Michael KreponRupture and Betrayal

Quote of the week:

“We will insist that Pakistan take decisive action against militant and terrorist groups operating from its soil.”

–Trump Administration’s “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” December 2017

Another rupture, another sense of betrayal. U.S.-Pakistan relations have once again reached a low point with the Trump administration’s decision to withhold most funding for military assistance. This announcement has generated even deeper antagonism toward the United States within Pakistan, where the consensus view is that Pakistan is being scapegoated for Washington’s difficulties in Afghanistan. Within the United States, the consensus view holds that Pakistan has been playing a double game – accepting U.S. counter-terrorism funding while supporting the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network – for long enough.

Is this rift more significant than before, and is it repairable? My short answers to these questions are ‘yes,’ and that repair is unlikely until there is a major shift in either Pakistani or U.S. policies or until another jolt on the subcontinent or elsewhere mandates policy change. Absent changes in policy toward Afghanistan – which means changed conceptions of acceptable outcomes – in one or both countries, the quagmire will continue and losses in blood, treasure, and international standing will mount.

The recurrence of diplomatic ruptures, like dread diseases, takes a cumulative toll. Every rupture makes it harder to generate the political support needed to undertake repair work. The last U.S. initiative for a new start in bilateral relations was the 2009 Kerry-Lugar-Berman initiative. This initiative gained traction because Washington wanted to help in the transition from a military- to a civilian-led government. Before that, Washington agreed to lift sanctions imposed after the 1990 Pressler Amendment and the 1998 nuclear tests because of the 9/11 attacks. Washington suddenly needed Pakistan’s help to take on al Qaeda and was willing to pay for that help. Pakistan needed help to remove the stain for backing the Taliban which gave Osama bin Laden shelter and to avoid the down-side risks of rejecting the Bush administration’s not-so-veiled threats.

According to the apolitical Congressional Research Service, since 2001, the U.S. Congress appropriated $19 billion in non-military assistance to Pakistan, of which $15 billion was disbursed. In addition, the Congress appropriated $14.6 billion in military assistance. These sums are considered generous in the United States, but not in Pakistan, which claims it has spent over $120 billion countering domestic terrorism. Pakistan’s sacrifices and successes in countering groups like the Pakistan Taliban are appreciated in the United States, but credit is discounted because these groups were unwisely nurtured before they became a threat to Pakistani sovereignty.

This latest rupture in U.S.-Pakistan ties was preceded by numerous warnings, including by this author, that Pakistan’s national-security policies placed it on a collision course with changing U.S. attitudes. Initially, Pakistan gained credit by joining the United States in taking down al Qaeda leaders soon after the 9/11 attacks. However, Pakistan began to lose U.S. support after these initial collaborative successes when its decision makers turned their primary focus on securing equities in Afghanistan and blocking Indian inroads there. The presence of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad and his killing by U.S. Special Forces created large trust deficits that grew with subsequent incidents.

At the official level, Pakistani frustrations were muffled by the desire to avoid a complete rift and by the influx of fungible U.S. military assistance, which equaled one-eighth of the Pakistan military’s public budget. American frustrations were muffled by a dependence on Pakistan’s logistical support for its significant troop presence in Afghanistan and other important agenda items, including helping Pakistan’s armed forces when they belatedly turned against the Pakistan Taliban.

Even so, the writing was on the wall when, ten years after the 9/11 attacks, Admiral Mike Mullen, who worked assiduously to alter Pakistan’s Afghan policy during his tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly acknowledged failure at a Congressional hearing. “The Haqqani Network,” he concluded, “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.” This was an oversimplification, but hardly anyone was in the mood to offer qualifications.

For the remaining five years of the Obama administration, U.S. officials struggled to convince Pakistan to take specified, observable steps to demonstrate a changed approach toward the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis. These efforts, like those before, came aground because of fundamental differences over who should wield real power in Afghanistan’s future. (Power-sharing not having a great track record in Kabul.) As the Obama administration struggled to make headway, an increasingly frustrated Congress, tired of Pakistan’s tactics and messaging, weighed in. Influenced by pro-India legislators and Pakistan bashers, Capitol Hill proposed that the executive branch impose penalties to withhold funding for military assistance. At this point, there were no compelling reasons for business as usual with respect to Coalition Support Funding.

Great care is now needed to avoid transitioning from rupturing to worst case scenarios. Donald Trump is as averse to diplomatic nuance as Barack Obama was inclined towards it. Those with expertise and influence surrounding Trump on this matter are deeply invested in a favorable Afghan outcome. U.S. policies were not succeeding, so penalties have become greater. This step is likely to make a favorable outcome more remote since Pakistan’s decision makers will lose face by changing course after Trump’s public dictation. As with Pakistan’s response to the demands of the Bush administration after 9/11, smart bettors will place their chips on tactical adjustments rather than strategic recalculation.

