Since 9/11, U.S. policymakers have tended to consider Pakistan in the context of the war in Afghanistan and the counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaeda. This year, however, U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan will end. In addition, the security threat posed by international terrorism is increasingly diffuse, with al-Qaeda and its affiliates seemingly less dependent on safe havens along the Af-Pak border than they were in the past. In this context, an “Af-Pak” framework for U.S. strategy is no longer wise.
In a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, Reorienting U.S.-Pakistan Strategy: From Af-Pak to Asia, I explore why the United States should instead focus on Pakistan’s relationships with its eastern neighbors, especially China and India. This reorientation is important in part because of Pakistan’s capacity to act as a destructive force in the region: impeding economic growth in India or becoming a new flashpoint in the relationship between Washington and Beijing. Yet my report also stresses positive reasons for working with Pakistan and encourages the United States to craft a new approach aimed at helping Pakistan benefit from its strategic location.
If U.S. diplomats present a constructive vision for the bilateral relationship, focused less on the never-ending war against terrorists and insurgents and more on realizing economic growth, they will find natural allies in Pakistan’s business community and civil society. And to synchronize with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif government’s own stated preference for “trade, not aid,” Washington should facilitate regional economic integration, reducing U.S. aid to Pakistan in the process. Any remaining U.S. aid flows should go toward mending Pakistan’s infrastructure—especially related to energy, water, and cross-border transit —as a means to convince Asian entrepreneurs that Pakistan is a place where they can do business. In addition, U.S. officials should begin the gradual and admittedly difficult process of facilitating greater Pakistani participation in major institutions of Asian cooperation, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Pakistan’s regional economic integration is the main means by which it can create jobs and pull its masses out of poverty. Otherwise, the country’s enormous “youth bulge” will remain a source of instability and violence, instead of being used as an engine of productivity and development. In sum, the reorientation of U.S.-Pakistan strategy toward Asia offers a more appealing and less costly option than the present “Af-Pak” approach.