Security Studies Program Seminar

Roundtable discussion with David Miliband on “The Future of Pakistan”

Rt Hon David Miliband MP, Foreign Secretary for the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010
Vipin Narang, Assistant Professor of Political Science, MIT
Sameer Lalwani, Graduate Student, MIT Political Science Department
Fotini Christia, Assistant Professor of Political Science, MIT

April 13, 2011


Vipin Narang: The future of Pakistan is pretty grim. The army is involved in a risk-seeking feedback loop. Its strategy is unsustainable. It’s viewed as a source of stability but is actually part of the problem. There is no good answer on how to change army’s worldview.

The Pakistani Army’s interest drives Pakistan’s national interest. The Army has an India-centric view—it’s afraid of a repeat of the 1971 war where India finishes the job. Moreover, exaggerating the India threat serves the Army’s interest bureaucratically.

Risk-seeking behaviors:
1. Cultivation, support of non-state militant groups as strategic assets that target India. The relationship with army/ISI goes through retired officers. Goal is to ‘bleed India to death by a thousand cuts.’ Evidence suggests that these groups are still under a certain degree of control of the army—the army ignores anti-India groups like Lashkar e Taiba while successfully repressing groups that pose a threat to the center of Pakistan. It’s implausible that the Army/ISI didn’t have foreknowledge of spectacular attacks on Bombay and the Indian parliament. The Bombay attack, which targeted Western civilians, was risky for Pakistan.

2. Command and control of nuclear weapons, especially during a crisis with India. The ISI/Army use the nuclear deterrent as a shield behind which militant groups can attack India. There is no guarantee Indian leaders will continue to act with restraint after attacks. Assembling, mating, and moving nuclear assets in the event of crisis may put people in charge of nuclear weapons with little experience/expertise. Nuclear assets may be exposed to militants within the state while they are on the move during a crisis. Militants may attack in order to provoke an Indian response which would lead Pakistan to mobilize its nuclear deterrent, putting nuclear weapons at risk of theft.

3. Domestic problems—Army rent-seeking, high unemployment, inflation, economic instability, all of which may fuel insurgent/militant groups. This may increase incentive for the Army to use militant groups to distract society from domestic problems.

The Army has been unwilling to pursue back-channel talks with India. It believes it can manage these risks. I’m not confident that is the case. How do we reorient the army world view? We may have more leverage after we withdraw from Afghanistan. China may be in a better position to influence Pakistani army. The army may have to be burned by its risks before it changes its way.

Sameer Lalwani: The disconnect between US and Pakistani policy arises from having expectations that are too high for Pakistan, both in the military and political/social realms. Major criticisms have been leveled at Pakistani counterinsurgency efforts—in terms of Pakistani delays, methods, and outcomes. This shouldn’t surprise us: Pakistan does not have the intent nor capability to clear, hold, and build. Maybe clear and manage is a more realistic expectation.

There have been notable improvements, however: a greater move toward restraint in use of force since 2008 or so—less indiscriminate targeting and violence. There has been more Pakistani concern about helping refugees and engaging in reconstruction after the fact. This has been confined mainly to a few regions—not Baluchistan or Waziristan yet.

In terms of training and doctrine, the emphasis on low-intensity conflict has increased at all levels of Pakistani military. New training and manuals have been rolled out. The importance of protection of civilians and working with local leaders has been under more discussion of late. Adjustments are slow, but they are happening.

As for social and political institutions: expectations are too high. Pakistan has historically had major difficulty in building strong central control over its territory—all previous efforts (based on nationalism, religion, etc) have failed. Kinship and patronage networks frustrate attempts and rational/legal political order/institutions in Pakistan. However, they do function as a useful conduit for some redistribution and accountability. These institutions are ‘negotiated’ rather than rational-legal. Only the military is a legal-rational functioning institution.

Efforts at conflict prevention tend to assume the capability to transform Pakistani politics/society. ‘The disease is the system’ in Pakistan. Attempting to ‘fix’ Pakistan’s problem would result in basically gutting Pakistan. This will continue to pose problems for US/Western efforts to reform/influence Pakistan.

US and Pakistani interest only seems to truly converge on counterterrorism.

Fotini Christia: Pakistan from the Afghan perspective: Pakistan is involved in risky behavior we don’t fully understand, and the U.S. does not have much leverage.

