US-Pakistan crisis: the either/or tribe

Published: September 27, 2011

Somehow, in trying to respond to the United States, we are missing the essential point in the present crisis that has the potential to spiral. So far, we have indignantly challenged the veracity of Admiral Mike Mullen’s accusations and rejected them. That was important but has been done. We now need to go beyond that and to beyond belong some hard facts and choices.

Fact 1: The US is accusing Pakistan of waging a proxy war on it and is putting on a full court press to get the latter to fall in line. This is different from merely alleging that the Network is killing GIs or that its activities are preventing the US from stabilising Afghanistan. Those are the effects; the cause is Pakistan’s support to the Network and, by extrapolation, Islamabad’s active effort to defeat Washington’s interests in Afghanistan. The ally is in fact, according to this narrative, working against the US and is the enemy.

Fact 2: Having done so, Washington has locked itself in a commitment trap — i.e., it cannot simply sit back and let the crisis deescalate unless Pakistan is visibly seen to be doing something to address the US concerns.

Fact 3: By accusing Pakistan of directly supporting the Haqqani Network, the contention over an operation in North Waziristan acquires a different meaning; it is not just about physically occupying that area — though in terms of visibility that is now more urgent than ever — but withdrawing the alleged support to the Haqqanis and accepting Washington’s demands in line with the latter’s interests in Afghanistan and the region.

This narrative can be challenged at many levels and rejected, as has been done, and is being done. But it should be clear that it is not enough to say that this is bollocks. That doesn’t make policy, especially if we are convinced, as it appears from our narrative, that the US is wounded and needs to scapegoat someone. That would in fact mean the dice is loaded against Pakistan anyway.

So, is it a simple choice between escalating and capitulating? No. Those who are suggesting this either/or approach should get out of this business and start doing something more useful.

Pakistan needs to coolly appreciate the options available to the US and to herself. The situation is far more complex for both sides to embark on a direct confrontation without calculating the risks. Quite often, intransigence on issue X is deception because an actor is actually playing for gains on issue Y.

Even allowing for asymmetry, going up on the escalatory ladder by the stronger side is not a neat job. The further up the ladder any side would go, the less likely the chances of success because of what Herman Kahn called a “‘spasm war’ in which both sides would lose all” even as “sufficient asymmetry of capabilities at lower levels would ensure that an intolerable burden would be put on the side forced to raise the stakes”.

This is what Kahn described as escalation dominance: “[The]… capacity, other things being equal, to enable the side possessing it to enjoy marked advantages in given regions of the escalation ladder.” But once escalation begins, there is likely to be “the jet effect of the competing capabilities on the rung being occupied, the estimate by each side of what would happen if the confrontation moved to these other rungs, and the means each side has to shift the confrontation to these other rungs”.

Straightforward? No. “The major difficulty with this approach in operational terms was [and remains] that the escalation ladder was [is] unable to appear as clearly in practice as in theory.”

There are competing capabilities on both sides and both know that. The US also knows that in any confrontation involving military options, Pakistan has options to respond. The calculation for the US would not be how much punishment it can mete out to Pakistan, which can be enormous, but how much of it she can take. That can be a sobering thought.

Given this, it would rely more on non-military punishment, at least in the days to come — combining it with military actions that may not test Pakistan’s red lines overtly — to compel Pakistan to at least do some, if not all, of its bidding. It is important to note that despite the accusations, Mullen told the US lawmakers that a “flawed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement”. The relationship cannot be broken because of US constraints. So, how does the US balance its strategy of compellence with its limitations?

The answer should determine Pakistan’s responses. The space relates to the knowledge that Pakistan cannot afford escalation but equally that the US cannot go up the ladder without the risk of jet effect.

This is where non-military means come in. The US could stop bilateral aid to Pakistan. But it also knows that that is unlikely to hurt Pakistan too much. In fact, some economists have argued that such an act may well be to the advantage of Pakistan. However, that is not the only lever. The US can influence other financial support — the IMF, World Bank, other IFIs, state donors that run various projects, etc. There are also other programmes in the development, health and education sectors.

Beyond that lie export quotas, both bilateral and others: if the US declares Pakistan a state sponsoring ‘terrorism’, that would unleash a sanctions regime which will severely impact Pakistan’s access to capital. They have done this with many states, including Iran and Sudan (both are better placed because of oil to take the brunt).

