Pakistan, the United States, and the Confidence Deficit

Photo by the Department of Defense/Flickr |

This article was featured in GSSR Vol. 1 Issue 1 |

By Aled Lloyd Owen |

A pessimistic analysis of recent trends in the U.S.–Pakistan relationship at the outset of 2012 might have tended to see it as being in a state of terminal decline: Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have been the focus of a CIA-led drone campaign which has caused considerable collateral damage. Meanwhile, the US has had its own grievances: in particular, suspected sponsorship of the Taliban and other extremist elements in both Pakistan and Afghanistan by the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Most troublingly, Osama bin Laden’s assassination deep within Pakistan, under the noses of the ISI and the Pakistani Military Academy at Abbottabad, raised questions about the complicity of Pakistan’s security services, if not the Pakistani state, in harboring America’s greatest enemy. However, this pessimistic interpretation of recent events does little justice to the reality of the U.S.–Pakistan relationship. For all intents and purposes, these tensions are merely representative of disagreements to be expected of any relationship, particularly one placed under the strain of a war – particularly a war as politically and militarily frustrating as that being fought in Afghanistan. These disagreements and tensions may occasionally be severe; they are often very public; but they do not threaten an alliance essential to both countries.

Pakistan: The United States’ Most Essential Ally

How essential an ally is Pakistan to the United States? At present the United States contributes 90,000 troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The next largest contributor to ISAF is the United Kingdom, a nation frequently referred to as the most staunch ally of the U.S., enjoying a ‘special relationship’ diplomatically, and unparalleled economic and cultural ties. The UK provides the equivalent of just over 10% of the troop numbers provided by the U.S. (9,500). Financially, the UK is the second biggest contributor to the NATO mission, behind the United States. The UK even provides more funding than does the United States to ISAF-led post-withdrawal reconstruction funds. The United States however, contributes immeasurably more to immediate military and reconstruction operations, which dwarfs the combined contributions of all other ISAF partners combined.[2]

While Pakistan’s diplomatic relationship with the United States enjoys none of the smooth-running of the U.S.’s ‘special relationship’ with the United Kingdom, Pakistan’s military contribution to the War on Terror far outstrips that of the UK’s. By the end of 2011, approximately 150,000 Pakistanis had been involved in offensive operations against militant groups in the FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) Province, formerly referred to as the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), where 3,946 Pakistani military personnel have lost their lives with a further 9,000-plus wounded.[3] It is interesting that although Pakistan is constantly the subject of editorials in the U.S. media lambasting it for preoccupying itself militarily in Kashmir against India and not devoting itself wholly to the fight against militants in the KPK and FATA, those same animosities are not leveled against Great Britain’s withholding of armed forces to guarantee her territorial security in the Falkland Islands, or to conduct peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and Africa. No NATO ally can be said to be as valuable, or to have sacrificed as much to the United States’ campaign in Afghanistan as Pakistan, although these other allies enjoy far more stable and cordial diplomatic relations with the U.S.

A Frustrating Relationship

Unlike America’s NATO partners in ISAF, what Pakistan has offered in terms of its sizable military contribution, it has adversely compensated for with its dependence on U.S. funding. This has proved to be a double-edged sword for the United States. On the one hand, the United States cannot hope to achieve its strategic military aims in Afghanistan without Pakistani military assistance in the FATA and KPK, but on the other hand, the vast U.S. financing of Pakistan’s military resources has been subject to flagrant corruption. A 2009 publication by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government entitled ‘US Aid to Pakistan – U.S. Taxpayers have funded Pakistani Corruption’ provides one such list of accusations against the Pakistani government. False claims submitted to the United States for reimbursement have included $1.5 million for damage to Navy equipment which had never been used in combat. $15 million was paid by the United States for the construction of bunkers in the FATA, yet there is no evidence of the bunkers’ existence. Similar projects for which no evidence of their actual existence is available include a $30 million road-building scheme and a $55 million refurbishment of the Pakistani national helicopter fleet.

U.S. funding for Pakistani military operations in the FATA, an essential investment, has contributed to some tactical victories, but even this rewarding dimension of the U.S.–Pakistan relationship has been tainted by false claims. There is a considerable evidence supporting allegations that the Pakistani army has claimed $80 million per month for military operations when troops were actually just in their barracks, often during ceasefires. Funding specifically allocated to counter-insurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT) in the FATA and KPK has also been subject to abuse or produced undesirable results. $200 million worth of procurement funding allocated for improving Pakistan’s COIN/CT capabilities was found to have been spent on conventional high-level war fighting equipment, including F-16s and air-to-air, air-to-ship, and missile-to-missile armaments, as well as large-scale anti-air/anti-missile defense systems and a new air defense radar network oriented east of the Indus River toward the India-Pakistan border. Meanwhile, U.S. officials visiting the FATA in 2009 to observe the effects of U.S. CT/COIN effectiveness funding described members of the Frontier Corps thusly:

The soldiers were ‘Standing…in the snow in sandals or bare foot… wearing World War 1-era pith helmets and carrying barely functional Kalashnikov rifles with just 10 rounds of ammunition each.’[4]

The conclusion of the mission was that ‘the great majority’ of Coalition Support Funds given by the U.S. for CT and COIN were diverted to Pakistan’s Ministry of Finance, with only $300 million reaching the army by the end of fiscal year 2008. That funding which did filter through was almost certainly largely spent by Pakistan with their main security threat in mind: India.

