Even before Donald Trump’s latest evisceration of Islamabad’s record as an ally, the US–Pakistan relationship was famously rocky. Previous US presidents have made similar threats – and as now, Pakistan has responded by threatening to cosy up further with China. Many in the country would welcome such a break, glad to be rid of what they see as a servile relationship with the US.
But changing sponsor won’t solve Pakistan’s problem. The underlying issue is the state’s chronic inability to fund its defence and foreign policy ambitions.
Counter to the narrative
The military has always been an outsize element of the Pakistani state. Lacking the ability to fund its ambitions to confront India from state resources alone, the military played off US–Soviet global competition to win foreign funding, notably from the US. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan marked a high point of the two’s common interest: the US wanted to curtail Soviet ambition and Pakistan wanted to secure its influence over Afghanistan. The money the Pakistani military received (often in the form of direct payments, soft loans and credit notes to buy US weapons) went into funding its capacity to maintain a military, political and diplomatic competition with India. For the Pakistani military, what it received wasn't actually ‘aid’ or ‘assistance’, it was existential support.
Pakistan’s toxic relationship with India underlies the military’s influence as well as its core motivations. This includes the historical justification of the alliance with the United States, and the sense – reflected by many Pakistani commentators – that China, on an ‘enemy-of-my-enemy’ basis, is a better bet for the future.
Indian-Pakistani hostility sits comfortably within Pakistan’s foundational narrative which portrays it as the champion of Muslim rights and self-determination in South Asia. The Pakistani military, and the state generally, is on comfortable ground when tussling with India over Kashmir, or protesting the treatment of Rohingya in Burma. In such cases, the military, popular opinion amd religious networks can all be counted upon to pull in the same direction, with the few dissenters easily dismissed as greedy businessmen or elite secularists.
Pakistan ends up in trouble when its actions seem to be in conflict with this core narrative. In the case of Afghanistan, working with the US in the 1980s to roll back the Soviet invasion united whisky-sipping generals and tribal militia leaders in common cause. After 9/11, Pakistan was faced with the choice of joining the War on Terror or being a target of it. The assistance it provided to the US-led occupation of Afghanistan ripped apart the consensus so carefully maintained in previous years. To large sections of public opinion, but also armed state proxies and their funders, it looked like Pakistan was betraying its raison d’etre by helping a non-Muslim superpower occupy a neighbouring Muslim population, a narrative not lost on Al-Qaeda’s ever-masterful recruitment machine.
Meet the new boss
Pakistani decision makers are being woefully optimistic if they think the tension between what they do and what they say they do will be solved by changing funders.
This was vividly demonstrated in 2011, when militants from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), based out of Pakistan, killed 23 people in Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang region. Pakistan, which traditionally responds to attacks in India by Pakistan-based militants by condemning violence but supporting political aims, despatched the head of its intelligence service to Beijing (something it refused to do after the Mumbai attacks in 2008) and issued a statement promising support to China against ETIM and ‘terrorists and separatists’ in general.
In a world where the Pakistani military is no longer allied to the US, there is a strong likelihood it will find itself in a similar predicament with China. When faced with Pakistan-based militants carrying out attacks on its soil, China is likely to react similarly to the US – with scant regard for Pakistan’s precarious internal balancing act.
A new dynamic
The long-term key to stability and security in South Asia is the normalizing of Pakistan–India relations. But with this a long way off, the immediate answer lies in understanding Pakistan’s regional interests, while encouraging the state to develop the capacity to pay for them itself.
Pakistan has spent most of its 70-year history as a partner of convenience. Its rulers have accepted this role and sought to use it to service their core aims. This dynamic needs to be abandoned rather than tweaked.
Among Western commentators, Pakistani government incompetence is often treated as an eternal truth. But in 2010, while working on the response to floods that had devastated the country, I saw how the Pakistani state is represented by dedicated civil servants down to the smallest district. More recently, I have worked with highly competent and qualified senior civil servants. Pakistan’s governmental bureaucracy shares many of the problems present in similar institutions across the world, but at the same time, it is also better than many.
There is also evidence to suggest the Pakistani state’s institutional capacity has been quietly improving. In 2013, the country achieved its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power. During the administration of the incoming prime minister, the military resisted the temptation to retake power despite significant political turmoil.
Long-term foreign assistance to Pakistan should focus on encouraging sustainable improvements in governance. This includes the ability to grow its economy and increase tax revenues.
A Pakistani state that was able to fund its own defence and foreign policy would be better able to honestly articulate its fears to allies. At the same time, a state that was better balanced between civilian and military bodies would have an internal mitigation against its most hawkish tendencies. That would benefit both Pakistan and its partners.