If money flows are terribly hit, Pakistan’s economy, already tottering, could begin to unravel. This coupled with selective military actions that seek to avoid direct confrontation with Pakistani troops could be a plausible scenario.

But what is important to note is the paradox: by killing the fiction of a strategic partnership with Pakistan and upping the ante, the US has also lost the leverage it had when, for instance, it mounted the Abbottabad raid. And if Pakistan begins to unravel, that could pose its own dangers to US interests. So, we now have a Pakistan that doesn’t want escalation but is more prone to reacting to US actions. That means a lesser ability by the US to compel Pakistan to change its behaviour through overt actions that could beget a response.

Other actors like India, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran thrown into the equation make the calculus even more complex. Both sides are therefore faced with the tremendous challenge of managing risks associated with any spiralling effect at a time when they are getting locked into commitment traps.

Corollary: Let’s get rid of either/or analyses and begin to formulate a strategy informed by the terrible complexity of the situation.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 28th, 2011. 

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Reader Comments (35)

  • Ali Tanoli
    Sep 27, 2011 - 10:48PM

    With 200 million peoples pakistan is not laos or any banana republic and by land conneted
    to china, india, iran, and central asia and not too far from oil rich Oman. jee ley gey tere
    bin be.


  • Wellwisher
    Sep 27, 2011 - 11:06PM

    The author is more confused and unable to take a clear stand


  • Babloo
    Sep 27, 2011 - 11:10PM

    Pakistan is holding a gun to its own head and threatening USA. Thats pretty much what Mr Ejaz Haider proposes and summarizes.


  • Pakistani
    Sep 27, 2011 - 11:11PM

    USA ruined up in Afghanistan… She lost the war of Afghanistan… Americans should admit the DEFEAT and go home rather putting Pakistan responsible for their defeat. Recommend

  • Stuka Singh
    Sep 27, 2011 - 11:52PM

    “But what is important to note is the paradox: by killing the fiction of a strategic partnership with Pakistan and upping the ante, the US has also lost the leverage it had when, for instance, it mounted the Abbottabad raid.”

    False. The nature of the Abbotabad raid was such it assumed the non existence of a strategic partnership.

    ” And if Pakistan begins to unravel, that could pose its own dangers to US interests.”

    Debatable at best. An unraveled Pakistan suits US interests more than a stable but hostile Pakistan. The key issue is not Pakistan but it’s military establishment and it should be portrayed very much as the resource hog that it is to the Pakistani people. Let the Pakistani people face hardship as a price of supporting their Army.


  • M
    Sep 27, 2011 - 11:59PM

    @Ali Tanoli
    You are correct. Actually Pakistan is in far worse condition. Fact is Pakistan will collapse without foreign aid. Simple lesson is you cannot bite the hand that feeds. If US aid ceases, Chinese aid will help support the politicians & generals lavish lifestyle. But be warned Chinese will extract more than a pound of flesh in return. And it may be nothing less than outright userping of large swaths of strategic territories such as Gwadar & Pakistani Kashmir.


  • White Russian
    Sep 28, 2011 - 12:03AM

    Nerdy theorising is not going to save Pakistan from itself.


  • Arindom
    Sep 28, 2011 - 1:12AM

    Funny how the army which has been nurturing all these terrorists are in the background while it is th politicians voicing statements over which they have no understanding nor control!!!
    To make the best of a bad situation – the politicians need to take control of their country from the army. This wil buy time. Later they can start ordering the army to stop sponsoring terrorists.


  • khan
    Sep 28, 2011 - 1:27AM

    What pseudo-intellectual twaddle!

    The bottom line is despite our militaristic bombast and nuclear bombs we are a financially impoverished nation which in the past few years has been relying on overseas assistance to hobble along.

    Our generals are obsessed with ‘strategic depth’ and see enemies everywhere. In the process we have alienated just about every country in the world. The vast majority of Pakistanis are largely preoccupied, given the harsh economic climate, with making ends meet simply to feed our families.

    Contrary to Ejaz Haider’s blather about it being a ‘complex situation’, it is not. (Only the ghairat-brigade is out there shrilly calling for action against a ‘perfidious’ USA. The rest of us are deeply worried. Have our Khakis gone too far yet again?)

    Can we realistically afford to take a punga with the US? The answer can either be a yes or a no. It is as simple as that.


  • John B
    Sep 28, 2011 - 1:31AM

    Option 1: Pak joins the fight with NATO – good for all, bad for Haqqani and Omar

    Option 2: PAK sits back, relax, and let the US do all the work- bad for NWA, PAK, and Haqqani and Omar, bad for US.