The military is backbone of Pakistani government—civilian officials claim to have no involvement essentially.

Pakistan functions as a safe-haven for an insurgency that is still alive and well. There are two main explanations for this: the ISI/military wants this and uses militants as proxies, or the insurgents themselves are autonomous and beyond control of the Pakistani state.

While the ISI is a key actor, the militants are savvier than we give them credit for. They have their own politics/organizations, and they do things that are embarrassing to the Pakistani state. The ISI is involved in a double game—they want to show the US they are cooperating to a certain degree, but still support militant groups.

Afghan President Karzai loves to blame Pakistan for all Afghanistan’s problems. This is also true in broader Afghani society. Pakistanis believe that India is trying to take control of Afghanistan and push Pakistan out. Pakistanis sabotage Indian development projects in Afghanistan in response.

Drone attacks do not affect Afghan insurgents in Pakistan. Sweeps and targeted arrests do have some effect.

What is the Pakistani role after US withdrawal? Pakistanis do not want the Taliban to reclaim control and think Afghan reconstruction will boost Pakistani economy (this is a rosy vision). A more mixed scenario is a civil war with Pakistan backing its proxies.

David Miliband: My introduction to Pakistan came in July 2007, and I worked on Pakistan issues for the next three years.

In envisioning the future of Pakistan, we need to remember where Pakistan came from, and its chronic problems:

-2/3 of its borders are still disputed.
-Pakistan is neurotic about its more successful neighbor, India. However, there are real reasons to fear India (1971 war, etc.)
-History of military rule, often self-serving
-Peculiar social structure—aristocratic elite, small middle class, large lower class
-Floods, blasphemy assassinations are more recent problems

Pakistan also has a history of foreigners meddling—US role in supporting Afghans against USSR, etc. There is an overwhelming anti-Americanism in Pakistan, partially stemming from past experiences.

Pakistan needs to decide whether it is a victim or an author of its own future.

Three good signs for Pakistan:
1. Current government has lasted three years and may be the first to last five years and turn over power (this may be due to lack of military interest in taking over).

2. India is largely concerned with its own future, economic development, etc. There is less antagonism toward Pakistan from the Indian leadership.

3. There is much greater realization amongst Pakistani elites of the threat they face from within. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto was a catalyst for this. Thousands of Pakistani soldiers and civilians have died in the past several years due to domestic insurgency/terrorism. This realization is still secondary to the threat from India, but under the surface there is a reassessment going on.

Free media emerged under the Musharraf years—this is another good sign.

What will determine the future?
1. Whether the military stays out matters, as does the behavior of civilian leadership. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) needs a succession in leadership.

2. Security threat. Army has created monsters it cannot contain.

3. US engagement. Obama administration has sought to build a more comprehensive relationship with Pakistan (not just the military). Pakistan has not encouraged US efforts to build such a relationship as of yet. It is in India’s interest to have a stronger (rather than weaker) Pakistan and the US role is important there.

4. Multilateral engagement. China, Saudi Arabia, and other gulf states can play a role. Friends of Democratic Pakistan is a relatively weak group but has most of the key actors. These types of multilateral engagements don’t substitute for domestic leadership in Pakistan, but they can condition Pakistan’s behavior/perceptions.

2014 is not a U.S. withdrawal date from Afghanistan—it is when Afghanistan takes leadership of its security. The drawdown in Afghanistan is an opportunity to reshape relationship with Pakistan, but this should be done multilaterally.

Short-term: IMF loans, political/judicial crises, etc. will all require strong, effective diplomacy.

There are 1 million Pakistanis in Britain. Most are law-abiding, but many are very poor and largely from rural areas, although a middle class is developing. As a result, there is a massive British security interest in Pakistan’s development.

Question and Answer

Q: We may be close to rupture in US-Pakistani relations. Is this likely? What would be the consequences?
David Miliband: Secretary Clinton’s speech was encouraging. A rupture in relations would lead to a major increase in Islamic militancy—this would be grist for the mill of anti-Western sentiment. No leverage is a bad situation.

Q: Is Pakistan worried about US tendency to support/sympathize with India, particularly after a potential withdrawal from Afghanistan? Can we use it as leverage?
David Miliband: They’re not worrying about it in a serious way, which in itself is worrying.  Withdrawal is not as close as it seems. Pakistani politicians have torpedoed regional efforts to stabilize the region by excluding India.