Joseph Nye, a Harvard-based academic who coined the term “soft power,” writes, “Power sometimes depends on whose army or economy wins, but it can also depend on whose story wins.” Neither the United States nor Pakistan has a winning formula for Afghanistan. Despite its military and economic might, the United States cannot succeed in Afghanistan unless others have the will and capacity to help. Pakistan’s current formula is alienating Afghans and its story – partially true, partially untrue – doesn’t help advance its cause.

When two unsuccessful strategies lock horns, the deciding factor can be the passage of time. Rawalpindi can play a long game, however unwise, counting on Washington’s likely inability to do so. Steve Coll unearthed a pertinent quote in researching his extraordinary book, Ghost Wars. The speaker was Yuri Andropov, the head of the Soviet KGB and a powerhouse in the Politburo. The occasion was the beginning of the jihad against the Kremlin-backed Afghan government – an uprising in Herat in 1979, followed by the city’s indiscriminate bombing by Russian pilots. “We will be labeled as an aggressor,” Andropov told his comrades, “but in spite of that, under no circumstances can we lose Afghanistan.”

Pakistani and American policy is no doubt motivated by the same sentiment. Why does a land-locked, impoverished country, the place where military campaigns of grand conquest in antiquity got bogged down, a land that continues to teach the same brutal lessons to nuclear-armed states, a stepping-stone to nowhere amidst perpetual factionalism and ingrained corruption, still hold “deciders” in Washington and Pakistan in its grip? The fear of losing, not the anticipation of significant gains, drives policy.

Note to readers: This essay appeared at the website of the Herald, a Pakistani website and monthly, on January 15th.


  1. Sultan (History)

    It’s very unfortunate that the contributions and sacrifices made by Pakistan, is now only viewed in terms of financial assistance, while there is ‘NO’ mention of Pakistani lives lost in what was considered to be the global war on terrorism and not only Pakistan’s war.

    Needless to go into the history of who created these monsters and against whom, and why was Pakistan left on its own, but even in terms of financial assistance, or the reimbursements, the data available in the CRS report of 28 Nov 2017 differs from the numbers provided in the above article. It is important to understand the myth of ‘billions of dollars’ that were given to Pakistan.

    The US foreign assistance programs have three major rationales (as defined in the CRS report) i.e to serve US national security, commercial and the humanitarian interests. If this assistance was provided, it was mainly to serve the US interests and not Pakistan’s interests, and that is how it should be.

    Without elborating the details of assistance packages, the figures quoted in the above article may need some validation:

    1. As per the CRS data, non-military assistance between (2002-2017) is $ 11,095 millions and not $ 15 billion disbursed
    3. Total security related assistance provided to Pakistan during the same period (2002-2017) is $ 8,259 millions instead of $14.6 billion
    4. Coalition Support Funds (CSF) reimbursements since 2002 are $14, 573 billion, which is less than the original claims made by Pakistan, and this is not aid by any means, but reimbursements for providing logistical support to the US military
    5. In 2017, total security related assistance fell down to $ 303 million, and economic assistance to $ 223 millions. Combined together Pakistan received only $ 526 million in 2017, which is likley to fall to $ 345 millions in 2018.

    This rupturing of relations in economic terms would cost Pakistan only $ 345 millions, which is insignificant, but the political cost and the loss of trust cannot be redeemed by any means, especially after Pakistan’s contributions made in the ongoing war on terror.

    Putting the blame on one group of insurgents – the so called Haqqani Network, whose numbers could no more be in few hundreds – is tantamount to belittling the US military which has not been able to succeed even after spending $1.07 trillion in Afghanistan alone, besides suffering significant human losses.

