In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, the US needs a new way forward in Pakistan. The conventional wisdom says Washington’s policy of engagement has been a failure, and argues for a return to the distrustful approach that dominated American policy during the early 2000s. This would be a serious mistake.

In the decade after 9/11 the US has looked to the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency, to hunt al-Qaeda. We paid the government of Pervez Musharraf handsomely, both to co-operate in the war on terror, but also so that the US need not deal with Pakistan directly. The policy lead the US, against all evidence, to believe Pakistan was on its side, with inevitable revelations of ISI collusion with terrorists blamed on elusive “rogue elements”.

President Barack Obama changed this approach, by ending reliance on the ISI and charging the Central Intelligence Agency to go in on its own. This boosted the hunt for bin Laden, and saw the US kill more terrorists in Pakistan than anywhere else. But behind this military success lay greater diplomatic engagement, billions in aid and the promise of a long-run US commitment. The Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid bill, many rounds of dialogue and American help for flood victims all played a part.

This was unfortunately a one-time policy. The CIA has killed bin Laden and embarrassed Pakistan’s military: it is no longer likely to enjoy the freedom it once did. The US/Pakistan relationship, so important to that country’s stability and our own success in Afghanistan, is now collateral damage. The problem remains that both nations have starkly different interests. The US wants to leave Afghanistan, and end terrorist threats, but Pakistan wants parity with India and domination over Afghanistan – and it is not easy to change the calculations of a nuclear power that harbours deep distrust of US motives.

America can try to persuade Pakistanis that their view of its interests is wrong, or compel them to abandon them, but currently neither is on the cards. We are prepared neither to back Pakistan over India, nor offer a reasonable alternative to its strategic use of jihadi groups in the form of substantial military aid. The aid we do provide keeps Pakistan’s economy afloat, and secures co-operation here and there. But it is not large enough to influence basic strategic thinking.

When the dust settles from the killing of bin Laden, we must therefore choose between a long-run strategy to change Pakistan’s behaviour – with more aid, but also compelling retaliations – or our old policy of paying for short-run co-operation, while brushing off Pakistan’s worst transgressions.

The latter policy is easier and cheaper, and if the mood in Washington is an indication, it now stands a good chance of becoming policy. Yet this is what we tried with Gen Musharraf, spending many billions only to see Pakistan become more dangerous and anti-American. It would neither reward Pakistan for changing course, nor mete out punishments for failing to do so. Instead it muddles through, probably confirming the worst impressions of US intentions and stoking anti-Americanism along the way.

The second, more difficult option is to offer more assistance, and a more strategic relationship, in exchange for a genuine agreement to change course. This would entail deeper diplomatic engagement, coupled with substantially more help both to civilians and the military. It would also mean agreeing to Pakistan’s wishes for access to European and American markets, while addressing their security needs in Afghanistan – and more important, vis a vis India.

The flipside of such an approach, however, would have to be the credible threat of punishing Pakistan. The international community would have to sign up to possible diplomatic and economic sanctions, just as we have done on Iran or Syria. The US and Europe could threaten future aid cuts, sanctions against Pakistan’s military for support of terrorism, or openly take India’s side in disputes.

This second path would not be easy, but it at least offers the hope of avoiding the half measures of the past. We must also remember that, in the near future, Pakistan’s population will reach 350m, and its economy will be straining under the weight of burgeoning youth, weak infrastructure and dwindling resources. If we are worried about Pakistan today, we should think about that failed state of tomorrow.

The author is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and served as senior State Department adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan 2009-11

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