The AfPak Question

A look at Obama’s AfPak policy over the past four years of his presidency

US President Barack Obama with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai at the White House in 2009. JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS
01 November, 2012

DURING THE 2008 US PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN, then Senator Barack Obama emphasised the need to look at the military intervention in Afghanistan through a wider lens. The greatest threat to the security of both Afghanistan and the US, he said in a campaign speech on foreign policy in July that year, “lies in the tribal regions of Pakistan, where terrorists train and insurgents strike into Afghanistan”.

In December 2008, just after being elected, but not yet wielding his power as the chief executive, Obama spoke of a new policy direction in the US strategy in the war in Afghanistan. In an interview with NBC’s Tom Brokaw, he said, “[W]e can’t continue to look at Afghanistan in isolation. We have to see it as a part of a regional problem that includes Pakistan, includes India, includes Kashmir, includes Iran.”

His pronouncement caused so much protest in India that Obama immediately gave up the idea of addressing the Kashmir issue for fear of alienating one of America’s new strategic partners. But the “AfPak” concept continued to be publicised by the Obama administration.

This served them in their strategic use of Pakistan in dealing with Afghanistan, but also highlighted the fact that the Islamist problem lay in Pakistan. In a shift, Obama spoke of using development to help control the spread of militancy in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Listen to what he said—since he’s known to write his speeches (and to mean what he writes)—in December 2009:

In the past we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear. America is also providing substantial resources to support Pakistan’s democracy and development. We are the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting. And going forward, the Pakistani people must know America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people is unleashed.

That same year, the US Congress passed the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act (EPPA), a clear move away from a military-centric relationship with Pakistan. Initiated by US Senators Joe Biden and Richard Lugar, the bill was taken up by John Kerry and Lugar after Biden took office as vice-president—hence its name: the “Kerry-Lugar Bill”.

The aid that the US committed to giving in the framework of this Act amounted to $1.5 billion a year from 2010-2014. While once the US’s emphasis had been to equip Pakistan so that the country would implement a certain security-related policy, it was now prepared to pay for Pakistan to make development a priority, provided the money was properly used and civilian leaders rather than military ones remained in the driver’s seat—a provision that upset Pakistani generals.

Three years later, this priority looks to be gone: in 2011 the US disbursed less than 34 percent of the aid promised to Pakistan that year under the EPPA. And so far only two to three percent of the 2012 budget has been allocated. What went wrong?

One answer is a failure in civilian leadership. The Pakistani leaders Obama had singled out as partners with whom to build this new relationship have been ineffective. President Asif Zardari, a well known friend of the US intervention in Afghanistan, quickly lost the little credibility he had, due to his reputation for corruption and nepotism as well as his inability to relate to the Pakistani people. Most importantly, Zardari could not prevail over the army and its chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who were sceptical of US intentions in the war effort in Afghanistan. In July 2012, Kayani was given an unprecedented three years extension of his term as the chief of army staff—a sign that the army was gaining ground.

But Washington has furthered the decline of civilian authority in Pakistan as well. Indeed, sensing that Pakistan’s civilian government was no longer effective enough, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Vice President Joe Biden, all gradually began talking to General Kayani even when civilian leaders were sitting at the table, including Youssouf Raza Gilani when he was prime minister.

Their behaviour hinted at the Obama administration’s real attitude to security. It’s a priority made evident by the break-up of US aid to Pakistan in recent years. In 2007, towards the end of George W Bush’s second term, the non-military component of US aid represented only 33.8 percent of the total. In 2011, as the end of Obama’s first term was nearing, it represented 32.3 percent. What is especially disturbing is the amount of military spending this implied: under Bush, the US security-related aid to Pakistan never exceeded $1.5 billion a year; under Obama, it never went below that figure, and in fact, reached $2.7 billion in 2010.

The Pakistan army has used this money to purchase US weapons that they intended to use less to fight insurgents than to arm themselves against other countries—including India. While it would seem that the Obama administration would have been less inclined to sell as many arms as its predecessor did, especially given that the US Congress was increasingly objecting to such sales, it delivered them—in early 2010, the US approved the shipment of 12 Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-16Cs and six F-16Ds. The US also finalised other agreements that the Pakistan army greatly appreciated, including a $2 billion arms deal in 2010, which included helicopters and night-vision equipment. From 2009-2010 eight Pakistani air force members spent 10 months in Arizona being trained to fly new F-16s; it marked the first time since 1983 that Pakistani military officers received military training in the US.

So why has the US extended this much military help to Pakistan?  Primarily for being allowed to do the job the Pakistani army does not want to do in the country’s northwestern tribal areas—targeting militant strongholds. According to the New American Foundation, the number of drone strikes in northwest Pakistan increased from nine over the years 2004-07 to 33 in 2008, 53 in 2009, 118 in 2010 and 70 in 2011. According to the Foundation, the 330 or so reported drone strikes—till September 2012—in the region have killed approximately between 1,907 and 3,220 individuals, of whom around 1,618 to 2,765 were described as militants in reliable press accounts.

But according to a recent study compiled by the Stanford Law School and the New York University School of Law titled “Living under drones”, the collateral casualties among civilians are more than what these figure suggest: 98 percent of those who have been killed, the report states were “low-level militants” and civilians.

Drone attacks in northwestern Pakistan have been denounced by politicians—including Imran Khan—as violating Pakistan’s sovereignty. The January 2011 killing of two Pakistanis by CIA contractor Raymond Davis and the Osama Bin Laden raid in Abbottabad on 2 May that year were criticised for the same reason. By that summer, Pakistan had realised that a large number of CIA agents were positioned in their country. Concern that the US did not respect Pakistan’s borders came to a climax in November of that same year when US soldiers killed 24 Pakistan Army men in Salala, at the border with Afghanistan, mistaking them for militants.

The unpopularity of the US had reached unprecedented levels. According to the Pew Research Center, 69 percent of Pakistanis considered the US an enemy in 2011. The number has only increased this year, up to 74 percent.

After the Salala episode, Pakistan closed NATO supply lines leading from Karachi to Afghanistan, thus pulling back support for the US intervention—and then started to negotiate. In July 2012, after Secretary of State Clinton apologised to Pakistan’s foreign minister for Salala, the US military struck a deal with Pakistan, paying them $1.1 billion to reopen the roads, a development crucial to Obama’s military drawdown in Afghanistan, which he announced last June.

The big question, therefore, is: after the drawdown, will the US continue to pay Pakistan as much as they’ve done in the past (more than $23 billion in 10 years)? The simplistic answer is “no”: since the administration has said the US will pull out in 2014, one might assume they will not need Pakistan as much as when they had 168,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. But a more sophisticated response may be more relevant.

It’s unclear how many US soldiers and intelligence personnel currently based in Afghanistan will stay back. The US is now bargaining with President Hamid Karzai to retain a strong presence in the country and they may well be in a position to maintain several military bases there going forward. The Afghan army—despite being more than 200,000-strong today—is not sufficiently trained or armed to fight the Taliban effectively. Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda once again is a risk the US would not want to take.

But even after pulling out of Afghanistan, the US may decide that that they need Pakistan, this time not to fight the Taliban, but to negotiate with them. Few in Washington believe that the US can reach an agreement with the Taliban directly—partly because the Pakistanis have made a point to sabotage previous attempts at talks in order to situate themselves as indispensible intermediaries. American decision-makers may well resign themselves to sub-contracting peace talks to the Pakistanis.

Christophe Jaffrelot is a contributing editor at The Caravan. He has authored several books including The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics and Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the rise of Ethnic Democracy. He is a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris; a professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London; and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.