National Security

Pakistani Power Play

If the United States wants to curb terrorism and nuclear proliferation, it needs to fundamentally rethink its relationship with Pakistan.

Long after the last U.S. or NATO soldier leaves Afghanistan -- and no matter who wins on Tuesday -- Pakistan will continue to present fundamental challenges to U.S. regional interests and international security.

The self-proclaimed "land of the pure" has used Islamist militants as tools of foreign policy since its earliest days of independence. In the fall of 1947, tribal marauders from Pakistan's Pashtun areas, benefiting from extensive government support, rushed into the princely state of Kashmir in hopes of seizing it for Pakistan. Leaders of the newborn Pakistani state feared that the king of the Muslim-dominant state of Kashmir would seek independence or agree to join India. The strategy triggered the very event Islamabad was trying to prevent: The king, watching with apprehension as his own security forces failed to stave off the attackers, sought India's help. India agreed to come to his aid, provided that the maharaja join India's dominion. Indian troops thus joined the fight to defend its newly acquired territory. The eventual ceasefire left the princely state divided between the dominions of India and Pakistan.

To wrest all of Kashmir from India, Pakistan has since then raised and nurtured numerous Islamist militant groups. In 1989, an indigenous insurgency erupted in Kashmir in response to gross Indian malfeasance. Pakistan swiftly took advantage of the surge of so-called mujahideen who had trained in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets. Pakistan's "foreign" militants overtook the Kashmiri insurgency. By the mid-1990s, the violence in the valley was mostly conducted by Pakistani terrorists -- predominantly ethnic Punjabis -- ostensibly on behalf of Kashmiris.

Given Pakistan's unrelenting pursuit of Kashmir, its inability to coerce concessions from a militarily superior India and its failure to muster international diplomatic and political support for its agenda, Islamabad has increasingly relied upon its expanding nuclear umbrella to advance its goals. Today, Pakistan deters the Indians from responding militarily to any number of Pakistani outrages by invoking the ever-present possibility of nuclear escalation. Nuclear weapons have also served to ensure that the United States will always intervene in an Indo-Pakistan crisis to preclude it from escalating to full-scale war.

"Asymmetric conflict under the nuclear umbrella" has served Pakistan well. Pakistan has been able to rely upon thousands of Islamist terrorists to prosecute its policies in India as well as Afghanistan with impunity, confident that its nuclear program makes any punitive response infeasible. The United States, Pakistani leaders know, will have difficulty isolating, punishing or even containing Pakistan in response, if for no other reason than the United States needs to remain engaged in order to monitor Pakistan's discomfiting nuclear program.

Pakistani leaders learned the lessons of 1989 when the United States finally sanctioned Pakistan for nuclear proliferation. Throughout the 1980s, Washington bent its own laws so that it could continue providing security assistance and weapons to Pakistan during the anti-Soviet jihad with full knowledge that Pakistan was developing a nuclear weapon. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, the United States was no longer dependent upon Pakistan and pursued anew its nonproliferation objectives in South Asia. Finally in 1990, Washington imposed proliferation-related sanctions that had been deferred under the Pressler Amendment. Soon thereafter, Washington denounced Pakistan for its reliance upon Islamist terrorists in Kashmir and elsewhere and even threatened to declare it a state sponsor of terrorism. In 1999, following Pervez Musharraf's military coup,  the United States applied coup-related sanctions. On Sept. 10, 2001, Pakistan was a virtual pariah state encumbered by layers of nuclear and missile-proliferation sanctions and was viewed suspiciously for its close ties to the Taliban and dozens of Islamist terror groups.

As the current war winds down in Afghanistan, Pakistan knows full well that the United States is deeply frustrated with its duplicitous behavior. Having taken billions in military assistance with the explicit purpose of supporting the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Pakistan has supported the very forces killing Americans and their allies. Howsoever discordant U.S. and Pakistan interests are and will remain, Pakistan wants to keep the United States -- and its checkbook -- around for a while longer. And it has a shrewd strategy to ensure that this happens.

Far from accommodating U.S. concerns, Pakistan has chosen a path of brazen confrontation. It refuses to shut down the international terrorist proxies in its employ: The murderous Lashkar-e-Taiba, Islamist militants dedicated to fighting India in Kashmir, operates openly. Its leaders routinely address large crowds in an effort to develop a political presence. Hafez Saeed, the head of the terrorist syndicate, taunted U.S. officials by offering to provide relief to Hurricane Sandy victims. Pakistan's support to the Taliban and the Haqqani network continues unfettered. It has shown no interest in conducting a genuine investigation into how Osama bin Laden could hide for so long in a cantonment town near Pakistan's famed military academy. The only person Pakistan has arrested was a physician who helped the United States eliminate the notorious al Qaeda chief.

