Don't Be Spooked by Pakistan

A CIA veteran's prescription for how the United States can get along with an ally it doesn't trust.

More than two months after the raid by U.S. Navy SEALS on the Abbottabad compound of Osama bin Laden, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan is at its lowest point in the almost six decades of a rocky, on-again-off-again alliance. The United States has suspended some $800 million in military aid, and the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, is traveling to Pakistan this week for what is certain to be a chilly meeting with his counterpart, Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

Maybe these developments are not altogether bad, for amid this turmoil the leaders of both countries, if not their vocal populations, are beginning to understand that a new, interests-based regional partnership must be forged before some political point of no return is crossed. Pakistan and the United States need a new paradigm for cooperation, one that will not only guide the bilateral relationship through the endgame in Afghanistan, but also influence Pakistani and U.S. policies in an Indian Ocean region on the verge of a new Great Game for mineral resources and economic domination.

The main players in that game are India and China; the prizes are Afghan and Pakistani resources and overland trade routes to the Arabian Sea. The United States' role is important, even critical, but it is as yet undefined by American political leaders. Ultimately, the United States may have to shift part of its security and political focus from its Atlantic relationships to the Indian Ocean region.

The mineral resources of Afghanistan and Pakistan -- copper, gold, rare-earth elements, iron, the list goes on -- will play a major role in driving the hungry Chinese and Indian economies through the 21st century. Afghan minerals alone, valued by the U.S. Geological Survey conservatively at about $1 trillion, could follow a natural route south from Afghanistan through Pakistan's Baluchistan province, itself mineral rich, to the newly completed port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. From there, the minerals would find markets in China, India, and the West, producing along the way a greatly expanded Pakistani mining industry and transportation infrastructure, as well as tens upon tens of thousands of jobs for dangerously idle young Baluchi men.

But none of this will likely happen until Pakistan takes a bold leap into the 21st century, shedding its 1947 mindset of believing that it is just a hair trigger away from war with India and that it must at any cost be buttressed against Indian encroachment on its western flank in Afghanistan. To become a player in this new Great Game, Pakistan will first need to rework its relationship with the United States and, following that, with Afghanistan and India.

One obvious starting point will be redesigning the relationship between the CIA and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, Pakistan's most powerful intelligence agency.

During a swing through the region in June, I spent many hours with senior ISI officers in remarkably free exchanges on the relationship between their agency and its U.S. counterpart. From those meetings, I concluded that both sides view rebuilding the overall U.S.-Pakistan relationship as possible and necessary. But both sides also see this as a daunting task, one with little support from either the American or the Pakistani people. Nevertheless, with the announced withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan over the next three years, and with the development of a new American strategy for counterterrorism, the moment is right to begin overhauling the partnership.

As Gen. David Petraeus leaves Afghanistan and takes over at the CIA, one of his first tasks will be sitting down with his Pakistani counterpart, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, a man he has met in the past as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. The two generals are a perfect and, indeed, an even match. Petraeus goes to Langley from multiple combat commands; Pasha is an experienced combat operations commander in his own right, having led military operations in Pakistan's turbulent tribal areas. Both generals are thoughtful, perhaps even brilliant tacticians -- Pasha made Time's 2011 list of the 100 most influential people in the world -- and each has a keen sense of political imperatives. They can enter the relationship fresh; cut through the shrillness, the schoolyard taunts that characterize what is visible to the public in the current feud between their services; decide on what is worth fixing; agree on important common goals; and get to work.

They will come to their first meeting understanding the depth of CIA-ISI problems, based on hard intelligence -- on what is known. They will be able to discount the often rococo and venomous accusations and counteraccusations that form the basis of American and Pakistani public opinion. It will be a tough slog for the two generals. One example of the disconnect will be the four recent "intelligence tests" -- the passage of U.S. intelligence to Pakistan on bomb-making sites in the tribal areas and the apparent compromise of that information before military action could be taken. The "tests" are viewed by American intelligence as an example of double-dealing by the ISI. But the ISI views those same events as an American trap: Midlevel officers believe the Americans tipped off the bomb-makers to embarrass the ISI.

At their first meeting (perhaps a one-on-one without note-takers) Petraeus and Pasha will have to decide how to cut through the distractions. They will inevitably discuss such matters as:

The so-called trust deficit. In my discussions with senior ISI officers, the question of the "trust deficit" quickly arose and was equally quickly dismissed. Forget about trust, I was told. The ISI and CIA should be prepared to work together, without trust, on common interests and goals. How much was trust an underpinning of our common goal of driving Soviet forces out of Afghanistan during the 1980s?, I was pointedly asked.

