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U.S. War in Pakistan (Not the One You Think)

The American public may not feel that it has had a meaningful political debate about going to war in nuclear-armed Pakistan outside the context of drone strikes or the stuff of Zero Dark Thirty. Even within the national security circles, the discourse about U.S. relations with Pakistan focuses on drone strikes, the bin Laden raid, and the basis for, and fallout of, real or perceived intrusions on Pakistani sovereignty. However, it may surprise most Americans that the United States has been at war in Pakistan for the last decade. Since 9/11 the United States has disbursed nearly $10.7 billion to Pakistan as reimbursement for military operations within Pakistan that are deemed in support of U.S. military operations. We have been reimbursing the Pakistan Army for a proxy war, against Pakistanis, on Pakistani soil.

It is not surprising that the United States has viewed Pakistan through the lens of security since 9/11. Pakistan’s nexus to 9/11 included the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other significant Al Qaeda leaders. It was where bin Laden lived out his post-9/11 days. The Afghan Taliban leadership fled to Pakistan. It has functionally ungoverned spaces that frustrate U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan, while at the same time serving as a critical supply route for U.S. forces. Of course, from a geopolitical perspective, it is a nuclear-armed country in perpetual tension with India.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, wrote an important post on this blog about the need for a new face for U.S.-Pakistani relations. He argues that we must seize opportunities to “wrest U.S. policy toward Pakistan from its current status as derivative of the war in Afghanistan.” Nothing serves as a more stark symbol of this transactional security relationship than the military reimbursements to Pakistan in the form of Coalition Support Funds.

Coalition Support Funds took a circuitous route to such a central role in U.S.-Pakistan relations. In the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush assembled a “coalition of the willing” to assist with NATO-led operations in Afghanistan and the more controversial invasion of Iraq. As part of that effort, President Bush asked Congress to create a military reimbursement mechanism to incentivize cash-strapped countries to augment the coalition’s numbers. Thus, “Coalition Support Funds” were born.

For example, Georgia might be willing to commit to send troops to Iraq if the United States reimburses their costs. Similarly, Kyrgyzstan might let U.S. military cargo planes and jet fighters use the Manas Transit Center if part of the package includes Coalition Support Funds.

But the use of Coalition Support Funds in Pakistan has, from day one, operated under a completely different theory. According to the Congressional Research Service:

At the Bush Administration’s behest, Congress in FY2002 began appropriating billions of dollars to reimburse Pakistan and other nations for their operational and logistical support of U.S.-led counterterrorism operations. These “coalition support funds” (CSF) have accounted for nearly half of U.S. financial transfers to Pakistan since 2001; as of June 2013, nearly $10.7 billion had been disbursed. The amount equals roughly one-fifth to one-quarter of Pakistan’s total military expenditures during this period. Nearly all reimbursements are for Pakistan army expenses; navy and air force expenses account for only about 2% of all Pakistani military claims under CSF. According to the Department of Defense, CSF payments have been used to support many scores of Pakistani army operations and help to keep more than 100,000 Pakistani troops in the field in northwest Pakistan by paying for their food, ammunition, clothing, and housing. They also compensate Islamabad for coalition usage of Pakistani airfields and seaports.

Reimbursement for costs to Pakistan associated with U.S. military supply convoys, use of ports, and airfields are wholly consistent with disbursements of Coalition Support Funds to other countries in the coalition. Such payments are analogous to the arrangements with the Kyrgyz Republic because the reimbursement is for U.S. military use of host country facilities and resources.

However, reimbursement for Pakistan Army deployments within Pakistan designed to encourage military operations against militant forces in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and other western border regions is sui generis.  Unlike the Georgia scenario, where U.S. reimbursements are designed to facilitate Georgian military personnel to deploy to Iraq, Pakistan is being reimbursed for action within its own borders. Because the relevant authorities only authorize payment in support of U.S. military operations, our payments to Pakistan represent legal recognition that we are at war there.

A number of different legislative vehicles have authorized and funded Coalition Support Funds, but they are all alike in one material respect: reimbursement to a country is only authorized for costs incurred for support to U.S. military operations. For example, the FY 2003 wartime supplemental appropriations act funded an account that:

may be used…for payments to reimburse Pakistan, Jordan, and other key cooperating nations, for logistical and military support provided, or to be provided, to United States military operations in connection with military action in Iraq and the global war on terrorism.

(Sec. 1310) (emphasis added).

Fast forward to the Obama administration. According to the Senate report, Section 1227 of the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act continued to authorize the Pentagon:

to reimburse key nations for logistical and military support provided to or in connection with Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), or to use such funds to assist key nations by providing specialized training, or loaning specialized equipment, in connection with OEF.

(emphasis added).

So what is the nature of the military support Pakistan is to provide to U.S. military operations? As a 2004 budget document noted, the Pentagon intended “to reimburse the Government of Pakistan for its operations on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, which supports Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.”

In one sense, consistent with Ambassador Munter’s “derivative” language, U.S. reimbursements to Pakistan are “in support of” the fight in Afghanistan. Military analysts universally conclude that counterinsurgency operations are bound to fail if there is a porous border that provides safe haven for insurgents. The nether regions of Pakistan have been such a haven, providing sanctuary, reinforcements, and supply routes for the Taliban. Therefore, there is a perfectly legitimate Afghanistan-based rationale for Pakistan military action on the other side of the border.

In another sense, as Just Security readers are well aware, the United States has initiated military operations all over the world under the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force. In Pakistan, the geographic and demographic nexus to the 9/11 attack is unassailable.

On the other hand, it is remarkable unto itself that we would characterize significant internal Pakistan military campaigns, over the course of a decade and to the tune of more than $10 billion, as “support to U.S. military operations.” These are not merely border patrols or hot pursuit actions emanating from Afghanistan, but campaigns deep inside Pakistan designed to eradicate hostile militant power centers in Waziristan, Talibanization in the Swat valley, or terrorists in Quetta and Peshawar.

These are the same regions, with the same population targets, that are the subject of the Pakistani portion of ongoing drone debate. In one sense, any drone operations in Pakistan could be characterized as support for Operation Enduring Freedom. In another sense, strikes could be viewed as support of a distinct conflict within Pakistan. It is also in the same general area as Abbottabad, where the raid on bin Laden’s compound stoked Pakistani outrage.

Whatever the military benefits, Coalition Support Funds certainly further a transactional security relationship model. They are not emblematic of the kind of people-to-people diplomacy envisioned by Ambassador Munter. There has also been significant and well-documented concern about oversight and accountability of Coalition Support Funds disbursed to Pakistan.

Perhaps most troubling, the United States has not gotten the bang for its buck, at least not to the tune of $10.7 billion. To be sure, the promise of reimbursements was integral to enabling President Musharraf to cut the Taliban loose after 9/11. The United States has certainly benefitted from some of the internal Pakistani military operations. Many Pakistani soldiers have fought bravely; many have died. However, the Pakistan Army has its own strategic interests. Even after increasing sectarian violence, spreading Talibanization, and growing radicalization, the Pakistan Army maintains its focus on strategic depth from an attack by India. It is less than enthusiastic about a full-scale counterinsurgency effort in Pakistan’s western regions that it sees as backwards, ethnically distinct, and politically irrelevant.

But for present purposes, I just want to focus on the remarkable legal acknowledgment that we are at war in Pakistan. Not in the sense of an isolated raid or a periodic drone strike but in the sense of a big conventional army. We have been for over a decade.

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About the Author

is a professor at Savannah Law School and former Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office. Follow him on Twitter (@AndyMcCanse).