Change is floating in the air. The recent U.S. move to designate the Haqqani Network as a foreign terrorist organization and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's refusal to certify that Pakistan is making progress toward ending support for Islamist militant groups are important signs that Washington is exhausted with Pakistan's chicanery.

As U.S.-Pakistani relations spiral downward, Pakistan has publicly pursued tactical nuclear weapons. These weapons are a response to Indian doctrinal evolution toward a limited war capability called Cold Start, which would allow India to quickly mobilize in the wake of a Pakistani terror attack and seize Pakistani territory before the international community galvanizes to diffuse the crisis. India could then use that seized territory to extract concessions on Kashmir from a weakened Pakistan. Tactical nuclear weapons are therefore intended to undermine India's ability to prosecute Cold Start without fears of Pakistani nuclear escalation. These weapons would also ensure that the United States becomes involved even earlier in a crisis to force Indian restraint.

There is a further insidious element to Pakistan's tactical nuclear weapons program. Pakistan knows full well that even if its weapons are relatively safe from a domestic threat while in garrison, they are extremely vulnerable once forward deployed during a crisis. Pakistan also knows that the United States knows this. Thus this development will undercut any impetus in the United States to deal forthrightly with Pakistan's addiction to jihadist proxies, because of a need to keep an eye on this moving nuclear ball.

A Risky Agenda

The United States must frankly concede that it has subsidized and incentivized Pakistan to adopt this insane path to security. Pakistan's security managers believe that the United States cannot punish Pakistan for its use of terrorism as a policy tool -- but this is exactly what the United States must do. While this is not a risk-free proposition, the next administration should consider taking the following steps to deprive Pakistan of the coercive power it covets.

First, the United States must recognize that Pakistan's nuclear weapons coerce both India and the United States. U.S. intervention in the region's frequent crises has shielded Pakistan from bearing the direct cost of its misadventures.

The United States must remove itself from the Indo-Pakistan equation by declaring that it no longer entertains Pakistan's central claims on Kashmir. Pakistan was not entitled to Kashmir -- the legality of Pakistan's claims is specious and always has been. The king of Kashmir had a right to accede to India, which he exercised. The accession was prompted by the invasion of Pakistani marauders that enjoyed extensive direct civilian and military support.

Equally important, the United States should rubbish any notion that Pakistan has a positive role to play in ameliorating the suffering of Kashmiris, due to the decades of terrorism it has sponsored in Kashmir and beyond. The United States should instead focus its energies on persuading New Delhi to make right by the reasonable and constitutional demands of its Kashmiri citizenry. This will put India on the spot to follow through and consolidate a hard-won peace.

Second, the United States needs to make it clear that it will hold Pakistan responsible for any kind of proliferation of nuclear materials that occurs, whether from accident, theft, an insidious inside operation, or from a state decision to provide them to state or non-state actors. The United States should make it extremely clear that Pakistan will be held responsible for any terrorist attack conducted with fissile material with Pakistan's signature. There should be no scope for plausible deniability.

Third, the United States should stop seeking to buy Pakistan off with civilian aid or military assistance. This has not worked. Given the level of dysfunction in U.S. aid programs, the vast corruption in Pakistan, and popular anti-Americanism fueled both by U.S. actions and Pakistani officialdom, there is little these programs can accomplish except squandering treasure. Instead, the United States should focus on what it can do: facilitate trade and investment, increase the availability of scholarships for students, and encourage Pakistan to clean up its economic act by withdrawing support for the next tranche of IMF bailouts without signs of progress. Washington should provide military assistance only when it serves U.S. goals, such as providing equipment and training that improves Pakistan's ability to fight insurgents and terrorism.

Fourth, the Americans must communicate directly with Pakistanis. All too often, Pakistani officials promote a highly stylized version of the truth that aims to demonstrate American perfidy and exaggerate Pakistani exertions. The Americans need to be blunt with the Pakistani public about the nature of their state's nuclear jihad habit, push back on popular fictions, and do so in vernacular languages as well as English.

