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Research Questions

  1. Why, despite billions of dollars in U.S. security assistance and development aid, does Pakistan frequently opt for policies directly at odds with core American interests?
  2. Is there anything the United States can do to exert greater influence over Pakistani security decisions?
  3. What is the nature of the long-term relationship between the U.S. Air Force and the Pakistan Air Force as the resizing of U.S. troops in Afghanistan continues and eventually stabilizes at levels well below their Operation Enduring Freedom peak?

As U.S. military action in Afghanistan stabilizes at levels well below the Operation Enduring Freedom peak, the security relationship between the United States and Pakistan will enter a new phase. Formulating a strategy for future engagement requires a deep understanding of Pakistan's own security imperatives — i.e., the factors that determine what types of partnership are realistic, and the geopolitical and historical forces that shape Pakistan's cooperation with the United States. This report examines such factors from a variety of angles: It discusses the historical context of U.S.-Pakistan engagement, highlighting the two prior cycles of deep partnership and precipitous downgrade; it outlines Pakistan's strategic calculus with five nations (India, China, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran), which inform most important security decisions, and highlights Pakistan's overarching focus on potential conflict with India; and it looks at future trends for partnering, while examining several potential scenarios. A key finding presented is that U.S. leverage over Pakistan's security choices is limited, and that the U.S. Air Force effectively serves as the "loss leader" in the relationship. A key recommendation is for U.S. planners to be mindful of the cyclical pattern of the relationship. Given the growing security relationship between the United States and India, any future partnership with Pakistan may face a new set of challenges. If history is a guide, however, the United States would be well advised to maintain its engagement in the interim rather than ramping up next time from a standing start.

Key Findings


  • The U.S. Air Force (USAF) would be wise to maintain a steady level of engagement with Pakistan Air Force (PAF), rather than trying to scramble for a rapid engagement when the next cycle begins. The USAF should prepare for the next cycle — now. This can and should be done in a manner which does not jeopardize the growing security engagement between the United States and India. But if past is prologue to the future, there will likely be another such turn of the wheel with Pakistan, and it may well arrive (as it has the past two times) quite literally overnight.

Future Trends

  • The USAF should understand and accept its role as "loss leader" of U.S.-Pakistan relations. The USAF should not expect its relationship with PAF to be one of institutional parity: PAF has less to offer the USAF than vice versa, while the benefits provided by Pakistan (human intelligence for counterterrorism, facilitation of Taliban reconciliation, nonproliferation cooperation, and policy guarantees of regional stability) will accrue to other parts of the U.S. security establishment.


  • The U.S. Air Force (USAF) should prepare now for the next cycle of overnight engagement.
  • The USAF should recognize that it has been, and is likely to be in the future, the "loss leader" of U.S.-Pakistan relations.
  • The USAF and U.S. policymakers should understand the limits of U.S., and particularly USAF, leverage over Pakistan's choices.
  • The USAF and U.S. interlocutors should calibrate Pakistan's expectations about what is politically feasible in the United States. They should also recognize the impact of the tone of rhetoric by members of the U.S. policy community.
  • Subject always to changing geopolitical circumstances, the United States should continue to approve maintenance, training, and support for existing Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-16s, and be wary of calls to forgo (or accelerate) future transfers.
  • In cooperation with the Office of the Defense Representative Pakistan, the USAF should request an increase in nonlethal Pakistan-focused International Education and Training for PAF students.
  • The USAF should offer the opportunity for PAF to send a select officer to serve as an instructor at a USAF school.
  • The USAF should focus USAF-PAF exercises and training on existing technical capabilities, especially those that support or enable humanitarian aid/disaster relief capabilities.
  • The United States should — to the extent possible without jeopardizing its relationship with India — consider sales of technical systems that support improved collaboration in areas of shared interests, such as counterterrorism or counterinsurgency missions.
  • The USAF should discuss the possibility of sharing service lessons learned and best practices through subject-matter expert exchanges.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the United States Air Force and conducted by the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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