    Option3: US transfers responsibility to Afghanistan, ignores PAK: bad for PAK, good for Haqqani and Omar, good for US

    Option 4: US stays put in non combat operations as in Iraq, breathing on PAK neck: – good for Afghanistan, bad for PAK, may be bad for Haqqani and Omar, bad for NWA.

    Sum total of options: bad for PAK.

    Take a pick.


  • G. Din
    Sep 28, 2011 - 2:05AM

    “…the US has also lost the leverage it had …”
    Wrong! You should have said, more correctly, “the US has also lost the leverage it thought it had”. No one can have any leverage with a double-crossing, double-dealing, cheating, double-faced “ally”. US knew that long ago how Pakistan acted true to its innate character. Today’s NYT points out that Pak Army ambushed a combined US and Afghan delegation on the helipad in 2007 as they were returning to Afghanistan after a meeting with the Pak Army about shelling across the border. In this ambush a US Major was killed at point-blank range. The whole affair was hushed up because the US-Pakistan relations were considered far too important for the greater good of fight against terrorism. It is far better to face an honest enemy than have a false friend by your side. It is that “friend” that will stab you!


  • Ali Wazir
    Sep 28, 2011 - 2:24AM

    Pakistan needs to climb the escalatary ladder to meet the Americans halfway at least. Capitulation and complacence is not an option anymore.If we are arm twisted and cajoled into a collision course with the major Afghan Taliban factions, its game over for any chance of peace for a very very long time.Right now,In our posturing it would be useful to err on the side of overreaction.
    Right now all the useful statements are coming from the civilians side(Mostly from our young Foreign minister who has surprisingly handled her self well).The military should make changes to make it appear to the Americans that they are losing their control. Maybe replacing Kiyani and Pasha right about now would be a good idea. Perceived uncertainty will be our strategic friend. We have many options right now but the more Pakistan waits the lesser they will become. If our intelligence agencies have any counter intelligence dirt on the Americans regarding Baluchistan, Cross Border raids into Pakistan, the CIA Humanint network in tribal areas it needs to start leaking it now. A few known CIA assets in the military, the government and political parties need to disappear. A missile test or two will also help. The only way to get out of this one is to make the Americans to back off this time. We cant allow to be swept away by the Hubris of the defeated.


  • Humayun
    Sep 28, 2011 - 3:31AM

    @ M: which world are you living in my friend? the US shows you a carrot and you dont even know that you swallowed it or vomited it back.where does the US aid go? i know i am not the beneficiary nor are the 200 million people of Pakistan. this is all crap that we cannot live without US aid, C’mon people talk some sense, i dont say go to war with the US but as far as the aid thing is concerned its better they pull it back because its going in the Swiss bank accounts of the politicians and the generals.


  • N
    Sep 28, 2011 - 4:50AM

    We cannot let go of our reckless ways. Now we seek to justify our ways by arguing “compulsions”!
    In practical terms:
    1) quit active support to Taliban/LET//Haqqanis etc. Let them be picked off by ISAF / US.
    2) ask for investment monies for our own people.
    3) develop close relations with Usa, China, Iran to ensure all sides are represented in Kabul.


  • Venky
    Sep 28, 2011 - 5:10AM

    According to author, by upping the ante, the US has lost its leverage? If there was leverage before how come OBL was not tracked down? How come still there is no action in NWA?

    Even China cannot afford to be on the wrong side of US.


  • Abbas from the US
    Sep 28, 2011 - 5:11AM

    It appears the government, the Army generals, the ghairat brigade, the Mullahs (who declared the US to be a Haram superpower two days ago), the elite and the concerned educated upper middle class (that expresses their views on these columns) are all overreacting.

    What I am reading, viewing and listening to in the US, including the politicians (who talk more for their respective constituencies that get them elected in the first place), the commentrators including experienced ex CIA hands that have spent time in the region and understand the consequences of the discontinuity in the relationship, Admiral Mullen representing the view of the US armed forces and the adminstration, all agree it is a very difficult relationship but everyone of consequence agrees that this relationship will simply limp along. The vocal threats are certainly more pronounced and it is entirely possible that the military aid will be curtailed but other than that it dosen’t appear that suddenly there will be any major rocking of the boat.


