From multibillion-dollar military aid to stealthy and secretive drone strikes, Pakistan, perhaps even more than Afghanistan, has been the central focus of America’s 12-year war on Islamist militancy.
Now, as President Barack Obama’s landmark policy speech on Thursday made clear, all of that is changing. Drone strikes are dwindling, the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close and the battle against al-Qaeda is receding.
Pakistani leaders who have long demanded Americans leave their region may get their wish, but a broader disengagement is also likely to diminish the funding, prestige and political importance Pakistan held as a crucial player in global counterterrorism efforts, and perhaps upset its internal stability.
The diminution of the drone campaign could ease a major point of friction between Pakistan and the West, but the tribal belt in northwestern Pakistan, where about 360 drone strikes have landed in the past decade, remains a hotbed of Islamist militancy, largely outside of government control. Although many senior leaders of al-Qaeda sheltering there have been felled by CIA missiles, they have been largely replaced by committed Pakistani jihadists with ties that span the border with Afghanistan.
With US combat troops leaving Afghanistan in 2014, and the drone campaign already winding down in Pakistan, analysts fear that unless the Pakistani army can assert itself conclusively, the tribal region could be plunged into deeper chaos.
“It’s going to be a lot of trouble,” said Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a Pakistani academic and defence analyst. “If the insurgency increases in Afghanistan, it will spill into Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the Taliban will become very confident.”
An American pullback poses other risks for the nuclear- armed country. For 12 years, the US’s security-driven policy has shaped power, politics and militancy in Pakistan. After 2001, Pervez Musharraf – who came to power in a military coup – established himself as a steadfast ally of the West; it underwrote his authoritarian rule, which lasted until 2008.
The military received almost $17 billion in US military aid, and transfers of military hardware, solidifying its position as the dominant arm of the state.
That relationship has also fostered resentment, and some Pakistani leaders welcome an American disengagement. Blaming America’s muscular presence for an Islamist surge that has killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis, they argue that it has been a recruiting tool for militant groups like the Pakistani Taliban.
America’s dogged pursuit of fugitives linked to al-Qaeda – first in Pakistan’s cities, later in the tribal belt along the Afghan border – led to a two-faced policy toward Islamist militancy. Pakistani officials secretly accepted, and in some cases encouraged, the US drone programme, while condemning it in public as a violation of sovereignty. Similarly, under pressure from Washington, Pakistan helped the CIA arrest some jihadists, while it quietly sheltered other armed militant groups, like the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, who were seen as furthering Pakistani interests in Afghanistan and India.
The American presence also created a giant blind spot in Pakistan’s political psyche: With so much focus on US operations, Pakistani leaders used the US as a scapegoat to avoid tackling some homegrown problems. Lurid tales of American espionage and other skulduggery abounded in the news media, promoted by politicians and mullahs but also fanned by real-life controversies like the shooting of two Pakistanis by the CIA contractor Raymond Davis in January 2011.
Now that calculus is shifting for Pakistani policymakers. Many fear a replay of the early 1990s when, after the departure of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the US withdrew abruptly, leaving behind a cadre of fired-up Islamist fighters, and then imposed sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear weapons programme.
Behind the bellicose speech there is a complex dependency on both sides. While Pakistan’s powerful generals have grown to resent the US, they also lean on American military aid as a steady source of income in an economy so shaky it may soon require a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The generals also rely on transfers of US military hardware to keep their F-16 fighters in the air.
Cloak and dagger
From now on, Pakistani leaders will be less able to rely on the cloak-and-dagger workings of the drone programme to have it both ways. Former president Musharraf recently admitted that he had secretly authorised US drone strikes in the tribal belt in the early days of the campaign, from 2004. Four years later, Pakistani officials quietly helped the US assassinate Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban.
Recently, as concern over drones mounted in the US, the number of strikes in Pakistan dropped sharply, from about 130 at their peak in 2010, to just 12 so far this year. Civilian deaths also fell sharply, as the US cut back on so-called signature strikes against clusters of militant suspects, which had caused the most casualties.
Now, Obama has announced that US drones will attack only militants who pose an imminent threat to the US, virtually ruling out strikes against the Pakistani Taliban, whose stated goal is the creation of an Islamist caliphate in Pakistan.
Still, the shift signalled good news for Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister-designate, who has vowed to make Pakistan less dependent on the US. A scaled-back drone campaign will, at the very least, be one less issue to argue over.
The drone campaign, however, is expected to continue, even if greatly diminished. “This doesn’t change much for Pakistan,” said Ahmed Rashid, author of several books on militancy in the region. “The fact that the campaign will remain under the CIA, surrounded in secrecy, is quite depressing for Pakistanis.”
The central factor now, experts say, is the US withdrawal from Afghanistan next year. The US will seek a smooth exit from the conflict; Pakistan will try to retain influence in its western neighbour, while ensuring the flow of money and military assistance from the West.
As ever, the relationship is shaped more by threats than possibilities, a stark contrast with Washington’s trade-based relations with Pakistan’s traditional rival, India.
Still, few doubt that America will remain deeply involved in Pakistan, a country with a growing population of more than 180 million people, a network of seemingly indefatigable jihadi groups and a stockpile of over 100 nuclear warheads. The question now is how it will pursue those enemies, and what level of co-operation it will enjoy from its Pakistani allies.
“The Pakistanis look to the US for financial and other support; the Americans are pursuing senior al-Qaeda,” said Shamila N Chaudhary, a former Obama administration official, now with the Eurasia Group.
“Even after 2014, that mutual dependency will not go away”, she said.
About the author: Declan Walsh is the Bureau Chief of New York Times in Pakistan. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.