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How to Approach Pakistan
(Note: This commentary originally appeared in The Honolulu Advertiser on March 8, 2009.)

By Shabbir Cheema

EWC Senior Fellow

The Obama administration has placed its relationship with Pakistan at the top of its foreign policy agenda, and for good reason.

Put simply, a solid relationship with Pakistan is key to a stable Afghanistan and, in turn, national and global security.

Many of the safe havens of al-Qaida, surely the No. 1 "enemy" in the war on terror, are in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan next to Afghanistan. This is where as many as 50,000 U.S. troops will be stationed in the near future.

The increase in violence in Afghanistan is directly related to cross-border infiltration. Equally significant, Pakistan has become one of the biggest victims of terrorism. Its authority is increasingly being challenged by the militants in many parts of the country.

Thus, it is not surprising that the Obama administration has taken steps to chart a new course after the failure of the Bush administration's policy on Pakistan. For example:

  • The administration appointed Richard Holbrooke as the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss a "regional" approach to combat violence.

  • Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel has been tasked by the president with carrying out an interagency review of U.S. policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan.

  • Nonmilitary aid to Pakistan is likely to be increased. Vice President Joseph Biden pushed for some $7.5 billion as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Similar legislation is expected this year.

But the complexities of U.S.-Pakistan relations are many. They are rooted in the past and are visibly present today, leading to serious "trust deficit" in both countries.

After aligning with Pakistan to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the U.S. not only abruptly left Afghanistan but also imposed sanctions on Pakistan in the 1980s for the latter's secret nuclear program, a program initiated in response to a similar initiative from India.

Even though Pakistan aligned with the U.S. after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration shifted most of its military and other assets to Iraq. This led to the regrouping of al-Qaida and the Taliban in the historically ungovernable border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Then, the U.S. forged a strategic, long-term relationship with India, giving India access to nuclear technology outside the existing global nuclear technology regimes. Similar access was not granted to Pakistan.

Militant groups operating today between Pakistan and Afghanistan were sponsored by the Pakistani intelligence agency in the 1980s, with the support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, to fight the Soviets. This leaves a legacy. To this day, doubts persist in the U.S. about the sympathies of some elements of Pakistani intelligence in joint efforts to defeat al-Qaida and Taliban.

The use of force has been the main instrument of the U.S. policy in uprooting al-Qaida and Taliban from the border areas. This poses a problem, because the Pakistani military has neither the ability nor the willingness to use excessive force against its own citizens.

Weak political institutions in Pakistan represent a major obstacle to a long-term and sustainable relationship between the two countries. Pakistan has been ruled by military-led governments for about half of its existence. Four military coups have weakened the nation.

Cultural perception gaps are also a major impediment to sustainable U.S.-Pakistan relations, as shown by the reaction of the two countries to the Pakistani agreement with the Taliban in Swat Valley. The U.S. saw this as an agreement with "murderers and killers" and an affront to human rights. Pakistani leaders saw this as an arrangement based on the Pakistani constitution.

If the U.S. saw the accommodation with militants in Swat as a deal with the devil, Pakistani citizens saw equal irony in the U.S. making an alliance with the former Sunni militants in Iraq who killed thousands of civilians and U.S. personnel.

It is in the U.S. interest to forge a multifaceted and long-term relationship with Pakistan, recognizing the above and related complexities. Here's how:

  • Provide new equipment and related training to the Pakistani military to defeat al-Qaida and the Taliban.

  •  Launch a Marshall Plan-type program of economic assistance focused on education, health and employment, especially in the border areas. Aid over the past eight years has been peanuts compared with the size of the problem and the sacrifices Pakistan has made.

  • Recognize the legitimate security interests of Pakistan vis-à-vis India and Afghanistan. Pakistan is not merely an extension of the Afghanistan problem; it is a proud, independent country of 170 million.

  • Use the considerable influence of the United States in India to push for dialogue to reduce tensions over Kashmir.

  • Strengthen the civilian government by stopping the drone attacks and respecting Pakistani sovereignty. The credibility of the government in Pakistan, especially the powerful President Zardari, is probably the lowest in the history of civilian governments. The more it is seen as a tool of the U.S. government, the lower its credibility among its citizens.

The situation in Pakistan is grave. Challenges are alarming. The need for investment of financial, diplomatic and military resources is in the vital national security interests of the U.S. President Obama is right in "shifting gears quickly" to have a new policy on Pakistan. Achieving results is not going to be easy. But the cost of inaction will be too high.

Shabbir Cheema is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.