  • Ken Bryant
    Sep 28, 2011 - 5:29AM

    Subtle, but you don’t have time for all that. You really only have one thing to decide: When the US moves on the Haqqanis, do you retaliate or look the other way?


  • M
    Sep 28, 2011 - 7:10AM

    That is exactly what I meant. The army & politicians will never wean themselves off the aid teat while the average Pakistani lives a life of misery. The people in power will barter away anything to keep the aid flowing whether from US or China.


  • pak
    Sep 28, 2011 - 8:08AM

    @John B:
    prefers Option 2, bad for us


  • malik
    Sep 28, 2011 - 10:53AM

    A fair analysis. The US and Pakistan are losing the plot when it came to closing the endgame in Afghanistan.


  • Feroz
    Sep 28, 2011 - 11:22AM

    Without firing too many bullets the US will exploit the fault lines plaguing Pakistan and make life hell. So far it has not fished in troubled waters but come the time it will throw its weight behind the Baluchi people and urge the World to accept a new Pashtun land which means loss of more territory. When the US Politicians and press become silent will be the most dangerous period for Pakistan. That time has not arrived as yet, but we are almost there.


  • malik
    Sep 28, 2011 - 11:25AM

    @John B:

    Eventually Option 2 is what is going to happen: Pak will keep making provocative remarks and US will retaliate by starting Aerial Bombing over North Waziristan.

    Thousands will die Recommend

  • BruteForce
    Sep 28, 2011 - 12:13PM

    A wonderful analysis and even better prose in describing it.

    US has to pawns: Military action and Sanctions. If it uses the 1st one, Pakistan will be forced to use the same. But, the 2nd pawn has no equivalent with respect to against Pakistan. There is no equal retaliation from Pakistan.

    I highly doubt if US will declare Pakistan a “Terrorist Supporting Nation”, as that will inevitably raise question as to why the US is co-operating with such a nation inside the US.

    But, it will impose covert Sanctions, ASAP. From now on IMF, WB will not give Pakistan loans and US allies will seem a lot harsh from now on. Exports will be targeted thereby indirectly impacting the Military of Pakistan and directly impacting Pakistanis.

    But, now we know: US and Pakistan cannot be “friends”. They are un-natural allies.

    US will sanction Pakistan but not in the way the Writer describes it.


  • Sep 28, 2011 - 12:25PM

    Brilliant like always.
    Wt could be the combat economic strategy if sanctions imposed? This is the fundamental question needing a clear answer by the Pakistani side for their own sake, not mere rhetoric.


  • Vigilant
    Sep 28, 2011 - 12:39PM

    @john B
    Making equations & Implementing equations are two different things


  • Beta
    Sep 28, 2011 - 2:48PM

    Economic sanctions on Pakistan will result in :-

    a) Civil war.
    b) Increase in terrorist activities inside Pakistan.
    c) Bottom lying economy will disappear.
    d) Pakistan will clinch first place in Failed State Index.
    e) Mass starvation like Somalia.
    f) Those with weapons will rule the roost.
    g) Last but important, nukes will be traded to rogue states and terrorists.

    When the last point going to happen, world powers will interfere and take the control of the situation.


  • malik
    Sep 28, 2011 - 4:23PM


    Look at the positives, you can go and settle down in countries like Switzerland, Germany, France and Canada as refugees !!!

    Many Tamils from Sri Lanka have settled down in Switzerland seeking refugee status during the civil war in 1984-90.

    According the EU laws, if someone seeks asylum, that person cannot be sent back and he has to be allowed to be get in !!
    This is an golden opportunity to settle down in a country like Switzerland !!!!


  • Santosh
    Sep 28, 2011 - 5:10PM

    @Ken is spot on.
    Ejaz Haider spins a fine theory. But at the end there is no conclusion, no recommendation, no clarity. Both sides are therefore faced with the tremendous challenge of managing risks associated with any spiralling effect at a time when they are getting locked into commitment traps. Duh. No one needs strategic analysis to see that.

    The US will up the ante on Pak not through sanctions but through its own inaction to match Pak military inaction against Haqqanis: you will find that World Bank/ADB negotiate, but don’t commit to financing the dams you aspire to build. When Pak returns to the IMF for funding next year, reform conditions will be harsh. Trade concessions with US/EU will be stuck in negotiations. Saudis will nod their draped heads, but not commit to deferred financing for oil imports. Paki meat exports start getting more inspection. Textile exports are closely examined for strict compliance with quotas… you can rest assured these 1000 economic cuts will hurt.

