A prime concern for the United States today is the diminishment of its influence in Pakistan. It is still possible to prevent the more dire consequences of this decline. Doing so will require a new U.S. policy — one that does not, as in the recent past, alienate Pakistanis by fixating on American security goals in the Pashtun tribal areas that border Afghanistan at the cost of a partnership with the country as a whole. With a different approach, the United States has a real chance to gain the cooperation of new political forces emerging in Pakistan.
The United States’ strategic interest in Pakistan is undeniable. Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal; its north-west border territory has also served as a base for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters operating in Afghanistan and is key to the resurgence of attacks on American forces there. But simply meeting Islamist extremism in Pakistan with force has not succeeded. In addition to the threat posed by extremists, Pakistan faces pressing crises in its economic, social, and political development, particularly in terms of poverty, food shortages, energy, and education. If the United States were to help address these crises, we could build partnerships across Pakistani society that would counter Islamist extremism throughout the country.
A bill known as the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act is working its way through the U.S. Congress. If passed, the legislation would provide a significant increase in nonmilitary aid to Pakistan. The bill has — and deserves — broad support. It would give the next American president an unprecedented opportunity to build a more positive and sustainable relationship with Pakistan. Additionally, the United States, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom on September 26 launched a “Friends of Pakistan” group of donor countries to coordinate urgently needed economic aid. The quick enactment of the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act would serve to kick start the Friends of Pakistan initiative and for that reason should be immediately addressed by Congress.1
We believe that the United States can and should promote democratic pluralism, economic and social development, and nuclear non-proliferation simultaneously even while it pursues its war on terrorism in Pakistan and throughout the world. The dilemma and challenge for the United States is to mesh our security interests and other priorities in Pakistan and Afghanistan in an effective strategy.
The proposed Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act provides an opportunity for the United States to maintain its own security and promote democracy simultaneously, rather than pitting these two goals against each other. It will help align U.S. priorities with those of Pakistan and broaden our bilateral relations. For this legislation to work, a more detailed understanding of Pakistan’s politics, economy, and current conditions is vital. Significant strands of Pakistani society are open to establishing constructive relations with the United States, but they need to be effectively engaged and convinced that U.S. security priorities will not prevent broader assistance to Pakistan.
Network 20/20 is a New York-based educational organization that connects young private-sector leaders from the United States with their counterparts in other countries. Network 20/20 members have proved to be effective interlocutors with policymakers, providing fresh insights from professionals who are highly motivated and deeply engaged in issues of foreign policy but who have thriving careers outside of that sphere. A Network 20/20 delegation visited Pakistan in May 2008 with three goals in mind:
- To acquire a better understanding of Pakistan and Pakistani views of the war on terrorism and the danger of nuclear proliferation;
- To gain insight into the impact of the on-again, off-again quality of Pakistani-U.S. bilateral relations; and
- To make concrete recommendations as to how the United States can seize this moment to strengthen our alliances across Pakistani society, rather than just with the military.
In a 10-day trip to Pakistan flanked by side trips to Afghanistan and India, Network 20/20 conducted more than 60 interviews. Our subjects, in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Multan, Rawalpindi, Kabul, and New Delhi, represented a cross-section of Pakistani society: government officials, members of parliament, military officers, academics, business executives, journalists, community organizers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and religious leaders, including radical Islamists. Many interviewees spoke English; Network 20/20’s Urdu-speaking members conversed with those who did not. Overall, we found that Pakistanis see the war on terrorism — in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and internationally — as a U.S. agenda item that conflicts with Pakistan’s own interests. At the same time, Pakistanis strongly oppose fundamentalism and support democracy, as evidenced by the February 2008 elections, in which fundamentalist alliances were voted out of power in two provinces, the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan that had been their strongholds. While Pakistanis oppose Islamist extremists, condemn suicide bombing, and support democracy, they have more pressing priorities: addressing the severe economic stress brought about by rising food prices and longer and longer electricity cuts; the debate over how to fight insurgents; and the generalized demand for rule of law throughout the country.
To gain effective Pakistani support for the U.S. war on terrorism, the United States needs to reconcile our objectives with those of Pakistani society. We must forge alliances with multiple public and private constituencies and address the food and energy crises immediately to stem unrest and help stabilize the government. Our main recommendations to U.S. opinion leaders and policymakers are that:
- The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act should be passed and signed into law quickly. It should also fund the creation of an advisory body of Pakistanis from government and civil society to plan its implementation, to evaluate the aid program and to prevent corruption. This body should meet regularly with representatives of the United States, and its findings should be disclosed publicly.
- Civilian aid should be uncoupled from sanctions. Such a step would neutralize a well-founded Pakistani fear that the United States is mostly interested in supporting military governments in Pakistan. This measure is contained in the proposed Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, and should be approved in the final version of the law.
- Energy security for Pakistan should be a U.S. priority, because energy shortages are a major cause of instability and an impediment to economic growth. To do this the United States will need to be flexible on issues such as the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline and civilian nuclear cooperation, which could be negotiated in parallel with U.S. efforts to bring Pakistan into nuclear non-proliferation agreements.
- In addition to emergency food aid, the United States should provide emergency aid to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by military actions against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the North-West Frontier Province, and Baluchistan. This should be approached with the same urgency as the successful U.S. relief effort after the earthquake in Pakistan’s northern areas in 2005.
- The next U.S. president should weigh the tactical gains from air strikes, military incursions, and detentions in Pakistan against the longer-term harm they do to our alliance with Islamabad and our reputation among the Pakistani people.
1 Other members of the Friends of Pakistan group are Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Turkey, China, the European Union and the United Nations. The co-chairs of the group are Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, the foreign ministers of the U.A.E. and Britain and the American Secretary of State. The group plans a meeting in late October at which specific aid commitments will be made.