Pakistan’s Critical Hour

I’m sympathetic to Ahmed Rashid’s arguments expressed in today’s Washington Post. The Pakistani journalist argues that President Obama’s plan to dedicate $1.5 billion annually to Pakistan in non-military spending “will also affect America’s image in Pakistan and the region.” However, I’m having trouble with his previous point: “The speed and conditions with which Congress provides emergency aid to Islamabad will affect the Pakistani government and army’s ability and will to resist the Taliban onslaught.”

For many years, the U.S. government has shoveled billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan (almost $20 billion since 9/11). Certainly in the tribal areas, non-military aid directed to education and comprehensive study programs can help to mitigate the spread of militancy among younger generations. But a coherent distribution mechanism must be in place or else no one in Pakistan will benefit. Given the problems of corruption and mismanagement afflicting the distribution of military aid, why should we expect the distribution of non-military aid to be more effective? Besides, there is very little Washington can do to “affect” Pakistan’s “will” to resist the Taliban. Ahmed Rashid, General Petraeus, and many others are correct to conclude that to be truly effective at combating internal insurgencies, Pakistan must re-orient its military away from conventional threats-such as India-and toward the low-intensity guerilla insurgency the army is presently ill-equipped and poorly trained to fight. But before Pakistan gains the capability to attack insurgents they must first find the willingness to do so.

With regards to the general alarm about militant incursions into valleys outside of Swat, this is certainly warranted. Militants have burned down or blown up over 200 schools, beheaded opponents, and forces tens of thousands to flee. But like I mentioned to my good friend and colleague, Ed Crane, the Taliban have no F-16s, no tanks and no means of taking over a country of 172 million people. India was certainly instrumental in the break up of Pakistan in 1971. But even India failed to conquer a large part of West Pakistan or takeover the country entirely. Granted, these militants are scary folks, but we need a bit of nuance on the whole “Pakistan is imploding” meme coursing through the Beltway. As I elaborate here, “Balkanization” of Pakistan, which I foresee as a distinct possibility, is much different then seeing the complete collapse of civilian and tribal administration.

Also, if America is worried about Pakistan’s imminent demise, U.S. policymakers and defense planners must understand that the coalition’s presence in Afghanistan threatens to further destabilize Pakistan. The vast majority of Pakistanis are not radical. But the spread of tribal militias in the northwest, tens of thousands of refugees (and certainly some militants) fleeing into major cities from aerial drone strikes, and widespread distrust of America’s intentions in the region, all place undue stress on a nation already divided, weak and fragile. As I argue in my recent policy analysis:

President Obama remains unequivocal in his commitment to continue airstrikes. But he and his policy planners must recognize that continuing airstrikes will undermine the authority of President Zardari, as well as Obama’s ability to coordinate policies effectively with Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders. The president’s national security team must understand that the struggle against extremism would best be waged by bolstering Islamabad’s ability to compete with militants for political authority in FATA. If his administration simply increases attacks from pilotless drones, it will only push more wavering tribes further into the Taliban camp, continue his predecessor’s policy of dictation, rather than cooperation, and undermine the perception within the Pakistani body politic that Obama can change U.S. policy toward the Muslim world.

Aside from ceasing aerial drone strikes, another way to help America’s image is in the region is for prominent U.S. decision-makers to stop publicly speculating about the fate of their democracy, as Petraeus did last week. America has a history of sponsoring insurgents, financing coups, and funding internal dissidents against democratically-elected leaders. Regardless of intent, Washington is perceived as being blatantly manipulative and endorsing a military takeover when we make reckless statements like this.