July 11, 2011

IN THE past several years, the Obama administration has tried a variety of strategies for managing the complex and critical U.S. relationship with Pakistan: offers of strategic partnership; expanded support for economic development; cultivation of relationships with both military and civilian leaders. Now, in frustration, it seems to have adopted the risky course of publicly confronting the Pakistani leadership while withholding U.S. aid as leverage. While it might deliver some short-term results, the tactic reflects a disarray in policy toward a country where instability or radicalization could pose a major threat to American security.

Confirming a report in the New York Times, White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley said in a television interview Sunday: “Until we get through these difficulties, we’ll hold back some of the money that the American taxpayers have committed to give.” Some $800 million — out of $4.5 billion in annual aid — appears to be at stake, including reimbursements for Pakistani military operations against the Taliban and other insurgents in its tribal territories.

Administration officials said the measure comes in response to several unfriendly Pakistani actions in the aftermath of the U.S. raid against Osama bin Laden, including the cancellation of visas for U.S. Special Forces troops who were working with Pakistan’s Frontier Corps. U.S. officials are also rightly incensed by the continuing refusal of Pakistan’s military and its intelligence service to break with elements of the Taliban or conduct operations in the terrorist-infested region of North Waziristan.

Yet Pakistani cooperation with the United States has not ceased: The CIA was given access to bin Laden’s compound, and dozens of new visas recently were issued to its personnel. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told the Times in an interview published Monday that after a pause, cooperation in dealing with militant groups along the Afghan-Pakistani border has resumed.

The administration seems to be calculating that further aid to Pakistan will be wasted — and impossible to justify to Congress — unless it can be seen to get results. Yet its practice of making its demands in public raises questions. Anti-
American sentiment is already running high in Pakistan, and leaders who favor cooperation with the United States are under siege. Announcing that funds will be held back “unless and until we see certain steps taken,” as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it in congressional testimony last month, may only intensify the resistance.

Pakistani leaders have long suspected that the United States aims only at a transactional relationship with their nuclear-armed state, rather than a true partnership. The administration’s new tack will probably strengthen Islamabad’s cynics while further undercutting what’s left of the pro-American faction. The deteriorating relationship, meanwhile, offers further cause for doubt about President Obama’s plan for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan. If Pakistan’s government and army can’t be counted on to cooperate against the extremist forces based in the country, the United States will need a presence in Afghanistan, and a stable Afghan government, more than ever.