The future of U.S.-Pakistan cooperation

This article written by General Joseph Votel (retired) and Lieutenant General Michael K. Nagata (retired) was originally written by our friends in Middle East Institute.


Lt. Gen. (ret.) Michael K. Nagata is an outstanding senior researcher in the field of MEI national security. After 38 years of service, he retired from the U.S. Army in 2019, including 34 years in the U.S. Special Operations Forces. His final position was the strategic director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center from 2016 to 2019.

General Joseph L. Votel (retired) is an outstanding senior researcher in the field of national security at MEI. During his nearly 40-year career, he retired as a four-star general. During this period, he held various leadership positions, including most recently as the commander of the Central Command from March 2016 to March 2019.


Opinion—Since 1947, the “love and hatred” relationship between the United States and Pakistan has been complicated and often disappointing—this relationship has been severely tested during the 20-year Afghan intervention under the leadership of the United States. We believe that it is time to seriously consider whether and how the two countries can achieve a more strategic and sustainable post-intervention relationship between the US and Pakistani governments and their people.

As we consider a new policy, the United States is drawing to a close from Afghanistan after leading the League of Nations for two decades. Early signs indicate that Afghanistan is increasingly likely to fall into serious instability and possible serious division, which will have unwelcome consequences for the Afghan people and all of Afghanistan’s neighbors. It is already clear that international terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS-Khorasan will continue to enjoy and possibly expand their safe havens.

Regardless of the US’s strategic concerns about Afghanistan’s future, the direction and direction of Pakistan’s strategic choice in the next few years will also affect the US. This is caused by many reasons.

First, Pakistan is a nuclear-weapon state. Pakistan and India’s decades of investment in nuclear weapons, coupled with their ruthlessness and opposition in history, religion, culture, and politics, have made them one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the world.

Secondly, all the countries bordering Pakistan and the United States are of great significance to the United States. Pakistan also has important religious, cultural and economic ties with other Muslim countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In the era of “superpower competition”, although Pakistan may not be one of the main players, its network of relations may now have strategic interests for any major power including the United States and China.

Third, despite severe political and economic difficulties, Pakistan’s technical sector is still developing. Its young population and Pakistani doctors, scientists, scholars and other professionals scattered all over the world have become an increasingly important part of the international community.


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As long-time veterans in South Asia, we both understand the source of “tiredness and caution” that policymakers in the Democratic and Republican governments in the United States often associate with strategic discussions in Pakistan. We have all seen that the US government is unwilling to engage in any form of strategic interaction or reconciliation with Pakistan because of previous disappointments or betrayal. Understanding the immense complexity of Pakistan’s relations, influence, and strategic choices in the South Asian environment can be intellectually challenging and exhausting.

However, we have all concluded that the only thing harder than establishing a functional and mutually beneficial relationship with Pakistan is that there is no relationship. Given the unstable borders, the nuclear deadlock with India, the continued existence of terrorist organizations, and all these are highly likely to further undermine our interests, there is no better choice.

The areas we think are worth exploring with Pakistanis include:

First, the possibility of planning with other like-minded international players (state and non-state) to manage the consequences of major political instability and human suffering in Afghanistan, including the possibility of large numbers of refugees fleeing to Pakistan. In fact, Pakistanis have a long and tragic memory of the surge of Afghan refugees after the collapse of the Kabul government in the 1990s, and they have always expressed deep concern that the U.S. withdrawal that is now about to complete may lead to a replay.

Second, the possibility of counter-terrorism cooperation to deal with any terrorist threat from Afghanistan and prevent it from sowing further instability throughout the region. We believe that Pakistan is unlikely to allow the deployment of US intelligence agencies or counter-terrorism agencies within its borders. However, if there is a threat to our common interests in Afghanistan, there may be other ways (for example, working groups, forums, or exchanges) to promote better cooperation.

Thirdly, to strive for the possibility of cooperation between Pakistan and India, to somehow ease the tension along their common border, and thereby slightly alleviate the threat of nuclear weapons. Recall that before 9/11, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had a dialogue on easing tensions, including the highly emotional issue of Kashmir. One point is very enlightening. However, the negotiations broke down without reaching a major agreement. Although we recognize that this is a very complex and worrying issue that the United States needs to accept, given all its other strategic challenges, the specter of a potential nuclear conflict in South Asia should at least prompt us to ask ourselves, “Why at least try?” In fact, China Waiting for the US opponents may be pessimistic about this effort, we think this may be the reason for doing so, rather than the reason for avoidance.


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For a long time, we have heard American policy and action practitioners quoting phrases such as “Never underestimate the ability of Pakistanis to let us down.” Unfortunately, most American policymakers do not understand how many times we have heard Pakistanis say the same thing to Americans. Therefore, both parties have long-term “neuralgia” for each other. When we end the campaign in Afghanistan, it is time to get rid of our nerve pain and carefully weigh whether the strategic cost of trying to cooperate with Pakistan in some way is higher or lower than the cost of failing to do so. We believe that in the long run, its cost may be lower.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

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