President Obama’s Second Term and Relations with Pakistan

As the new administration settles into office, there are question-marks over how U.S. outlook towards Pakistan is likely to change in President Obama’s second term. Fast approaching timelines of 2014 US drawdown in Afghanistan are adding a new dynamic of change to US-Pakistan bilateral relations, which hit their lowest point last year. Certain policy imperatives, however, are not likely to change. Two core issues which shaped relations in the first term will continue to shape US outlook towards Pakistan in the medium term at least. These are:

  • Transition in Afghanistan
  • Counterterrorism

Besides these two broad policy domains, another factor not likely to change is the inherent fragility of relations, which remain vulnerable to the challenge of unforeseen events and volatile forces in the region. The presence of non-state actors inside Pakistan, their ability to launch trans-border strikes, and the possibility of military accidents such as Salala make it extremely perilous to make safe projections regarding future policy courses.

Transition in Afghanistan

Over the years US policy on Pakistan has often been criticized for being Afghanistan-centric, that is, for a tendency to view Pakistan through the prism of war in Afghanistan. This reflexive US approach to Pakistan is not likely to change in the next few years. If anything, as the 2014 drawdown date moves closer, developments in Afghanistan are likely to drive US policy on Pakistan even more strongly than they did in Obama’s first term.

Sharp differences on Afghanistan brought bilateral relations to their lowest point last year, culminating in the 7-month impasse when Pakistan closed NATO transit routes in response to the November 2011 Salala incident. Based on past record alone, it is difficult to see any potential for change at this stage in entrenched positions both countries hold on the Afghan issue.

As things stand today, however, both governments have come out of the impasse with more sober assessments of the role that each country is likely to play in its own game plans. US learned that although expansion of NDN (Northern Distribution Network) reduced its logistic dependence on transit routes out of Pakistan, it would be enormously more expensive—materially and politically—to manage an orderly withdrawal without Pakistan on board.

The lesson for Pakistan was twofold: a permanent break in relations with its longtime security and economic benefactor threatened global isolation at a time when its regional environment looked unstable. Secondly, when the looming 2014 military drawdown is going to change the security dynamics in unpredictable ways, at this point for Pakistan a close engagement with the US, no matter how imperfect, does provide more space for Islamabad to push forward its own vision of post-2014 Afghanistan. Pakistan’s ability to shape events in Afghanistan is far more limited today than it was in the 1990’s.

Going forward toward 2014, certain developments on the Afghan front are likely to add a new texture to US-Pak relations. Some of these include:

  1. As political processes take center stage in preparation of full transfer to Afghan control in 2014, kinetic aspects of the Afghan campaign are likely to become less of a focal point. This shift of focus in US strategy from military to political is likely to create greater space for cooperation with Pakistan.
  2. Some of this is already in evidence. Even though the election cycle was going on in the US, the last 6 months have seen a number of high-level exchanges which have focused almost entirely on pushing forward a political process in Afghanistan. In September the first meeting of Afghan Pakistan Safe Passage working group was held in Islamabad. The working group has been constituted to discuss the modalities and logistic issues allowing the Taliban negotiators to travel abroad to participate in peace talks. This was quickly followed by Amb. Marc Grossman’s trip to Pakistan, where he endorsed this development. The Pakistan foreign minister during her trip to the US in September 2012 focused almost entirely on Afghanistan. The designation by the US of the Haqqani network as an FTO (foreign terrorist organization) around the same time managed to upstage these developments, but did not disrupt how the two sides are cooperating and moving forward on the political agenda in Afghanistan. The recent visit to Islamabad of Salahuddin Rabbani, head of the high peace council in Afghanistan, and the recent release of Taliban leaders in Pak custody all seem to be rungs in a ladder leading toward a broader negotiating process. There are signs that the Taliban might be coerced into joining a political process which includes the Afghan government directly, something they have resisted in the past. Pakistan’s role was considered crucial in this context, and it appears that Islamabad is taking a more proactive role on this issue than it did in the past.
  3. The upcoming presidential election in Afghanistan, which coincides with the 2014 drawdown, is likely to be another area of close engagement between US and Pakistan. Afghanistan’s own internal political and power dynamics are ultimately going to shape this transition.  However, factional politics, weak or non-existent political parties, and no one obvious presidential candidate visible on the political stage make this a very fragile moment. Pakistan and Iran both can be brought on board in making this crucial transition easier by building consensus around a candidate through the use of their patronage of political factions both at the center and among regional power brokers. US-Pak engagement in this area is likely to intensify as we move closer to 2014.




