Pakistan - US Relations

Stimson Spotlight

Pakistan - US Relations

By Michael Krepon - The US - Pakistan relationship could not have survived this long without the presence of vital common interests.  But we are now close to another divorce.

It would be a serious error of judgment, in my view, to conclude that this relationship cannot be salvaged.  Pakistanis have great resilience, and their military leaders are capable of good as well as bad decisions.  This relationship won't be salvaged unless Pakistan gets its house in order and unless we are clear about what we can and cannot expect from Pakistan.

Pakistan is a weak country with strong powers to resist US pressures.  US reliance on Pakistan for logistical support for our troops in Afghanistan is a great source of friction.  We argue over compensation, the extent of the US presence on Pakistani soil and the ground rules under which US personnel operate.

US and Pakistani interests diverge on nuclear issues, India, and Afghanistan.  Pakistan's sense of insecurity is growing, which translates into increased reliance on nuclear weapons and continued links to groups that carry out deadly attacks in Afghanistan and India.

On Afghanistan, we both seek a negotiated settlement, but we are backing different horses.  Our military forces in Afghanistan - God bless them -- are performing in an exceptional manner.  But we all know that their sacrifices will be in vain unless tactical gains can be handed over to competent Afghan authorities.

If a lasting political settlement can be found in Afghanistan, it will require extraordinarily difficult internal and regional deal making.  I doubt whether this heroic undertaking is worthy of an annual US military commitment in excess of $100 billion dollars.  Deal making will continue to be pursued at a fraction of this cost and sacrifice.  The results may well be modest or ephemeral, no matter how much we spend there.    

The future of Pakistan matters far more than the future of Afghanistan.  Pakistan, unlike Afghanistan, is a hinge state in the Muslim world.   U.S. military and diplomatic investments do not remotely correspond to the relative importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan to vital US national security interests.  Some US policies are also increasing stress fractures in Pakistani society.

It will require a four-cornered bank shot to leave Afghanistan as a reasonably functioning country.   Pakistan may also become lost to its own pathologies regardless of U.S. efforts there.  But it would be immensely tragic if the loss of US blood and treasure in this theater results in little better than the usual state of affairs in Afghanistan alongside far greater deterioration within Pakistan and in US- Pakistan relations.

At best, we will continue to have a checkered track record with Pakistan.  Pakistan's security apparatus will seek to increase its chances to influence Afghanistan's future no matter what we do.  Pakistan won't give up its nuclear weapons, but we may be able to promote more nuclear risk-reduction measures in this region.  US ties with India will continue to improve, reflecting our substantial and growing common interests.  Pakistan's national security establishment will feel more insecure as a result.  We can't convince Pakistan's military leaders to befriend India, but we can promote more normal ties between Pakistan and India, especially in the areas of trade and regional development.

The biggest challenge facing Pakistan's national security establishment is to recognize how continuing links to extremist groups mortgage Pakistan's future.  Outfits like Lashkar-e-Toiba are the leading edge of Pakistan's national demise.  If Pakistan's military leaders cannot re-think the fundamentals of its anti-India policy and its increasing reliance on nuclear weapons, they will never know true security.

I do not expect a change in Pakistan's ties to the Afghan Taliban, but this would be a good time for Pakistan's military leaders to re-think any ties they may still have to the remnants of Al Qaeda within their country.

We might also reconsider our present course.  In my view, our Afghan policies hurt, rather than help, Pakistan to find its balance.  If authorities in Afghanistan are unable to safeguard our military's hard-won gains, we are obligated to ask how much more blood and treasure ought to be devoted to this cause.  I acknowledge that there are risks in accelerating reductions in the US level of effort in Afghanistan.  In my view, greater risks and costs are incurred by remaining on our current glide path.

I therefore respectfully suggest that this committee consider accelerating efforts to secure a political settlement in Afghanistan alongside steeper reductions in our level of military effort there.

Editor's note: This is a copy of Michael Krepon's public remarks before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on May 5, 2011.  His longer, written testimony can be found at



Photo Credit: The turnover of the last US Mobile Army Surgical Hospital to the Pakistani Army, Muzaffarabad, (Travlr, February 16, 2006).