Should Pakistan be engaged or contained?

U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Horace Murray

A member of the Pakistani military assists a man and child as they prepare to board a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter to be evacuated to the town of Khwazakhela, Pakistan, during the flood recovery effort on Aug. 11, 2010.

Article Highlights

  • Pakistan's overall record on rounding up al Qaeda members has been disappointing

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  • Move from strategy of engagement to containment in #Pakistan

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  • How to strengthen #Pakistan's fledgling democracy

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This analysis is part of Security Clearance blog’s “Debate Preps” series. On November 22, CNN, along with AEI and The Heritage Foundation, will host a Republican candidate debate focused on national security topics. In the run-up to the debate, Security Clearance asked both the sponsoring conservative think tanks to look at the key foreign policy issues and tell us what they want to hear candidates address.

The raid in May on Osama bin Laden's compound in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad has brought intense focus on Washington's policy toward Islamabad. Since then, the weight of informed opinion - in influential op-eds, think tank reports, and magazine articles - has coalesced around a consensus: the current policy has failed.

"The main idea: target Pakistan's recalcitrant military while sparing its civilian population and continuing to strengthen Pakistan's fledgling democracy."--Sadanand Dhume

Ostensibly, since 2004 Pakistan has been a major non-NATO ally of the United States, a status it shares with such stalwart friends as Israel, Japan and Australia.

In 2009, the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, also known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act, boosted aid to Pakistan by $1.5 billion a year through 2013. These blandishments were meant to encourage Islamabad to co-operate with Washington in fighting terrorism.

Though Pakistani authorities have at times helped round up wanted al Qaeda leaders from their soil, their overall record has been disappointing. Of particular concern to the US: continued Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militants who regularly use safe havens in Pakistan to attack US troops in Afghanistan.

Stepped up attacks by Haqqani Network insurgents in recent months, including an audacious assault in September on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, have added urgency to long-standing misgivings about Pakistani intentions. The country's powerful army has long used jihadist groups to assert influence in Afghanistan and bleed India in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

One possible response to what is colloquially known as Pakistan's double game - fighting some terrorists while helping others - is to move from a strategy of engagement to one of containment. This would place less emphasis on carrots such as aid and advanced equipment. Instead, it would rely more on sticks such as targeted sanctions against military officers involved in aiding America's enemies, and more unilateral Abbottabad-style raids against high value targets. (Keep in mind that Al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Taliban's Mullah Omar are believed to live in Pakistan.)

The main idea: target Pakistan's recalcitrant military while sparing its civilian population and continuing to strengthen Pakistan's fledgling democracy. Whether it will be implemented, and how Pakistan will respond, will be one of the most important decisions the president will have to make in South Asia.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI

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