The Navy Seal raid on the Osama bin Ladin compound in 2011 was without a doubt the lowest moment in the realm of US-Pak counterterror (CT) cooperation. The lack of trust both before and after the incident is in sharp contrast to the early years following  9/11, when the US and Pakistan were able to forge close anti-terror cooperation, leading to the arrest and detention of a vast number of high-level al Qaeda operatives.

Over the last few years the US has been frustrated by Pak unwillingness to act against all homegrown militant groups, some with known links with al Qaeda. US-Pak counterterror cooperation has suffered because of disagreements regarding which groups or individuals qualify as legitimate targets for CT operations.  Many believe that in President Obama’s first term, the US increased its reliance on drones partly to compensate for this lack of meaningful cooperation on the ground, and partly to exercise freedom in the choice of legitimate targets for CT operations. On the Pakistani side, as domestic terrorism became a growing challenge, the priorities of state actors and their threat perceptions changed significantly. The expanded use of drone strikes and the extensive intelligence and counterterror network that US established within Pakistan have become hotly contested issues. 

Counterterrorism -- Looking Ahead

Going forward, counterterrorism will remain the number one US preoccupation in the region and in its relations with Pakistan. There is going to be continued expectation that Pakistan move more decisively against groups that use Pakistani territory and share al Qaeda’s objectives in harming US interests globally, as well as groups that can push India and Pakistan toward a nuclear conflagration in South Asia.

However, as the broader military campaign in Afghanistan is rolled back, and as the physical presence of al Qaeda diminishes from the region, the tactics and operational CT strategies are likely to see some changes to adapt to the new configuration of forces post-2014.  Some of these are:

  1. President Obama in his election campaign has made it abundantly clear that as the US moves toward a lighter military footprint, he is committed to maintaining US capacity to use drones and Special Forces-led counterterror teams to go after terrorist havens on multiple fronts. Paradoxically, however, at the time when US military presence shrinks in Afghanistan, the need for better working relationships with state security actors in both Afghanistan and Pakistan increases. A post-withdrawal strategy to contain and deny space to al Qaeda remnants would be flawed without functional security relations between US, Pakistani, and Afghan security forces. This is likely to modify and reshape how US develops and applies various counterterrorism approaches to Pakistan. Some of this is already in evidence.
  2. There has been a sharp reduction in the number of drone strikes in last few months. Comparative figures for the period July-November 2011 and July-November 2012 suggest that drone strikes in Pakistan are down by almost 40 percent since last year. This is signaling that US is moving away from signature and force protection strikes while retaining its ability to take out high-value targets. This change in the frequency of strikes is not going to impact strong public opposition to drones in Pakistan.  But by striking some TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or the Pakistan Taliban) targets in Kunar and Nuristan in Afghanistan and reducing the number of strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, there is some indication that behind the scenes, both US and Pakistan are trying to bring some coordination back to the drone program. 

Resourcing Pakistan‘s military’s counterterror capacity is also an important issue where some progress is likely in the next term. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s recent comments hint at the likelihood of US making such assistance available to Pakistan for its counterterror program in the near future. Pakistan military over the years has built up its CT training, doctrine, and capacity, but is in urgent need of helicopters, advanced IED (improvised explosive devices) detection, and mine resistant vehicles. There are also reports that some of the US trainers who had left after the Salala incident are back in Pakistan.


Finally, on the US side there appears to be an underlying realization that even if Pakistan is not fighting all those who threaten or attack US forces in Afghanistan, it is fighting a number of other militant actors that share al Qaeda’s agenda and worldview. One hundred fifty thousand Pakistani troops are deployed to Pak-Afghan border zones and are likely to remain fighting militancy long after US/NATO forces depart Afghanistan. This greater US sensitivity to Pakistan’s internal battles and to Islamabad’s desire to pursue its own counterterror framework will be contingent on more decisive action from Pakistan to neutralize the threat of non-state actors operating from its soil against the interests of the US and other regional states.

Simbal Khan is the Wilson Center's Pakistan Scholar.

[For another perspective on U.S.-Pakistan relations, read the recent Wilson Center Policy Brief by Michael Kugelman, Senior Program Associate for South Asia]