A perfect storm has hit Washington and Islamabad. The relationship had already frayed thanks to an escalating series of incidents, from a lawsuit against the chief of Pakistan's spy agency in a U.S. court to America's drone program in Pakistan's tribal areas. Then Pakistan's failure to identify, let alone capture or kill, Osama bin Laden — and the U.S. decision to conduct the raid in Abbottabad without telling Pakistan authorities — only tore further at the relationship.
Add to the mix a fragile U.S. economy, and Washington will find it increasingly difficult to expend U.S. tax dollars in the absence of better results. But if Pakistan helps capture or kill certain individuals — the presumptive new Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, senior operative Ilyas Kashmiri, media chief Abu Yahya al-Libi, and a host of others — America might more readily extend current levels of financial assistance.
It makes little sense to abandon Pakistan and cut off all financial assistance, which would make it even harder for the U.S. to target Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. But America could reduce part of its security assistance, focusing instead on economic and humanitarian aid. There is a range of other options, including placing U.S. security assistance into an escrow account until cooperation improves.
Washington could also keep a scorecard of progress. A similar scorecard might also be kept for efforts to eliminate Afghan Taliban leaders who reside in Pakistan, specifically Karachi and Baluchistan Province. Today, elements within the Pakistan government, including the country's spy agency, are providing support to groups like the Taliban and Haqqani network, according to credible news reports.
Targeting insurgent leaders would not require large-scale military operations, but rather clandestine police and intelligence raids. The U.S. and Pakistan employed these tactics after September 11, with the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Abu Zubayda, and other terrorists. But these examples of cooperation tailed off as Pakistan became embroiled in its own internal struggles.
Washington can provide some carrots, like supporting Pakistani efforts to stabilize Baluchistan and defeat insurgents there. But it may need sticks as well. There are inherent risks in this strategy, which could cause further deterioration in U.S.-Pakistani cooperation, which has waxed and waned over the decades. But decreasing security assistance is not likely to terminate the relationship.
Today, the threats to Pakistan and the United States are serious and real, and they require substantive cooperation. The true mettle of policymakers is whether they can effectively deal with today's threats despite their disagreements and conflict over recent events.
This op-ed was part of a NYT Room for Debate discussion: "Should the U.S. Cut Off Aid to Pakistan?"
Seth G. Jones is a senior political scientist at RAND and author of "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan."
This commentary originally appeared on NYTimes.com on May 10, 2011.