However galling it is that United States’ funds have been misappropriated in this way, its relationship with Pakistan remains essential. The United States must take its own share of the blame for allowing such massive corruption to occur: Until 2007, U.S. military funding to Pakistan operated with little preconditions, and even later, the U.S. failed to take adequate steps to monitor claims and spending. In the aftermath of the 2011 Abbottabad raid, the Pakistani military cancelled a $500 million counter-terrorism program which was funded and conducted by American armed forces. This cancelation not only had the effect of rejecting an opportunity to improve Pakistan’s CT capability within its armed forces; it stirred the United States into action, leading to the withholding of $800 million (just over one-third) of financial aid to Pakistan for 2011-12.[5] The effects of this more assertive approach to combatting corruption are yet to be clearly seen. It is clear that this situation has been a wake-up call for Pakistan, and a stern lesson for the United States that the stick also accompanies the carrot.

That the United States continues to tolerate the still high levels of corruption within the Pakistani government and military is testament to the strength of America’s dependence upon Pakistan’s military assistance and the weight it places on maintaining Pakistan as an ally. The withholding of aid in 2011 was a positive step for the United States in establishing conditionality, but also demonstrated a willingness to be patient and maintain the existing relationship.

Alleged Duplicity: The ISI and Osama Bin Laden

More difficult for the United States to deal with is alleged ISI support for the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and other militant groups within Pakistan and Afghanistan. Human Intelligence (HUMINT) has frequently linked Pakistan’s intelligence services with supporting attacks on ISAF troops within Afghanistan. A statement by Haji Saifullah, the district leader of Maywand, Kandahar, given to the Canadian military (and later re-printed in a Canadian newspaper) gives an idea of the type of HUMINT received on the subject:

“The Pakistan ISI is openly giving money for people that are laying mines. If the mine goes off on coalition forces, they are going to get more money; if they go off on ANA (Afghanistan National Army soldiers), they are going to get middle-class money and if it is going off on police, they are going to get less money.”[6]

While HUMINT must always be treated with caution – little HUMINT comes without an agenda – the similarity of content and the volume of accounts available give credibility to allegations of at least some ISI complicity in anti-NATO actions.

The tracing of Osama bin Laden to Abbottabad, Pakistan has done little to redeem the ISI in the eyes of the United States. After vanishing from Tora Bora in 2002, it was long suspected that bin Laden was sheltering in Pakistan in either the FATA or KPK. Here, it was supposed, bin Laden could live among Pashtun communities (his preferred environment) and direct al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan while remaining relatively well protected from Western special forces hunting him; compliance on the part of any elements of the Pakistani state need not and did not enter the equation.

The eventual rediscovery of bin Laden at a fortified compound in Abbottabad raised doubts about the innocence of the Pakistani establishment. Closer to Kashmir than Afghanistan, Abbottabad provided an urban, non-Pashtun setting for bin Laden deep within Pakistan – a far cry from the original speculation. The large compound in which bin Laden was found and assassinated was a conspicuous anomaly in a small town composed of mostly one- and two-story buildings, just a few miles south of a major Pakistani military academy. In short, the failure to identify his presence in Abbottabad hints at either complicity or gross incompetence on the part of the ISI. The U.S. raid on the compound came under heavy criticism from Pakistan, as it had been unauthorized and conducted without giving Pakistan prior warning. Notwithstanding statements on behalf of the U.S. military that operational security demanded that they not warn Pakistan of the raid until their helicopters had crossed the Durand line, justifiable distrust of the ISI and the Pakistan Army almost certainly played a role. Pakistan’s insistence on sentencing Shakil Afridi (the doctor who assisted the CIA in locating bin Laden) to thirty-three years in prison on the charge of treason has done little to dispel deep-rooted impressions of state duplicity.

In spite of plausible allegations against the ISI, the United States and ISAF continue to rely heavily on Pakistan’s intelligence services for the conduct of their operations in Pakistan. The effectiveness of drone strikes in the FATA, for example, relies heavily upon on HUMINT gathered by the ISI. The ISI provides valuable information on armament and narcotics trafficking over the Durand line and provides an enormous contribution to ISAF’s overall intelligence picture of the ‘AfPak’ theater. The United States and her allies are as dependent on the ISI as they are on the Pakistani military to achieve their aims in Afghanistan. The Afridi case however, has again demonstrated a growing willingness on the part of the United States to use the stick as well as the carrot in its relations with Pakistan, with Congress docking $33 million from Pakistan’s 2013 aid allocation – $1 million for each year Afridi has been sentenced to serve.[7] The indispensability of the ISI to NATO limits the United States’ options regarding how significant and effective these punishments can be.