In reality, institutional trust played no role. Indeed, institutional trust is not a critical element of a functioning intelligence liaison with any foreign intelligence service. In my years of working with the ISI as the CIA chief in Pakistan during the late 1980s, there was a single common goal -- get the Soviet Army out of Afghanistan. Within that narrowly defined mission there was close cooperation, even friendships that have endured to this day. On occasion I put my life in the hands of individual ISI officers, but there was never a sense of institutional trust. In executing that joint mission there were, to be sure, serious frictions as each side fused its own sovereign policy goals into the common mission -- Pakistan concentrated its assistance almost entirely on favored Pashtun elements of the Afghan resistance while the CIA strove to provide broader assistance to include other ethnic groups in northern and western Afghanistan. But as long as the primary mission remained valid for both sides and as long as progress was being made, the differences were managed. In effect, the United States and Pakistan went their own ways when their national policies demanded it, but we got along.

Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. Afghans profoundly believe that the ISI is behind most of the attacks on Afghan soil. The Kabul rumor mill already sees a Pakistani hand in the recent attack on Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel. Some of the accusations may be real; some may be a self-serving deflection of blame for security gaps on the ISI bogeyman. In discussing this issue, Pasha might relate to Petraeus a conversation he had with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in which he pointedly asked the Afghan leader which country, aside from Afghanistan, has suffered most from the Afghanistan war; which country, aside from Afghanistan, would benefit most from peace in Afghanistan; and how could Pakistan benefit from doing the things it is accused of. These are reasonable questions.

The ISI leader might also share a belated realization within the Pakistani Army that Pakistan's exclusive focus on Afghanistan's Pashtun population as Pakistan's strategic reserve on its western flank no longer makes sense, if that ever did. This Pashtun-centric policy was the unfulfillable dream of "strategic regional consensus" of late Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, a new Mughal Empire that Zia envisioned from Ankara to Islamabad counterbalancing India to the east. Zia's dream always began with a co-opted, Pashtun-dominated Afghanistan. It was handed down to his successors at Army House over the next quarter-century, but it was as unachievable then as it is today. Pakistan's current military leaders know this. Their challenge is to convince the Pakistani population. Pakistan's military leaders understand that their country's relationship with Afghanistan must be broadened. They also know that Pakistan would ultimately find the Pashtun Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan a national disaster, one that would before long spread to India, fulfilling the prophecy of the hair-trigger event that has so occupied the Pakistani Army for decades. Afghanistan is a good starting point for Pakistan to reorder its regional relationships, and the United States can play a limited, but important role of arbiter.

North Waziristan. Pakistani Army leaders understand that this remote, mountainous region must be cleared of foreign fighters and associated groups, but it cannot now appear to succumb to American demands that the Army launch a full-scale assault on the terrorist-infested tribal agency. Pakistani military operations just launched in the Kurram agency fit with Pakistani plans to move against neighboring North Waziristan in the coming months, but any such operation must be recognized as being in Pakistan's interest to do so, not occurring because Americans have demanded it. The Pakistan Army will have fresh ideas and will expect the Americans to hear them out. An underlying concern that the Americans must overcome will be Pakistan's conviction that U.S. forces are moving toward the exits in Afghanistan. Memories of being left holding the American bag run deep. The Army leadership remembers the Soviet exit from Afghanistan in February 1989, American sanctions imposed on Pakistan the next year, the end of U.S.-Pakistan military-to-military contacts, and the Americans turning their back on Pakistan and Afghanistan for a decade. The rest is sad history.

Pakistan-India. Pakistani Army leaders understand that fundamental change is needed in Pakistan's relationship with India. The Kashmir question could be deferred indefinitely, the Army leadership is convinced, as a new relationship with India is developed and a new set of national goals for Pakistan are devised to make the country a player in the region. It is understood within the Pakistan military that India has a historically based interest in Afghanistan and that India's exploitation of Afghan mineral resources need not be a zero-sum game. Indeed, India has indicated it may be prepared to use the southern route through Pakistan's Baluchistan province for the export of iron ore from its massive mining claim at Hajigak in Afghanistan's Bamiyan province (an alternate, politically more challenging route would be from Afghanistan through Iran to the Iranian port of Chabahar on the Arabian Sea). Similarly, another economic imperative that demands Pakistan-India cooperation is a proposed 1,700-kilometer gas pipeline, TAPI, which will bring gas from the massive Dauletabad fields in Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, and into the Indian energy grid at Fazilka in India's Punjab state. TAPI, a huge, multibillion-dollar project, offers the best solution to the energy needs of all the countries on the pipeline's route, according to negotiators of the four countries involved in developing the project.

