Balancing Pakistan…with Iran?

The illustrious Christine Fair has an article in Foreign Policy discussing what’s going on between the U.S. and Pakistan entitled Pakistan Has All the Leverage Over Trump. The title pretty much tells you what you need to know. If you are going to fight a war in Afghanistan you have to get there (it’s landlocked.) For us, right now, Pakistan is the way to get there. Unfortunately their priorities do not match ours. Fair writes:

One can argue that the United States lost the war in Afghanistan when it went to war with Pakistan, one of the states most committed to undermining U.S. efforts there. Whereas the United States wants a stable Afghan government that can resist its predatory neighbors and keep Islamist militants out of the government and prevent these militants from using Afghanistan as a sanctuary to train, recruit, and plan terrorist attacks in the region and beyond, this is precisely the Afghanistan that Pakistan wants.

Fair (who, full disclosure, I know, like, and admire) notes that Obama ran into this reality as well and – as Trump is doing now – tried to use U.S. aid as leverage over Pakistan. Obama went further, threatening, and to a limited extent carrying out military strikes on Pakistan. Unfortunately, Pakistani behavior has not really changed. Hanging over this, Fair observes, and I’ve thought about it as well, is that Pakistan also threatens us through its very fragility. That is, if we don’t support Pakistan financially it could become a nuclear armed-failed state awash in Islamist terrorists. (Nightmares anyone?)

Fair points out, as she has for years, that there is an alternative to our logistic dependence on Pakistan, a route into Afghanistan starting at the Iranian port of Chabahar. Fair notes that Iran was willing to work with us after 9/11 but we rebuffed them. But now things may have changed:

But most Americans recoil at the suggestion of cooperating with Iran, arguing that Tehran is a potential nuclear-proliferating sponsor of terrorism. Needless to say, Pakistan is an actual nuclear-proliferating sponsor of terrorism. Moreover, Pakistan is actually more dangerous than Iran: Tehran’s terrorist proxies are regional menaces rather than the international, hydra-headed scourges cultivated by Islamabad.

Under the Obama administration, the United States made unprecedented progress in thawing relations with Iran with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which opened up at least the possibility of exploring the idea of moving supplies from the port in Chabahar.

I am not as sanguine as Fair about Iran’s behavior. Their record as supporters of terrorism is pretty extensive and their activities across the Middle East represent a strategic problem. Even if we did recognize Iran as the lesser evil to Pakistan there are formidable domestic constituencies heavily opposed to this opening. Further, a number of our allies in the Middle East really, really do not like Iran. Would we want to upend our relations with them so we could fight in Afghanistan? Tough call.

Do we even want to be fighting in Afghanistan. There is a strong argument that our continued presence there is a case of the sunk costs fallacy – we can’t quite because we’ve already invested so much. There is the concern that if leave and the Taliban take over (as seems likely), Afghanistan will again become a locus for international terrorism. I’m actually less worried about that. 9/11 happened, in part, but global attention was not on international terrorism. Now it is and while various counter-terror capabilities might need to be expanded, that’s way cheaper than fighting in Afghanistan.

My argument for staying in Afghanistan would be the humanitarian one. The people of Afghanistan did not ask to be the crucible on which the Cold War ended or for their own resulting decades of civil war. Things there are very bad now, but there have also been remarkable gains (at least in some parts of the country).

There is another reason, besides enabling the fight in Afghanistan, to turn to Iran. That is Pakistan itself. It is, as I’ve written, an international basket-case. Without serious reforms it is difficult to see how it can face its multi-pronged economic, social, and environmental challenges. If we don’t need Pakistan for other foreign policy goals, we are in better shape to try to influence Pakistan itself, we change who has leverage. For Pakistan the core issue, from the very founding of the state, has been its conflict with India. This obsession helped enable the Pakistani military to dominate the state, making vast claims on the nation’s resources – leading to or exacerbating the various structural deficits threatening the state itself. Can we push and prod Pakistan into new directions? Maybe, probably not – but unless we decouple them from our Afghanistan policy moves in that direction don’t stand a chance.

And what of Iran? There is stuff doing there, I don’t claim to have any insight whatsoever. Can they lead to new opportunities? Not really soon. We don’t know where this will lead. Could we get a new Iran that can become a close ally and utterly changes and recounces its past behavior? Maybe, probably not. Can we get an Iran that we can do pragmatically do business with? That seems more likely, but working with them will require adroit diplomacy both with Iran, other players in the region, and domestically.

Time will tell.

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