U.S. Pakistan Engagement: The War on Terrorism and Beyond

Touqir Hussain, Senior Fellow

Senior Fellow Touqir Hussain contended that while the war on terrorism may have provided the rationale for the current U.S. reengagement with Pakistan, it neither limits the relationship’s scope nor exhausts the challenges it faces. The reengagement has merged with Pakistan’s own reform effort, America’s evolving strategic relationship with South Asia, and the broader issue of democracy in the Muslim world. And in Pakistan and beyond, this new relationship collides with the crosscurrents of religious extremism.

But U.S. policy choices toward Pakistan are complex and imperfect. Though Pakistan is not a failed state nor a failing or a rogue state, it has had to varying degrees tendencies of all three. On top of that, it is a nuclear power.

According to Hussain, the United States faces a great balancing act in its relations with Pakistan. It must work with President Pervez Musharraf but not identify with his personal ambitions, it must nudge him to democratize but not discourage his strong hand, and it must advance U.S. nonproliferation objectives but not lose Pakistan’s support in the war on terrorism. Hussain recommended that critical U.S. policy choices toward Pakistan must also be integrated with broader regional policies. South Asia has changed and so has the basis of U.S. relations with it—and these developments present new threats as well as opportunities for U.S. foreign policy.

Hussain argued that Pakistan’s geopolitical environment remains a threat both to its external and internal security and may explain Musharraf’s wariness to take bold steps, especially in dealing with the jihadists. The no less precarious domestic order in Pakistan reinforces Musharraf’s caution. The country has serious problems relating to social change, governance, and democratization. These are now seamlessly linked and need to be attacked simultaneously. Above all, Pakistan needs to change its external behavior to strengthen its internal order, rather than pursue external goals at the expense of its internal stability.

Hussain commended President Musharraf for his clear articulation of the challenges facing Pakistan and for his demonstrated commitment to reform. Musharraf’s own vision of Pakistan—one which rests on modern and liberal values, what Hussain calls “enlightened moderation”—is compatible with U.S. objectives and provides a strong basis for the current U.S.-Pakistan reengagement. Nonetheless, Hussain discussed how both Musharraf and the United States face dilemmas in the implementation of this reengagement. Securing Pakistan’s cooperation in the war on terrorism is at the center of the challenges the U.S. faces in Pakistan. Pakistan has to make the best possible use of the current U.S. engagement but also keep in mind two facts. First, according to Hussain, Pakistan has to change and reform on its own. The United States is principally interested in stabilizing Pakistan. Second, while in the past Pakistan criticized the United States for lack of commitment to the relationship, Pakistan itself showed little regard for Washington by pursuing policies that defied U.S. concerns, such as those related to terrorism and the export of nuclear technology.

Hussain argued that the United States is currently engaged in an internal and external struggle to find a new mission and sense of purpose in a rapidly changing world. Scarred by the September 11 trauma, inspired by a religious outlook, and driven by a supreme consciousness of power, this struggle simplifies and distorts the emerging global challenges and devolution of power. These far-reaching changes may have made the United States the sole superpower, but they ironically have also raised the status of other powers with competing interests and policies. This makes it hard for the United States to lead, tempting it to dominate and resort to unilateralism, as in Iraq, which, in turn, provokes strong reactions and resistance. American power, therefore, is not absolute. And on many issues, the United States is walking alone, making its power even less absolute.

While the United States has the power to dismantle, it may not necessarily have the power to rebuild. Hussain pointed out that military interventions, as a high-risk instrument of U.S. foreign policy, are costly and provocative, lacking sustained public support at home and arousing anxiety abroad. They also raise questions of legality under international law and legitimacy in the court of international public opinion. The United States also has the added challenge of confronting contrary and incompatible objectives in the Islamic world, as the war on terrorism often conflicts with calls for democracy and nonproliferation. For example, giving support to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East that align with its policies and oil interests there comes at the expense of democracy. It is thus almost impossible to have a policy that can harmonize all objectives; some policy changes and compromises will be necessary—the crucial question then becomes where and to what extent should these tradeoffs be made. Further, Hussain argued that the United States should refrain from the use of sanctions against Pakistan as long as Pakistan continues its efforts to reform.

In conclusion, Hussain claimed that there are compelling rationales for the U.S. to remain engaged with Pakistan. And, given Pakistan’s precarious geo-political environment and dependence on borrowed power, as well as its chronic domestic weaknesses that may take time to heal, it could remain a friend and possibly even an ally of the U.S.

Touqir Hussain is a senior diplomat retired from Pakistan’s foreign service. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Japan (1998–2003), Spain (1993–1995), and Brazil (1990–1993). He also held senior positions in the Pakistani Foreign Office, including that of additional foreign secretary heading the bureaus of the Middle East and of the Americas and Europe. From 1996 to 1998, he was diplomatic adviser to the prime minister. Ambassador Hussain frequently contributes editorial pieces on international affairs relevant to U.S. relations with South Asia and the Muslim world for U.S. and Pakistani newspapers.