These issues of potentially vital cooperation between India and Pakistan would be difficult under any circumstances, but without a reasonably functioning U.S.-Pakistan relationship based on common interests, they may well be unachievable.

It is often said that Pakistan never misses a chance to miss a chance. If it misses this one, the world will pass it by, and its isolation will only deepen. The same may hold true for the United States. Its influence in the Indian Ocean is slipping as China and India flex their growing economic muscle. It will have to make a course correction as it approaches the end of its military enterprise in Afghanistan. Pakistan is as good a place to start as any, and the two generals, Pasha and Petraeus, might be the right players for the first step.



The South China Sea's Georgia Scenario

The U.S. can't risk overplaying its hand in China's disputes with its neighbors.

When Cui Tiankai, China's vice foreign minister, warned U.S. officials in Honolulu on June 22 that "individual countries [in Southeast Asia] are playing with fire" and that he hoped the fire "doesn't reach the United States," it was a major departure from the customary rhetoric of summitry. China's message: Do not intervene in the Spratly Island dispute of the South China Sea, where five other claimants are jostling with Beijing for the rights to exploit the potentially rich, undersea energy deposits of the area.

In this atmosphere, the China-Vietnam relationship, which has been on a generally positive course since 1990, has suddenly veered into a dangerous crisis. Vietnam has conducted live-fire drills as an apparent warning to Beijing, and U.S. officials have chimed in with "increasing concerns" and have also moved to strengthen the traditionally close ties with the Philippines, one of the claimants in this maritime territorial dispute. At a meeting with Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen in Beijing on July 11, Chinese Army Chief Chen Bingde described U.S. joint exercises with Vietnam and the Philippines as "extremely inappropriate". With three wars now under way in the Middle East, U.S. leaders would do well to reflect on how "smart power" rather than military brinkmanship can point the way out of the present crisis and toward a more stable and peaceful Asia-Pacific region.

For much of the last decade, the South China Sea had actually been relatively quiet thanks to a 2002 agreement between Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a "code of conduct" for the South China Sea. The agreement helped mitigate tensions that had built up after naval skirmishes in 1988 and by further aggressive jockeying in the 1990s. Scholar Joshua Kurlantzick and others had actually described China's approach in Southeast Asia over the past decade as a "charm offensive," the centerpiece of which was a China-ASEAN free trade agreement that may have helped cushion the region from the worst of the recent global recession.

However, the deployment of Chinese nuclear submarines and other advanced warships to a new and sprawling base at Hainan Island on the South China Sea had raised eyebrows around the region during the last decade. Major tensions began to flare in the spring of 2009, when a clutch of Chinese ships harassed a U.S. surveillance vessel operating in international waters south of Hainan Island. Such Cold War-type surveillance operations are still routinely conducted by the U.S. armed forces all along China's coast (but outside the 12-mile territorial limit) -- a practice that Chinese military leaders consider to be gravely threatening and that they now identify as a major barrier to U.S.-China military cooperation. Dangerous interactions between U.S. and Chinese aircraft and vessels have become the norm, and one life has already been lost, in the April 2001 surveillance-plane incident, which also took place close to Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, local states, such as Vietnam, have been vigorously pursuing energy exploration in areas that are close to or within China's vast claim line that encompasses virtually the entire area of the South China Sea. When Hanoi announced in 2009 that it intended to spend significant funds to purchase six submarines from Russia, it became amply evident that the regional arms race, already simmering for some years, was heating up in earnest.

Last year, tensions reached a boiling point. U.S. officials were apparently disturbed when senior Chinese officials referred to the South China Sea as a "core interest" in March. This was viewed as the latest evidence of a supposedly bellicose, new turn in Chinese foreign policy. Then, a catalytic moment seems to have occurred in July 2010 during the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi. At this meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted a U.S. national interest in freedom of navigation through the South China Sea and warned against the "use or threat of force by any claimant." Attending this event, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is said to have been surprised and furious at Clinton's remarks. Then, in August, Vietnamese officers were taken aboard the USS George Washington aircraft carrier in a clear sign that the U.S. military intended to intensify its relationship with Vietnam's armed forces to deter China. Major Chinese military exercises also took place in the South China Sea in August 2010.

