On Sept. 27, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan penned an op-ed in the Washington Post asking the United States to stop scapegoating Pakistan. He has a point. Pakistan’s nefarious role in Afghanistan is very real, but scapegoating Islamabad also became a coping mechanism for Washington and Kabul to avoid confronting their own failures. Washington’s unhealthy reliance on Pakistan throughout its war in Afghanistan kept the relationship at a dysfunctional equilibrium, but now relations are at risk of degenerating sharply, and the two countries have only themselves to blame. Overcoming this requires both Washington and Islamabad to prioritize realistic areas of cooperation over rehashing tired narratives of blame.
Pakistan, once rattled by the United States’ arrival in Afghanistan, became comfortable with the status quo of gradual Taliban gains kept at bay by a stuck United States reliant on Pakistan’s help. Islamabad only began to show inklings of buyer’s remorse over its support of the Taliban as the U.S. withdrawal deadline grew closer.
Almost exactly one year earlier, Khan penned an op-ed in the Washington Post warning against a “hasty international withdrawal” from Afghanistan. It was a carefully worded paean to Pakistan’s efforts in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Khan concluded that “bloodless deadlock on the negotiating table is infinitely better than a bloody stalemate on the battlefield.” He got the deadlocked negotiations—but the result was anything but bloodless. Afghanistan descended into a tempest of Taliban-led fighting, unclaimed targeted killings with the Taliban quick to use Islamic State-Khorasan for plausible deniability, and diplomatic gridlock.
Islamabad’s hopes for what it called a “geoeconomic reset” that would broaden relations beyond security were cast aside by a new iteration of “do more.” As the Taliban advanced, Pakistan’s purported red line for its intransigent protégé retreated from don’t restore Afghanistan to don’t enter Kabul by force. That second line was never tested as the Taliban simply moseyed into the capital following the collapse of the Afghan government.
In the weeks leading up to Kabul’s fall, #SanctionPakistan flooded Twitter, shared by many Afghan officials and civil society leaders angry at Islamabad’s interference over the years by military and civilian leaders alike. In 1993, then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ran against the Pakistan Peoples Party using the slogan “you gave up Dhaka, we took Kabul” as a snarky reference to the latter’s loss of East Pakistan to form Bangladesh and his own support for the Afghan mujahideen. This led to deep distrust for Sharif within Afghanistan’s post-2001 government. But anger at Pakistan also helped Afghan elites deflect criticism as the true costs of their mismanagement became apparent. Although it rattled some in Islamabad, Washington’s policymakers, who have no desire to turn a nuclear-armed Pakistan into an isolated pariah state, ignored it. Not everyone in Washington shares this sentiment, however, and calls to punish Pakistan are growing louder.
One Bloomberg op-ed declared Pakistan an “even bigger winner” than the Taliban in Afghanistan. Fox anchor Lara Logan labeled the Taliban takeover an invasion by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency; used a doctored photo to accuse the Taliban’s lead negotiator and deputy prime minister, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, of being a Pakistani citizen; and called for sanctions on Islamabad. Some analysts have called for Pakistan to join Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria as a designated state sponsor of terrorism. Neoconservative think tanks have echoed these suggestions.
Even major publications, including Bloomberg’s editorial board, called for counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan but also advocated for targeted sanctions against its generals and spies. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton called the ISI a “hotbed of radicalism” and argued for the United States to end aid to Pakistan, impose sanctions, and remove its status as a major non-NATO ally—a change in tune from when Bolton told Greta Van Susteren in 2010 he believed Pakistan’s military possessed greater “loyalty to the idea of Pakistan” than its civilian leaders and former U.S. President George W. Bush should have “kept [former Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf in power.”
What makes the U.S.-Pakistan relationship so toxic is not that their interests have diverged widely from the halcyon days of anti-Soviet cooperation but the prevailing assumption that their differences can only be managed through coercive engagement, money thrown at the problem, or disengagement.
One root cause of this dysfunction is relations are largely managed through the two countries’ security establishments. In 2018, then-commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel testified to the House Armed Services Committee, saying he spoke to his Pakistani counterpart “almost weekly.” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has spoken by phone with Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, at least four times, and in early September, CIA director William Burns met with Bajwa and ISI Director-General Faiz Hameed. U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to call Khan, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi met in person for the first time last week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
Relations between the United States and Pakistan have often grown closer during periods of military rule, such as during the 1960s under then-Pakistani President Ayub Khan, the 1980s under then-Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and the early 2000s under Musharraf. Ties grew noticeably colder under the civilian leadership of then-Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s, who ultimately accused Washington of plotting against him prior to his imprisonment and execution by Zia-ul-Haq.