    Finally, the US can possibly afford another military humiliation and leave the region as before, while blaming the others; but for Pakistan, it remains a matter of survival in an increasingly difficult neighborhood.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      I hope you and your family are well.
      Thank you for taking the time to write this necessary and strongly held perspective.
      The history you gloss over at the front end is important because it deals directly with why Pakistan’s claims of victimization are unpersuasive outside its borders. So bear with me as I review this history in summary form.
      US, Pakistani and Saudi intelligence agencies collaborated in the ouster of the Taliban government sheltering Osama bin Laden. This was an important and necessary victory for the United States and for Pakistan, which couldn’t feel safe with the Red Army across its border.
      Then the question arose whether to work together to replace the Taliban government. Here fissures arose, and agendas diverged. The CIA, ISI and Saudi intelligence agencies weren’t very good at predicting outcomes and their favored instruments of influence and control varied. None were particularly likely to patch the country back together.
      Washington made a decision that staying all-in to influence Afghanistan’s future was a mug’s game. The State Department had neither the interest nor the assets to “fix” Afghanistan.
      Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies made a different call: that the future of Afghanistan mattered greatly to Pakistan. And that the tools used to oust the Soviet Union could be usefully applied to pry Muslim majority Kashmir from India’s grasp. Pakistan remained all-in.
      Countries don’t outsource fundamental national security decisions.Pakistan’s fundamental national security decisions toward Afghanistan weren’t made in America, but Pakistan has never owned them. These decisions to support groups with violent agendas have haunted Pakistan ever since. Some of the groups have turned against the state, resulting in 50,000 deaths, according to independent sources. The Pakistan’s government’s estimate is higher. Fighting terror within the confines of Pakistan has also resulted in grave economic burdens.
      Pakistan’s talking point of victimization doesn’t work on Capitol Hill or in an executive branch that refuses to accept complicity or to take responsibility for national security decisions made by Pakistan.
      Pakistan does have an important success story to tell. Its military has the most successful track record against domestic terrorism than any other state with the possible exception of Sri Lanka. Talking points of success stories are far more persuasive than talking points of victimization. But these successes are deeply qualified because Pakistan defines terrorism and safe havens in ways that the international community doesn’t. Pakistan doesn’t include violent extremist groups that carry out actions against Afghanistan and India among the ranks of bad guys.
      So, yes, Pakistan deserves sympathy and support for its battles against violent extremist groups that wreak havoc at home. We in the United States know what it means to lose 50,000 of our citizens in a war of miscalculation and duplicity. We remind ourselves of this history by visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. All those names, inscribed in stone. I know, different issues, different circumstances, but I just watched the movie, The Post, where I relived my past as a protester.
      Best wishes,

  2. Sultan (History)


    Thanks for this follow up write up. It is indeed important to bring out both sides perspectives and bring clarity on the potential causes of the rupture and the narrative of betrayal.

    One can agree to disagree on several issues, because we all have our own respective prisms that are shaped by peculiar experiences and most importantly a result of natural biases. I often recall your very instructive lesson that you taught during my stay at the Stimson Centre – ‘we all have our biases that are difficult to overcome’. This is very much true. It has helped me to stay away from the fallacy of idealism that we all must wish as human beings, but is difficult to attain in this very competitive world.

    States make decisions as per their own cost-benefit analysis. Some prove to be rewarding, while others could inflict enduring penalties. It is only once we revisit the history that we learn where we went wrong. Like the US, Pakistan may have made some wrong decisions, for which Pakistan continues to pay the price in terms of lives lost and unbearable loss to its economy. This cannot be undone, but correcting the course seems to have brought in an important lesson for Pakistan that ‘it must do what it considers best only for itself, and not for the others.’ This has helped Pakistan to suppress ‘foreign sponsored’ terrorism inside its own territory, while withstanding unjustifiable demands.

    One can go on with these arguments, but few specific issues to clarify some of the aspects raised in the above write-ups:

    1. Pakistan’s story of victimization is not a talking point for the Capitol Hill, but is a reality that needs no endorsement from anywhere else. I agree that it has negligible resonance in Washington, but this is possibly due to deep rooted structural problem, where false narratives often override the ground realities. The problem seems to have aggravated due to overwhelming influence of a particular lobby in policy making directly and through influential think tanks. One can find many examples around.
    2. Kashmir insurgency predates the Afghan war and both India and Pakistan have fought several wars on this issue. It may not be factually correct to state that the lessons learnt from the use of proxies in Afghanistan were used in Kashmir? While I agree that this narrative is dominant in Washington, but in material terms which of the two countries (India or Pakistan) have sufferred more losses and who has been using proxies for sponsoring terrorism as a ‘state policy’. One could recall PM Modi’s statement made in Bangladesh; the statements made by India’s NSA and India’s former Defense Minister Parrikar; besides some other loose cannons from their senior political leadership
    3. Afghanistan has been made dysfunctional by several countries that do not have their direct stakes in its stability, and are using it for their own self interests. Blaming a group of miscreants and making Pakistan a scapegoat, is not likley to help; but would only increase the distrust between the US and Pakistan.

    Thank you once again for your perspective. As always, these are very useful.

    Best regs

  3. Allen. J. R (History)

    This is just part of the regular war of words between the US and Pakistan.
    Eventually, the US will have to return to generously funding Pakistan’s military overlords.

    The reality is that Pakistan is the only country in that part of the world that is willing to be the US’s proxy.
    Pakistan needs it’s terrorist networks, to wage hybrid warfare against it’s neighbours.
    Just hold your nose and accept it.