A fresh round of tensions erupted this spring. The Philippines complained of Chinese incursions in their territorial waters, while Vietnam accused China of cutting its seismic exploration cables, which is both an escalation of the dispute and a symbol of Beijing's disgust with the fact that Hanoi continues to actively explore in disputed areas. Washington's response has been firm: At a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Asia Security Summit this June, Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed "deploying U.S. littoral combat ships to Singapore" and also "increasing … naval engagements … throughout the region."

Washington's focus on "freedom of navigation," which has inexplicably become the main pillar of current U.S. policy in the region, is actually rather absurd. China, the world's largest maritime trading nation by almost any measure, is very unlikely to threaten navigational freedoms -- its own economy is almost wholly reliant on those very freedoms. The claim that China's opposition to regular U.S. military surveillance activities in the South China Sea threatens "freedom of navigation" is likewise disingenuous and represents an unfortunate tendency to reach for the clever sound bite. In fact, such U.S. surveillance activities all along China's coasts are excessive to the point of seriously disrupting the bilateral relationship and should thus be decreased, especially if linked to concrete progress on Chinese military transparency.

The alleged Chinese threat to ASEAN states, moreover, turns out to be more hype than fact. Much has been said about China's new nuclear submarine base on Hainan Island, but the surprise is that up to now Beijing has had only one nuclear submarine base (Qingdao) -- quite paltry when compared with the four operated by the U.S. Navy in the Pacific area. Similarly, the basing of a ballistic missile submarine and even China's first aircraft carrier at Hainan would more likely represent weakness than strength. After all, alternative basing in north China simply means these high-value assets would be closer and hence more vulnerable to the impressive striking power of both the Japanese and U.S. fleets that are based primarily in Northeast Asia.

Those viewing Chinese "aggression" as the impetus for current tension might reasonably be asked why Beijing has only six outposts in the Spratlys (compared with 29 occupied by Vietnam), why Beijing is one of the only claimant states not currently pumping oil out of the South China Sea, and why the largest island in the Spratlys archipelago is actually occupied by Taiwan. In fact, China's policy in the South China Sea has been largely reactive in both present and historical circumstances, which indeed explains a good bit of the incoherence of China's present policy. China has settled the majority of its border disputes peacefully and is largely relying on unarmed patrol cutters to enforce its claims in the South China Sea -- clearly a sign that it does not seek escalation to armed conflict.

And how would the situation look if roles were reversed? What if China had a defense treaty agreement with Venezuela (not to mention bases in Canada) and was vigorously pursuing annual military exercises with Cuba while offering to mediate various resource disputes in the Carribean? Washington probably wouldn't look too kindly on such activities.

The brutal truth, however, is that Southeast Asia matters not a whit in the global balance of power. Most of the region comprises small, poor countries of no consequence whatsoever, but the medium powers in the region, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Australia will all naturally and of their own accord stand up against a potentially more aggressive China. If China and Vietnam go to war over some rocks in the ocean, they will inevitably both suffer a wide range of deleterious consequences, but it will have only a marginal impact on U.S. national security. True, these sea lanes are critical to the Japanese and South Korean economies, but both of these states are endowed with large and capable fleets -- yet another check on Beijing's ambitions.

China, moreover, is all too aware of what happened to Georgia in 2008. In that unfortunate case, the United States showered a new ally with high-level attention and military advisors. But when Russian tanks rolled in, effectively annexing a large section of the country and utterly destroying Tbilisi's armed forces, Washington's response amounted to a whimper: There was, in the end, no appetite for risking a wider conflict with Moscow over a country of marginal strategic interest. The lessons for Southeast Asia should be clear.

Washington must avoid the temptation -- despite local states cheering it on at every opportunity -- to overplay its hand. The main principle guiding U.S. policy regarding the South China Sea has been and should remain nonintervention. Resource disputes are inherently messy and will not likely be decided by grand proclamations or multilateral summitry. Rather, progress will be a combination of backroom diplomacy backed by the occasional show of force by one or more of the claimants. In fact, Beijing's record of conflict resolution over the last 30 years is rather encouraging: China has not resorted to a major use of force since 1979.

This untidy process need not roil the larger regional or global system. Dialogue must be a priority. Active U.S. cooperation with China in Southeast Asia, for example in the fight against piracy and terrorism -- which constitute genuine threats to the vital sea lanes -- could serve to build up trust in the security relationship that is sorely lacking at present. Such cooperation would also serve to reassure regional states that do not wish to see their region become the new cockpit of great-power rivalry.

To be sure, the United States must retain a "big stick," but much more actually needs to be done to "speak softly" through flexible, practical, and quiet diplomacy. New commitments, such as an enhanced defense relationship with Vietnam or other claimants should be avoided in order to prevent further escalation of this tension into actual violence.