Pakistan, National Security, and 2012: It's Complicated

James P. Farwell is the author of The Pakistan Cauldron: Conspiracy, Assassination & Instability. He has advised the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Department of Defense, combining expertise on Pakistani politics with a strong background as a top political consultant.


PJ Media recently conducted an interview with Farwell regarding the myriad complications with the United States’ relationship with Pakistan, and how the foreign policy dilemmas relate to the 2012 election.

Q. Why is Pakistan so critical a U.S. foreign policy issue to whomever occupies the White House in January of 2013?

It has 180 million people, a hundred nuclear warheads, and violent extremists threaten its stability and that of the region. Everyone should be concerned about the possibility of conflict between India and Pakistan and the implications, given that both are nuclear-armed.

The U.S. played a critical role in preventing a war between them within the last decade that could have escalated into a nuclear exchange. For this reason, it is imperative that we stay engaged in the region.

Q. What are U.S. interests in Pakistan?

First, support the elected civilian government and democratic institutions so as to redress the current imbalance between civilian authority and the military.

Second, foster stability. An unstable or collapsed nuclear-armed Pakistani state would represent a major threat to the region, the U.S., and to other parts of the world.

Third, work with Pakistan to achieve regional stability.

Finally, persuade it to join more vigorously in defeating violent extremism which threatens Pakistani democracy, national and regional stability, and the United States.


Having said that, our chances of success on the last one are questionable. Many Pakistanis see their interests as different from those of the U.S., and see the conflict both in Pakistan and Afghanistan as created by the U.S. They feel they have been dragged into a war not of their own choosing. It is hard to overstate how angry they are over that perception.

Q. It has been said that Pakistan is our real enemy in the Afghanistan war. Is that true?

No. Our real enemy is the Taliban and the threat posed to Pakistani stability should extremists there or in Afghanistan prevail.

Q.  What are the important questions voters should ask the presidential candidates regarding Pakistan?

What do the candidates see as vital U.S. interests in Pakistan? Do they recognize the importance of Pakistan to regional stability and its implications for American security? Most Pakistanis believe that the U.S. alliance with their nation is actually just an alliance with the military and not with the Pakistani people. How can we overcome that perception? How do get around the fact that most Pakistanis believe that the U.S. and the West are at war with Islam?

Q. Which leads us into the topic of drones. How explosive an issue are the drone attacks conducted in Pakistan by the U.S. military?

America’s interest lies in eliminating al-Qaeda and violent extremist leaders. Drone attacks have taken out over a dozen top al-Qaeda leaders. Yet Pakistanis see the drone attacks as a violation of their sovereignty. Many feel the attacks kill innocent civilians. They do fuel anti-American hostility. Some fear that the attacks are radicalizing elements of the military, opinion leaders, and the middle class, and that Pakistan could reach a tipping point that enables violent Islamists to win control over the state.


Q. With the federal budget-cutting environment in Washington right now, do you think candidates should support spending $2.5 billion annually for military assistance in Pakistan?

We’ve already suspended $800 million of it. However, we ought to look very hard at the dollars we provide, especially to Pakistan’s military, to ensure that they advance our interests.

Q. The United States is also spending $1.5 billion with the U.S. Agency for International Development and another $1.8 billion in other economic assistance. Should this continue?

For civilian aid, we need to be much more vigorous in ensuring that the U.S. actually receives credit for what it does. Any publicity about a reduction in civilian aid would be ill-advised, as that would strengthen the extremist propaganda that the U.S. doesn’t really care about Pakistan.

In the meantime, civilian aid must be carefully monitored. The new conditions we’ve put on aid through the Kerry-Lugar legislation have meant that very little aid has actually been expended. However, it has been disaster assistance by the U.S. to Pakistan in the past that has bolstered the image of the U.S. the most in that country. The U.S. should both continue to respond quickly to natural disasters in Pakistan and periodically remind Pakistanis of this manifestation of our friendship.

Q.  Is it plausible for the U.S. to forge a viable partnership with Pakistan in combating al-Qaeda and the Taliban?


Despite bin Laden’s presence there, Pakistan has been generally cooperative in fighting al-Qaeda, which they see as comprised of foreigners. They have been more ambivalent about the domestic Taliban. They have seen Pakistani Taliban as fellow countrymen, and dislike fighting their own citizens. Still, Pakistanis dislike violent extremists. Unfortunately, huge majorities are also hostile to the United States. The Pakistan government wants to defeat violent extremists at home, but key members want to maintain a viable relationship with the Afghan Taliban.

Q. Were you surprised when Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai recently said in a television interview “God forbid, if there is ever a war between Pakistan and America, then we will side with Pakistan.”

He is unpredictable and often retracts irresponsible statements. There may have been motivations to that remark that we don’t understand.  He may be signaling to the Pakistanis that he is friendly and making amends for signing a strategic agreement with India. He may also be playing to a popular anti-Americanism.

Q.  Why do you say in your book that Pakistan reflects a culture of paranoia, betrayal, and assassination?

That’s what its history shows. Until Asif Ali Zardari, the current president, each head of state died, was assassinated, forced out, or dismissed.

Because tribal loyalty comes first, the country has a weak national identity. That breeds a culture of conspiracy, paranoia, and betrayal. Another reason their politics are dysfunctional is that for too long the government has responded to the Army and Washington and not Pakistani voters. Because the culture is about power relationships and political patronage rooted in family, tribe, and clan, political party contests are mainly over who controls patronage, not ideas. The culture is an obstacle to modernization and reform.


Q.  What is the story behind the bin Laden mission and has it affected Pakistani politics?  

Outstanding work by the CIA and our military. Two words sum up our viewpoint: mission accomplished.

Musharraf and Bush had an understanding that if we found bin Laden, Mullah Omar, or certain other terrorist leaders, we could take them out. The U.S. always made clear to Pakistan that we would track down bin Laden, no matter how long it took. Musharraf denies that, but his denial rings hollow.

The bin Laden attack has had a huge impact on Pakistani politics. From their viewpoint, the attack put them in an untenable posture. Either they did not know bin Laden was present in Pakistan, in which case they were ignorant or incompetent. Or they did, in which case they were complicit. They feel it was another case of American arrogance in abusing Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Winston Churchill rightly stated that nations have interests, not friends. That applies to Pakistan. The question isn’t whether they love us, but how to secure mutual cooperation in fighting mutual enemies. Sometimes there is confusion over who is an enemy. That confusion is at the heart of why U.S. relations with Pakistan will remain unpredictable and why Pakistan is central to any U.S. foreign policy debate in the 2012 election.


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