How to deal with Pakistan
The relationship between the United States and Pakistan defies logical explanation. Washington provides Islamabad with billions of dollars in aid annually. Washington also insures the basic security of the state by restraining its much larger neighbor, India, from taking strong military action, particularly during periods of regional crisis. Despite the documented ties between terrorists, traders in nuclear technology (especially A.Q. Khan) and the Pakistani government, the United States continues to promote the fiction that the country is a “normal state,” a democracy, even an American ally. That is a fantasy for a Pakistani society dominated by a self-serving military-intelligence establishment and a class of corrupt politicians.
Pakistan is not capable of being an American ally. Its actions show that. In return for Washington’s aid, the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies support many of the Islamic fundamentalist groups, particularly the Taliban, that threaten the United States. Islamabad sends our aid money to the people who attack us. Pakistan then asks for more money to confront the very threat it supports. This is an expensive and deadly con game.
Before an American SEAL team killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, he had found sanctuary less than a mile from Pakistan’s national military academy. Since bin Laden’s death, Pakistani forces have fired upon American soldiers seeking to capture other terrorists near the Afghanistan border. Pakistan is pursuing a clear strategy designed to bleed Americans, not assure peace in the region. Peace, in fact, would be bad for Pakistan. It would allow for more attention to the country’s failures and inadequacies, especially in comparison to a much more democratic and prosperous Indian neighbor. American aid protects the worst parts of Pakistani society.
These are the facts that are easy to identify, but very difficult to address. The United States needs Pakistan, despite its deep problems. The country’s location between Afghanistan and India, its large and mobile population, and its growing nuclear arsenal (perhaps more than 100 deployed warheads) make it a crucial fulcrum for the future of the region. As bad as things have become, they would be many times worse if Pakistan went into full collapse. Civil war would surely spill across borders, spreading even more violence and extremism. Civil war would also encourage numerous regional powers (including India, Iran, Russia, China, and, of course, the United States) to back particular groups. Events in a collapsing Pakistan could easily re-play the devastating history of Angola in the 1970s. A regional power vacuum spawned a three-decades long war that embroiled all the major powers and permanently de-stabilized much of a continent.
American policy has sought to restrain, reform, and reconstruct Pakistan – all at the same time. These ambitious efforts are often contradictory. They always exceed American capabilities. Yet, they are the only obvious path forward. We cannot accept Pakistan as it is, but we cannot live without it. The Pakistanis know this and they hold the United States hostage to their weakness. They threaten us with their nightmarish collapse if we do not help many of the forces we really oppose. This is an extreme case of what Hans Morgenthau identified a half century earlier as the dilemma of choosing among lesser evils.
How can we do better? In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, the United States has entered a period of strategic reevaluation in the region. President Obama’s speech last week, and his renewed push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is part of that process. Public discussion of Pakistan’s complicity with bin Laden is also evidence of White House frustration with Islamabad.
There are no easy answers, but the United States should consider three new steps in its evolving relationship with Pakistan:
1. Increase civilian contacts. One of Pakistan’s strengths is its vibrant civil society. Especially in urban areas, Pakistan has a highly educated, cosmopolitan civilian population. Thousands of Pakistanis study in American, European, and other universities each year. Pakistani professionals, especially lawyers, have shown that they are organized and effective at voicing dissenting political viewpoints in the face of government corruption and religious extremism. The Pakistani press is filled with diverse viewpoints, often quite critical of power centers in the country.
The United States must invest more in connections to Pakistani civil society. The history of the last half century indicates that this might be the most effective way to use American resources for regime reform. As in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, the United States has the resources to nurture more education, more professionalism, and more freedom of the press in Pakistan. The United States has the resources for encouraging young Pakistanis to look beyond their present predicament. The United States can and should encourage a shift in political culture that will, in turn, undermine the manipulation of nationalism and Islamism behind present Pakistani belligerence.
This approach sounds soft-headed. It also promises change in years, not weeks or months. It is, nonetheless, a powerful route to transformation. Visit Poland or the Czech republic to see the evidence from similar American investments a generation ago. The brittleness of Pakistani society means that these civil society measures actually have great potential with a population that really wants change and shares more interests with American citizens than the present Pakistani government allows.
2. Nurture alternative partners. Since 11 September 2001 the United States has relied too heavily on Pakistan for assistance in eliminating the Taliban and other threats. The United States has also invested too much in trying to make the Pakistani government and military into stabilizing forces in the region. Washington should not abandon these relationships, but it must do more to build alternatives. The problems in Pakistan make India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and even Iran more promising collaborators with the United States. The Bush administration made real progress in expanding American relations with India, and President Obama must continue to do more of the same. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are regimes that do not meet our standards for democratic governance, but we must recognize their vital role in securing stability, prosperity, and even enhanced popular participation in the region.
Iran is especially important. The future of this regime is very hard to predict. The popular “Green Revolution” of 2009 sparked many of the popular protests that have transformed the Middle East in the last two years. At the same time, Tehran remains dominated by a mix of ideological and religious zealots, committed in varying ways to actions that undermine American interests. Iran has armed many of the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan who have killed American soldiers.
Despite all of these difficulties, Iran is still a more promising hinge for future regional stability than Pakistan. Iran has a functioning government with a reliable civil service, its economy has a strong labor and resource base, and civil society in the country is more vibrant, organized, and sophisticated than anywhere else in the region. Although the educated and cosmopolitan population of Iran remains repressed, it has shown time and again in the last decade that it can express itself in firm and compelling ways. The “Green Revolution” of 2009 was only the latest manifestation. Iran is certainly a very dangerous country for the United States to approach, and it continues to threaten American interests, but it offers a better bet for diversifying Washington’s diplomacy than continued reliance on Pakistan.
3. Hold criminals accountable. One of the biggest problems in the relationship between Washington and Islamabad is the lack of accountability. The figures who flout American interests, while utilizing American aid, have consistently gone unpunished. If anything, their radical behavior has assured them protection from a Pakistani regime eager to burnish its nationalist credentials. A. Q. Khan is the best example. He sold nuclear technology to North Korea, Libya, and other countries. Yet, he sits in his home under sometime “house arrest,” and Islamabad protects him from prosecution to show that it can “stand up” to the U.S.
This has to stop. Pakistani figures in the military, the intelligence services, and other quarters have every incentive to take American money and act in contrary ways so long as there are no consequences. Criminality is an irresistible temptation in the absence of credible law enforcement. The United States can and must change that dynamic. This involves clear and consistent pressure for Pakistanis to enforce their own laws against the A.Q. Khans and others who sell state secrets and harbor known terrorists.
When necessary, the United States must act unilaterally to enforce accountability. The SEAL attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound is not a model for counter-insurgency, but it is an example of legitimate and necessary law enforcement. The big criminals who undermine regional stability must be eliminated one way or another. Those who contemplate criminality on this scale in Pakistan must know that they are not safe.
None of these suggestions for increased civilian contacts, alternative partners, or criminal accountability are “solutions” to the problems of a violent, unstable, and corrupt Pakistani society. Pakistan is a failed state and it is virtually impossible to imagine it reforming in a serious way anytime soon. That said, there are careful and calibrated measures the United States can undertake to deal with this difficult situation better. In particular, Washington can expand its options, broaden its reach, and take a few more calculated risks. Among lesser evils, some smart policy change is wise. The relationship between the United States and Pakistan is necessary, but not sustainable in its present form.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.