How the U.S. Bolsters China’s Pakistan Strategy at Its Own Expense

The U.S. highlights the rot in its Pakistan policy by feting Gen. Sharif in Washington, where he held talks with Vice President Biden, the secretaries of state and defense, and the CIA chief. The visit showed how the U.S. coddles Pakistani generals at the expense of Pakistan’s elected government.


Brahma Chellaney, China-US Focus

Strategic weapon transfers, loans, and political support allow China to use Pakistan as a relatively inexpensive counterweight to India. Yet, oddly, America also extends unstinted financial and political support to Pakistan, a country that has mastered the art of pretending to be a U.S. ally while hosting those that kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Washington’s present approach bolsters China’s Pakistan strategy but undercuts its own interests.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to sell an additional eight nuclear-capable F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan is just the latest example of America persistently rewarding a country that still refuses to snap its ties with terrorists or observe other international norms. By showering Pakistan with billions of dollars in aid annually, the U.S. has made the financially-struggling country one of this century’s largest recipients of American assistance.

Terrorists reared by the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency continue to train inside Pakistan for cross-border operations in India and Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban’s top leaders remain holed up in Pakistan, which also hosts sanctuaries for those waging hit-and-run campaigns in Afghanistan. Pakistan has not come clean even in regards to who helped Osama bin Laden hide for years in a military garrison town near its capital.

Yet, the U.S. has allowed itself to be repeatedly duped by Pakistan’s false promises. U.S. policy has not only turned Uncle Sam into Uncle Sucker but also made it easy for Pakistan to merrily run with the foxes and hunt with the hounds.

Over the past 13 years, the U.S. has given Pakistan more than $31 billion in aid and other financial support. And like China, it has been arming Pakistan with lethal weapons.

Under Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, the weapon systems that have flowed to Pakistan or are to be provided include eight P-3C Orion maritime aircraft, 18 new and 14 used F-16s, one Perry-class missile frigate,six C-130E Hercules transport aircraft, 100 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, 2,007 TOW anti-armor missiles, 500 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, 500 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, 1,450 2,000-pound bombs, six AN/TPS-77 surveillance radars, 115 M-109 self-propelled howitzers, 20 AH-1F Cobra attack helicopters, and 15 Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles.

More recently, Washington, in a nearly $1 billion deal with Pakistan, agreed to supply 15 AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters, 1,000 Hellfire II missiles, and targeting and positioning systems. The U.S. justification for arming Pakistan with such sophisticated weapons has been that they are needed for counterterrorism, as if the “bad” terrorists that Pakistan seeks to battle (while taking care of the “good” ones) have acquired naval, air, and ground-force capabilities.

Consider another issue: Despite Pakistan’s duplicity in the fight against terrorism, Washington continues to extend carrots to Pakistani military commanders in hopes of convincing them to sever their ties with all terrorist groups and to bring the Taliban to Afghanistan peace talks. Hope seems to spring eternal.

Yet, the U.S.’s Pakistan policy has also failed to deliver on other fronts, including reining in Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program and promoting a genuine democratic transition there. With the development of a robust civil society remaining stunted, jihad culture is now deeply woven into Pakistan’s national fabric. And despite an elected government in office, the military rules the roost in Pakistan.

Indeed, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been forced to let the military take charge of foreign policy and national security. Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif (not related to the prime minister) calls the shots on key issues. The government’s main responsibility is now limited to the economy, yet it cannot touch the financial prerogatives of the military, which, according to some estimates, consumes 26% of all tax receipts.

With the military, intelligence, and nuclear establishments not answerable to the government, Pakistan has been frenetically expanding its nuclear arsenal, building even low-yield tactical nukes for use on the battlefield against India. The arsenal provides the generals the nuclear shield to harbor terrorists without inviting military retaliation from India.

More than ever, Pakistan stands out as a military with a country, rather than a country with a military.

Against this background, if Pakistan is to become a moderate, stable country, the military’s viselike grip on power must be broken and the ISI made accountable. However, the U.S., far from seeking to address Pakistan’s skewed civil-military relations, has been mollycoddling Gen. Sharif, awarding him the U.S. Legion of Merit for his contributions to “peace and security.” Shortly, the general will pay another high-profile visit to Washington for talks with top officials.

More ominously, the U.S. has explored the idea of cutting a nuclear deal with Pakistan. Dangling the offer of a “nuclear mainstreaming” Pakistan — as advocates of the exploratory talks call it — carries a double risk: Incentivizing breach of norms by a state sponsor of terrorism, andlegitimizing a nuclear program built through theft of technology, deception, and clandestine transfers from China. A deal would also whitewash the biggest nuclear-proliferation scandal in history, known as the A.Q. Khan affair.

As long as Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program remains outside government control, any American attempt to limit it would fail.

The U.S.’s Pakistan strategy, despite a long record of failure, remains focused too much on carrots and too little on sticks or disincentives.Obama has spurned congressional advice to suspend some aid to Pakistan and impose travel restrictions and other sanctions on Pakistani officials known to have ties to terrorists.

Worse still, Obama’s recent move to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, leaving a withdrawal decision to his successor, means that the U.S. will continue to fight the war on the wrong side of the Afpak border while still rewarding the Taliban’s backer, Pakistan.

It is time for America to stop getting duped and fix its broken Pakistan policy, which permits the Pakistani military to nurture more transnational terrorists and Islamists. The policy also plays into China’s hands by unwittingly aiding Beijing’s designs and helping to cement the Sino-Pakistan nexus. Pakistan is a valued asset for China to keep India boxed in, but a burden for America’s geostrategic interests.

Washington must balance its carrots by employing an appropriate level of sticks to force change in Pakistan’s behavior. Sustained U.S. pressure is vital to encourage a reformed Pakistan at peace with itself.

© China-US Focus, 2015.