Finally, the drone program is currently unsustainable. Both the CIA and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, Pakistan's premier spy agency, have conspired for their own reasons to keep this most public program "covert." This is absurd. Every Pakistani knows that drone strikes take place. Unfortunately, the Americans have no ability to influence the perceptions of this weapon system because it refuses to make the program public. Instead, Pakistanis receive what passes as information from ISI-influenced commentators and Taliban spokesmen who overstate the civilian casualties, minimize terrorist casualties, obfuscate Pakistani involvement in the program, and opine that the Americans are trampling Pakistan's (nonexistent) sovereignty in the tribal areas.

The United States must be more accountable and transparent, and it must force the ISI to do the same. Congress must be engaged publicly in providing oversight and accountability for the program. Owing to its classified nature, perhaps the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence are the best venues for this (some media reports suggest that the Senate Intelligence Committee is already playing this role in some measure). U.S. embassy personnel in Pakistan must be able to say what happened in any given strike, state who was killed, what the targeted individuals did that made them "drone worthy," and state clearly what role the Pakistani government in that strike. Equally important, when individuals are genuinely innocent, the United States must apologize immediately and provide compensation to the aggrieved. The only way this program can continue is if the legal, technical, humanitarian, and ethical issues are resolved and if the Pakistanis are public partners in the effort.

All of these options have risks. But the next administration should also understand that the status quo also has risks. Continuing along the current course will likely lead to further international terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and the obvious implication that the United States enabled both.

A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images


Middle East Lost

The Arab Spring gave Barack Obama the perfect opening to reorient U.S. policy in the Middle East. Too bad he blew it.

One of the great mysteries of the past four years is how Barack Obama -- who rose to the presidency, in part, on his promises to fundamentally re-think and re-orient U.S. policy in the Middle East -- has instead spent his term running away from the region.

It is difficult to remember it now, but the prospect of an Obama presidency was initially greeted in the Arab world with a mixture of relief and guarded optimism. His name and Muslim origins certainly helped. But there was something else: For the first time, here was an American president who seemed to have an intuitive grasp of Arab grievances. This grasp extended, perhaps most importantly, to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israelis may have been victims, but so too were the Palestinians. In short, Obama seemed to "get" the Middle East. This didn't sound like someone who wanted to spend three years "pivoting" to China.

To look back at Obama's various statements before becoming president is somewhat jarring. At a 2003 farewell party for the scholar Rashid Khalidi, a fierce advocate for Palestinian rights, Obama told the audience that his conversations with Khalidi had been "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases ... It's for that reason that I'm hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation." Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah recounted Obama telling him in 2004: "I'm sorry I haven't said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I'm hoping when things calm down I can be more up front." (The campaign denied that Obama made such remarks.)

It is easy to make too much of these comments, as many already have. But there is little doubt that Obama stood apart from past presidents in the way he thought and spoke about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Moreover, he understood the conflict's centrality in the broader Arab narrative. As he told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in 2008, "this constant wound...this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy." Even after becoming president, Obama would go out of his way to acknowledge America's checkered and sometimes tragic history in the region. In his 2009 Cairo address, he noted that tension between the West and the Muslim world "has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations."

The question isn't whether such sentiments are good or bad. Whatever his prescriptions, Obama evidently believed in restoring American leadership in the Middle East and, by extension, that U.S. leadership mattered and could be used for good. In the subsequent years, however, Obama seems to have gradually lost faith in America's ability to impact the course of events.

In the wake of the Arab uprisings, senior U.S. officials insisted both privately and publicly that this was "not about America." Too much U.S. involvement went against the very spirit of this moment of self-determination, they said. This was wishful thinking: Of the five Arab revolutions and the one near-revolution in Bahrain, external actors have played a decisive role in at least four. Yet, in the absence of anything resembling a grand strategy, the Obama administration seemed, and still seems, primarily animated by a desire to reduce its footprint in the Middle East.

It is in Syria that the puzzling absence of American leadership has served to confirm just how important the United States still is. Without U.S. leadership -- at this point, many Syrians would gladly take "leading from behind" -- the 19-month conflict has spiraled out of control. Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have argued for doing more to back the Syrian rebels, but they will not do it without American cover and support. The Obama administration has even actively discouraged its allies from giving rebels the very weapons they say they need to defeat President Bashar al-Assad's regime. As a member of one town's revolutionary council said: "We read in the media that we are receiving things. But we haven't seen it. We only received speeches from the West."

