanship or bargaining, if the United States backs down, the two sides will continue postponing rather than resolving their issues. Life will go on until the next such stalemate, though each stalemate will be more serious than its predecessor. At some point, the relationship will break down with far more serious consequences for all. If Pakistan backed down on its policy of not acting against the Afghan Taliban, this would change the entire dynamics of the region. Pakistan has not given any indication it is willing to consider this course. Instead, like the United States, it is trying to manage the relationship as best as possible and postpone the impending crisis rather than resolving the factors that will trigger it.


Ijaz Khan is a Professor of International Relations at University of Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. He is author of Pakistan’s Strategic Culture and Foreign Policy Making: An Analysis of Pakistan’s Post 9/11 Afghan Policy in addition to a number of publications on Pakistani foreign policy, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Pakistan’s Afghan policy and Pakhtun politics.

Image: Pakistan Army