    The Pak military will find that imports from all countries other than China will be stuck. Pak has gone down a path where even if there is reconciliation, you can bet that NATO allies will not forget the back-stabbing. And China as we know doesn’t export its latest equipment – proof: the PLA flies the J-10 which it won’t export, whereas the PLA refused to induct the exported JF-17. The conclusion is foregone – while the Pak military is adequately equipped today, the subtle sanctions in a decade it will erode its edge.


  • Nadia Malik
    Sep 28, 2011 - 6:38PM

    The cost of the downward spiral in US-Pakistan relations has already sent shock waves through the economy. The stock exchange plunged amidst fears of a breakdown in relations, the rupee floated to around 90 to the dollar, partly because of the ‘dollarisation’ currently underway amidst fears for the future. These negative signals should give pause to all stakeholders to reconsider their fiercest belligerence against the US. We may not like much of what Washington does or even how it does it. But it is not only the US that has constraints so long as it is engaged in Afghanistan. We too have considerations to weigh, first and foremost the struggling economy and the future of a rescue sans US aid and goodwill. Emotion may be cathartic, but it is rarely a good substitute for calm, considered policy, especially in the delicate position Pakistan is placed in, and the fact that the country the gung-ho amongst us want to take on is the sole superpower in today’s world. Not only should the current furore be cooled, diplomatic efforts must find ways to continue to enjoy, if not the goodwill and friendship, at least the tolerance of the US. Any other path will damage Pakistan immeasurably.


  • Shahjee
    Sep 28, 2011 - 7:32PM

    End of the day, plain facts are that Pak will suffer more in case of direct military confrontation with US, however US will also face the war of Century which will draft its all previous war engagements. US will not take months to level Pak army, but it also will never be able to come close to any winning objectives it may have, after 180 million hostile population, heavily armed, will start a religious war.
    All US troops may not be able to sustain a country of Pak size with regional players doing everything to harm US including India. Its a known fact that Indians are with US as long as its serving the purpose of weaking Pakistan but once its useless to them, they will say namastay in no time.


  • Shyam
    Sep 28, 2011 - 7:55PM

    Isn’t using Afghanistan as strategic depth, regional Hegemony by Pakistan?????


  • Meekal Ahmed
    Sep 28, 2011 - 9:46PM

    If the situation is “terribly complex” (I have heard that for about 10 years), nothing will come of it.


  • Khan
    Sep 28, 2011 - 9:54PM

    Ejaz you can come up with many complex theories and its explanation but the bottom line is for us to have a better future we must get rid of these criminals called TTP & Haqqanis.
    There is no alternative to that option. I do believe we should not be doing it alone on our side of the border only but it has to be on both side of the border so there are no hiding place for those who kill innocent people, don’t respect the sovereignty of both countries and harbor criminals who have killed thousand of people including our soldiers.
    If any one in our Establishment care about this country .. they must get rid of all these groups … Why should any one be allowed to create such groups is beyond me.
    We have to bring FATA under GoP’s control and fence our western border after sending back million of refugees who can contribute to their own economy and should be fighting against those Taliban in their country for their own future.


  • Abbas from the US
    Sep 28, 2011 - 10:09PM

    The two female respondents reflect the Pakistani reaction to the relevent questions of the possiblity of a sanctions regime that may be followed by the West. Unfortunately both the male Indians and Pakistanis responding to the possiblities under consideration on the other hand are reflections of wishful thinking and testostrone driven thinking respectively.

    There has already been some toning down by a US pentagon official of the statements by Admiral Mullen.
    Mullen’s language “overstates the case,” said a senior Pentagon official with access to classified intelligence files on Pakistan, because there is scant evidence of direction or control. If anything, the official said, the intelligence indicates that Pakistan treads a delicate if duplicitous line, providing support to insurgent groups including the Haqqani network but avoiding actions that would provoke a U.S. response.

    The US although has made some preparation for the alternate Northern Distribution Network for recieving supplies in case of a diplomatic failure. However it understands for all practical purposes the usefullness of keeping the cost effective supply channels has to do with working with Pakistan.

    And the decision makers in Pakistan are aware they would rather not become a pariah state lumped together with Iran, North Korea, and Sudan.


  • observer
    Sep 30, 2011 - 9:57AM


    This is an golden opportunity to settle down in a country like Switzerland !!!!

    Switzerland, of No Minarets Policy. No Thank You. I would personally prefer US where the Times Square is located.


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