Washington’s leaders might say they have no choice but to deal directly with Pakistan’s security establishment, which is the country’s real decision-maker on matters of national security. But Washington, as Bolton’s words in 2010 indicated, has also grown accustomed to the political expediency of going straight to Pakistan’s brass and sidelining its civilian government. Bush’s “with us or against us” ultimatum to military dictator Pervez Musharraf was successful precisely because he was the sole decision-maker. Had Pakistan been a genuine democracy 20 years ago, fully accountable to its lawmakers and public opinion, then things might have gone differently. Instead, Washington and Islamabad’s spymasters and generals have eked out a working relationship while the civilian government remains disengaged.
Congress’s dubious attitude toward Pakistan was best summarized by Rep. Bill Keating when he recently described it as “one relationship that really always troubled me.” During that same hearing, Rep. Scott Perry struck at the heart of Pakistan’s insecurities when he exclaimed, “we should no longer pay Pakistan [for counterterrorism cooperation], and we should pay India.” Recently introduced legislation calls for an assessment of Pakistan’s past support for the Taliban but falls short of any punitive measures.
Khan’s jovial charm is powerful, but it hasn’t led to a significant shift in Washington perceptions of Pakistan, save for a few well-tended interlocutors like Sen. Lindsey Graham. But even there, praise for Islamabad is sometimes little more than an underhanded compliment intended to poke at a domestic political rival, such as when Graham criticized Biden for failing to reach out to Khan by phone—a snub that is a source of anxiety in Islamabad and a sign of how little Biden prioritizes Pakistan’s civilian leadership.
Pakistan desperately wants to avoid a repeat of the 1990s, when it mythologized supposed U.S. betrayal after Washington slapped sanctions on Islamabad over its nukes despite relying on the country in Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet war. Pakistani politicians eulogize these grievances, but they induce eyerolls among some observers of U.S.-Pakistan relations who view it as nothing more than gaslighting. Indeed, Pakistan needed no cajoling to support the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets and was outright duplicitous about its intentions for nuclear weapons and its role in proliferation elsewhere. But Islamabad is not wrong about counterproductive U.S. diplomatic disengagement from the region following the collapse of the Soviet Union nor is its fear of a return to that era unfounded.
The “maximum pressure” campaign used against Iran eroded the middle class, hurt private businesses, was a boon for ventures backed by the security establishment, and helped advance hard-liner narratives. A copy-and-paste application of this failed policy in Pakistan would likely produce similar results or simply foment a rally-around-the-flag effect. Some critics of Washington’s reliance on Pakistan propose a narrower approach focused on targeted sanctions against specific officials, ending its major non-NATO ally status, and scaling back attempts to cooperate. But like it or not, Pakistan’s cooperation is crucial for continued evacuations, refugee resettlement, and economic development in Afghanistan. Even some of the biggest critics of Pakistan’s security establishment have credited it with assisting Washington against transnational terrorist groups. Washington and Islamabad will likely continue to fight these groups together, even if the target list is narrower than the U.S. Defense Department and the CIA prefer. Pakistan also holds an inherent importance as a nuclear-armed country of more than 226 million people that finds itself on the front lines of climate change.
Khan’s speech at the United Nations attempted to bury the lede by addressing the pandemic, climate change, debt restructuring, corruption, Islamophobia, and Kashmir before discussing events in Afghanistan. But Pakistan also must disabuse itself of its “geoeconomic reset” fantasies with Washington anytime soon. Competing objectives and differing accounts of the last four decades have stacked the odds against Islamabad. Gleeful statements, such as Khan’s claim that Afghanistan broke the “chains of slavery” after the Taliban takeover, are self-inflicted wounds that cannot be taken back. Its harboring of Taliban leaders over the years is a public relations nightmare—and Islamabad can now be held responsible for their actions, even as Pakistan’s influence over the new regime wanes. Even Taliban social media sensation General Mobin Khan recently referred to Khan as nothing more than a puppet, telling Pakistan to mind its own business (in so many words).
The onus will be on Pakistan to demonstrate it can be a useful partner to the United States going forward, and little credit will be given for its help in a diplomatic process with the Taliban that ultimately failed. What can happen, however, is normalizing the way the two countries manage ties with each other—with a shift toward civilian-led diplomatic outreach. Relegating relations to intelligence agencies risks repeating the same mistakes of the 1980s while finger-pointing and cold shoulders will only reopen the wounds of the 1990s.
Adam Weinstein is a research fellow at the Quincy Institute.