The record elsewhere is not much better, and Arabs have taken note. Remarkably, U.S. favorability ratings in several Arab countries are lower under Obama than they were in the final years of the George W. Bush administration.

Instead of offering clear, consistent support for the Arab uprisings, the Obama administration's response has been characterized by what I call "aggressive hedging." As a result, the United States has somehow managed to alienate both sides of the Arab cold war: Dictators think we're naively pro-revolution, and Arab protesters and rebels worry we're still siding with the dictators.

To be sure, this particular problem predates the past four years. Candidate Obama, being the anti-Bush option, had never been a proponent of a more aggressive pro-democracy posture in the region. But, even as the uprisings unfolded, capturing the imagination of millions of Americans, the Obama administration remained unwilling to come to terms with new realities. In the third presidential debate in Boca Raton, Obama said that the United States stood with the Tunisian people "earlier than just about any other country." This is not quite true: As late as January 12, two days before Tunisian strongman Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali fell, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted -- twice -- that the United States was "not taking sides."

It would be nearly impossible, considering the debacle of the Iraq war, to argue that Obama's record on the Middle East is worse than that of his predecessor. But it is just as clear that the transformational presidency that Obama hinted at as a candidate -- and in his Cairo speech -- has barely made an appearance. The Arab Spring presented just that transformational moment, offering the United States a second chance to align its interests and values with the aspirations of ordinary Arabs. Just as the 9/11 attacks seemed to jolt Bush, giving him a greater sense of purpose (for better or worse), one could have imagined the Arab revolts moving Obama in a similar way. But it doesn't seem like the remarkable events of the past two years have had any profound impact on the president's worldview.

For these reasons and many more, a second Obama term is unlikely to diverge considerably from the cautious and deliberate blueprint of the first. And in the Middle East, the basic thrust will likely continue -- engage where we must, disengage when we can.

And what of the Arab-Israeli conflict? If there's one area that Obama appeared particularly passionate about, it was this. On his third day in office, the president appointed former Senator George Mitchell as special envoy -- a decision that was hailed as a sign of the administration's seriousness in making a breakthrough. If the conflict poisoned everything, as Obama said, then the only way to truly forge a "new beginning" with the Arab world was through a just peace. But the administration's approach soon ran aground: Its single-minded focus on halting settlement construction backfired, arousing the ire of the Israeli government while distracting from the core Palestinian concerns of borders, right of return, and the status of Jerusalem.

Once again, the Obama administration somehow managed to alienate the Israelis and Palestinians in almost equal measure. Even after Obama pulled back and increased security cooperation with Israel to unprecedented levels, the damage had already been done. Too many Israelis simply couldn't bring themselves to trust Obama; they suspected that he, in his heart of hearts, was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Oddly enough, this was also what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas thought -- leading to a feeling of betrayal. In a revealing Newsweek interview, he seemed to be asking the same question on the minds of many Arabs: What exactly had happened to Obama? "We knew him before he became president. We knew him and he was very receptive," Abbas said.

In a second term, there is little reason to think that Obama would have any greater success on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two sides are as far apart as ever. It is difficult to imagine the new alliance between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the far-right Avigdor Lieberman ever making the kinds of concessions that the Palestinians would require to seal a final status agreement. Focused more on his legacy than on re-election, might Obama be willing to put more pressure on the Israelis in a second term? Probably. But, by now, neither side has much interest in a repeat of 2009 and 2010. The trust has already been lost, the political capital squandered.

As unpopular as Obama is in the Arab world, Mitt Romney is even more unpopular. The preference, however, is usually for neither. Deep within all of this apparent anti-Americanism, however, there remains a slight glimmer of hope. There is still a hunger for U.S. leadership in the Arab world, some of it out of a lingering belief in America's better angels, some of it because there is no one else to turn to. In their time of need, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Libyans and now Syrians have asked -- sometimes pleaded -- for America to do more to support their struggles. But they will not wait forever.

The rise and fall of Obama, and what he seemed to stand for, has a tinge of sadness about it. Perhaps the job transformed him, rather than the other way around. As the Atlantic's Garance Franke-Ruta put it: "Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans."

Whatever the reasons, the conclusion is largely the same. An opportunity was lost. There is room, as there always is, to tinker around the margins, to adopt "incrementalism" as the best of a set of bad options in a complex, messy world. But that's not what we needed four years ago. And it's not what we need now.