Q: Our interests in Pakistan are narrow and not altruistic. What are the irreducible things the US needs from Pakistan? How much are we paying and how much are we getting? Isn’t a continuation of the status quo in Pakistan’s interest?
Vipin Narang: Pakistan may pursue a rupture with US regardless of what we do. They know it’s a transactional, self-interested relationship. This may be the trajectory.
David Miliband: Short-term, narrow self-interest dealings have gotten us into the bad situation we’re in now. The lack of interest in institution-building and long-term relations has been damaging.  US foreign aid is not that generous to Pakistan. The key interests are nuclear safety, counterterrorism, and regional stability.
Fotini Christia: There is an appalling anti-Americanism in the Pakistani media. Pakistan may be threatening to rupture relations in order to get more, but I don’t think they will go all the way.
David Miliband: I think it’s not that strategic and far more emotional.

Q: I’m not clear that the UK and US relations with Pakistan have changed that much as parties in power have changed. Do different parties in the UK have different grand strategies, and do these affect views of Pakistan?
David Miliband: The short-term effort to get Pakistan on board for Afghanistan has led to a broader view of problems in Pakistan and an emphasis on institution building. There is a more comprehensive approach now. This may not be a full-fledged strategy, but there is a recognition that we must deal with Pakistan’s institutional imbalance.

Q: Can’t diplomacy be pursued without trying to rebuild Pakistani institutions? What is the definition of success here?
David Miliband: Institution-building has been blocked in Pakistan; it’s not rebuilding. Success on the nuclear security front is black and white. On counterterrorism, the problem is the Pakistani distinction between groups that threaten the state vs. threaten other countries. The authorities are clear-headed about domestic threats, but not the others. Lashkar-e-Taiba is an effective public goods provider in much of the country, which makes things difficult. The goal regionally is to stop instability. Afghanistan is about strategic depth for Pakistan—until that changes, it’s going to be tough.

Q: What about the anti-Americanism in Pakistan? Why is it so intense? How much is due to reality vs. misperceptions? What can the US do to deal with this vis-à-vis public diplomacy?
Vipin Narang: Pakistani memory of US abandonment after Soviet withdrawal is acute. There was a loss in development aid and the state stagnated. US may be viewed as threat #2, sometimes threat #1 even.
Sameer Lalwani: There is a major amount of misperception in Pakistan. There are conspiracy theories about India, the US, and Blackwater, among others. The long-term strategy has to be broader engagement. This is a long-term investment. Conditioning aid on certain terms rankles Pakistani elites/population. A broader trading relationship may help.
Fotini Christia: There is an astounding pervasiveness of anti-Americanism. Some Pakistanis are angry about US support for military governments as opposed to democracy. Pakistani leadership uses anti-Americanism as a diversion to distract leadership from Pakistan’s failures.
David Miliband: Pakistan is very angry about being dumped in 1990. Liberals are angry at US support for the military, the middle class is angry at take-it-or-leave-it US approach. Most Pakistanis don’t know anything about US except through media/propaganda. Some of the reasons are real; some are invented.

Q: Who do the Pakistanis listen to?
David Miliband: Saudi Arabia is very important. Gulf states are important. The UK has decent influence. They listen to people who they think understand Pakistan and its interests.

Q: Is there anything outsiders can do to affect the propensity to join Jihadi groups in Pakistan?
David Miliband: Indirectly, by improving the Pakistani economy. Infrastructure can be improved. Pakistani middle class needs to be promoted and there need to be reasons to invest in Pakistan. Pakistani agriculture should be lucrative, but it hasn’t been exploited.

Q: Is there an ethnic dimension to decision-making in Pakistan? Are all Afghans anti-Pakistani, or is this also ethnically based? Would a China-India rivalry influence Pakistani stability?
Fotini Christia: Afghan government uses anti-Pakistan sentiment despite ethnic ties. Non-Pashtuns have little relationship with Pakistan.
David Miliband: Pakistan is fundamentally a four-province country. Sindh and Punjab work relatively well in terms of governance. It’s the other two regions and the national level where things get complicated.

Q: What about India/China relations?
David Miliband: China feels superior to India. But it’s stretch to say they want to maintain India-Pakistani tensions. They see the dangers of a Pakistani obsession with India.


Rapporteur: Nick Miller

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2011