The Confidence Deficit

It is essentially the United States’ lack of confidence in the Pakistani army’s and intelligence services’ ability to effectively fulfill their obligations within this alliance that leads to the dichotomy of America’s most essential ally in the war in Afghanistan being the greatest thorn in her side. The U.S. cannot do without Pakistan’s army containing the threat in the FATA, but it must be funded, and it cannot be relied upon to use that funding effectively to the ends which the United States desires. There is therefore a knock-on effect on U.S. confidence in the capability of Pakistani troops to meet U.S. requirements, for without effective funding and procurement, they cannot hope to perform CT/COIN operations to a desired level and effectiveness. Similarly, the U.S. and ISAF cannot hope to retain their current intelligence effectiveness without the assistance of the ISI, yet they know that while the majority of the institution supports NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, a select element is supporting the insurgency that is the very reason for ISAF’s existence.

While this element shelters and supports the enemies of the United States and her allies, they do not make Pakistan an enemy; rather, they make her a frustrating ally. The United States does not need another war, especially in a time of financial cost-cutting and foreign policy retrenchment, and particularly not one with such an important ally. Perseverance rather than punishment is the order of the day in dealing with Pakistan, where limited U.S. forces are utilized to compensate for those areas in which Pakistan has failed or cannot be relied upon to make an impact. The most public manifestation of this strategy has been the use of drones to conduct surgical strikes to add sharpness to Pakistani COIN/CT efforts in the FATA and KPK. Undertaken with the permission of the Pakistani government, the use of drone strikes enables the U.S. to shape gains made by Pakistani ground forces and intelligence gathering into results more keenly suited to its own aims.

The early years of the drone offensive placed strain on the U.S.-Pakistan diplomatic relationship and demonstrated that the United States too could be a frustrating ally: In 2008, 49% of all deaths from drone strikes were civilians or Pakistani military personnel. U.S. authorities have made conscious efforts to reduce the number of civilian deaths, both to improve tactical effectiveness of drones and to restore Pakistan’s confidence in her ally, with civilian deaths at 30% in 2009 and just 6% in 2010.[8] The United States has seen more clearly than Pakistan the need to address the confidence deficit in their relationship.

States Wish to Compensate for Pakistan’s Inability to Deal with Terrorism and Insurgency

One must conclude that the United States does not see Pakistan as an enemy but as a friend who cannot be relied upon to guarantee the security of its allies and neighbors. Though Pakistan is a breeding ground for terrorists and insurgents, it demonstrates a genuine commitment to rid itself of those elements, and as such should not be viewed as a potential target by the United States. The desire to see Pakistan as a problem and a partner is not exclusive to the U.S. and her NATO allies. This point is reinforced when we look to the relationship of Pakistan and China, a nation which has no links to the ‘War on Terror’ but shares a similarly frustrating security relationship with Pakistan as does the United States.

China’s confidence deficit stems from the perceived inability of Pakistan to effectively deal with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which seeks to make Xinjiang Province an independent Islamic state. Chinese intelligence, working alongside ISI, has deduced that these rebels are trained in the FATA. Beijing’s desire to quell al-Qaeda and ETIM operations in Xinjiang has led to requests for Chinese military bases in the FATA. Ostensibly, China seeks the bases to establish an offensive capability for its military to complement Pakistan’s operations against these elements. However, the move is indicative of a deficit in China’s confidence in Pakistan to effectively deal with the threat.

Pakistan is a crucial player in the war on terror, both in the context of the U.S.-led retaliation for the 9/11 attacks and in a more global context. Pakistan is not an adversary, but an essential if inept partner. It must do more to tackle corruption in order to improve its effectiveness in dealing with internal elements that threaten other nations. If it persists in failing to instill confidence amongst its allies in its ability to do this, then it must accept that they will wish to conduct their own operations within Pakistan in order to guarantee their security. If Pakistan fails to do this, then its safety at the hands of its current allies will be less strongly guaranteed.

Aled Lloyd Owen is an M.A. Candidate in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. His focus includes security issues in the Indian subcontinent and maritime peacekeeping operations.

[1] BBC News Asia, “Pakistan outrage after ‘NATO attack kills soldiers,” (accessed 27 Nov. 2012).
[2] NATO ISAF, “NATO: International Security Assistance Force Troop Contributions,” (accessed 27 Nov. 2012).
[3] South Asia Terrorism Portal, “Pakistan Assessment 2012,” 27 Nov. 2012).
[4] All information in this paragraph, as well as direct quotes from: Ibrahim Azeem, “U.S. Aid to Pakistan – U.S. Taxpayers have funded Pakistani Corruption.” Discussion Paper 2009-06, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University Kennedy School, July 2009.
[5] Jim Wolf, “U.S. withholds $800 million in aid to Pakistan: White House,” Reuters, 10 July 2011, (accessed 26 Nov. 2012).
[6] Ottawa Citizen, “Pakistan accused of placing Bounty on NATO soldiers,”, 5 April 2007, (accessed 26 Nov. 2012).
[7] Huma Imtiaz, “U.S. Senate docks Pakistan $1m for every year of Shakil Afridi’s sentence,” International Herald Tribune, 24 May 2012, (accessed 25 Nov. 2012).
[8] New American Foundation, “The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2012,” (accessed 25 Nov. 2012).

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