Courtesy Reuters

How Obama Can Fix U.S.-Pakistani Relations

Helping Islamabad Through The Democratic Transition

The U.S.-Pakistani relationship has become defined by mutual dissatisfaction and by impatience on both sides. The November 26 NATO operation in Pakistan's northwestern tribal area, which led to the deaths of more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers, is a case in point. In a recent town hall meeting in Islamabad with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an audience member complained that the United States is "like a mother-in-law." "We are trying to please you," she said, "and every time you come and visit us you have a new idea."

The problem, of course, is larger than any American failure to consistently convey its preferences to Pakistan, such as its requests that Pakistan stop distinguishing between "good" Taliban and "bad" Taliban and it aid Washington in defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan. Like some daughters-in-law, Pakistan disregards the nagging. Indeed, it might not be capable of living up to U.S. demands even if it wanted to. Repairing the fractured relationship will require creativity. More, it will require a reappraisal of U.S. strategic interests in South Asia.

Pakistan is just under four years into a difficult democratic transition. Commentators argue for giving the country some time, while empowering its democratic civilian government over its military. That, they believe, will eventually set the country right. Yet for the civilians to be supreme, they first need to be competent. That does not happen overnight. Poor governance -- a product of severe economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, and bureaucratic inability -- tops the list of causes of Pakistan's predicament.

Take the state of affairs in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which borders Afghanistan. The nearly ten million Pashtuns who live in the mountainous buffer zone are governed by a draconian British-era civil code. Extremely isolated, this unfortunate land has been a staging ground for militants and warriors of all stripes for decades. After 9/11, things in FATA got even worse. Islamabad had no coherent policy for handling the terrorists who converged on the area. In some cases, it waited too long before acting, and in others, the military used disproportionate force, leading to high civilian casualties. A new generation of Taliban emerged, in the process wreaking havoc on the rest of the country. In the last decade, terrorists, mostly operating out of FATA, have killed some 25,000 Pakistani civilians, 4,000 army soldiers, and 3,500 law enforcement officials. After the civilians came to power again in 2008, they attempted political reforms in FATA, but only on paper; civilian and military leaders were never able to come to a consensus on implementing reforms. The governance problems in the rest of Pakistan are less extreme but no less problematic. 

One bright spot in recent years has been a vibrant lawyers' movement that seemed to signal the dawn of a new professional and largely independent judiciary. Hopes were dashed however, due to the government's lack of investment in, and the general dysfunction of, the criminal justice system. The net result is further public disenchantment with the country's leading political parties and the rise of the charismatic former cricket hero Imran Khan, who leads the Justice Party and pledges to clean the political Augean stables and strengthen independent judiciary.

The fault is not the government's alone. Because of the burgeoning defense budget -- some of which was meant to enhance counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capacity -- there has been little funding to do anything, especially to build up a civilian law enforcement capacity. Pakistan's police are severely underequipped, poorly trained, and subject to political manipulation. Politicians often favor loyalty over merit in appointments and transfers. At their roots, terrorism and violent religious extremism are law enforcement problems, but without forensic laboratories, a sound criminal justice system, and investigative capabilities, the state cannot fight them. Nor can the military: it is not trained or organized to perform domestic law and order duties. Moreover, it has failed whenever called on to do so, preferring instead to build up against external threats, primarily India.

This is not the first time that Pakistan has gone through a difficult democratic transition: in fact, it is the third time in the country's nearly six-and-a-half-decade history. But neither Pakistan nor the United States seems to remember those experiences. Indeed, civilians have never been able to transform military's regional security calculus in short order. A better civil-military balance is only possible only in a congenial environment without any outside interference. In the 1970s, for example, under the leadership of the popular politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the government looked like it might rein in the military once and for all, until civil disorder precipitated General Zia ul Haq, an ambitious general with very conservative religious views, to step in on the pretext of restoring order. Another military takeover is unlikely in the short to medium term, but the army will remain influential in defining major foreign policy priorities as long as democratic institutions are not mature. 

On the U.S. side, successive administrations have ignored Pakistan's internal political dynamics and acted as if they could simply buy off whatever faction -- military or civilian -- happened to be in power at the time. Relationships with elites provided only short-term gains and, in the age of information sharing (and WikiLeaks), such "partners" are soon discredited in the eyes of the people. Further, after Musharraf's departure from office in August 2008, U.S. policymakers remained ambiguous about who their negotiating partner would be henceforth -- the army leadership or the new civilian leaders. They continued to engage both separately, not recognizing that this strategy undermined the fledging democratic institutions.

There are signs that the United States is adjusting its policy, but not in the right direction. Rather than sharing intelligence and enhancing cooperation, the United States has been stepping up drone strikes on its own. Friendly fire and military raids further complicate the relationship. In response, outraged citizens are pressuring the Pakistani leadership to disengage with the United States. The relationship is likely to continue to spiral downward unless both sides rethink and renegotiate.

The task on the United States' side is to decide what core U.S. interest is at stake and proceed accordingly. And the United States has to coordinate its policies with the other major power centers. There is no room left for it to pursue parallel policies with the civilian and military centers. A divided Pakistan will pose more challenges for the United States in the long run. If a peaceful Afghan settlement is the ultimate goal  -- one that it expects Pakistan to wholeheartedly support -- then it must answer two further questions. First, what is in it for Pakistan, and are all the major stakeholders -- military, civilian, and Pashtuns living in the tribal belt -- on board?

For its part, the military and intelligence apparatus are interested in ensuring a Pakistan-friendly government in Afghanistan (meaning Pashtun-dominated and not seen as too chummy with India). Meanwhile, ordinary Pushtuns and the civilian government are not ready to pursue that goal aggressively. Achieving a consensus among these factions will be difficult, but not impossible. Some international and regional guarantees might be necessary. For example, Turkey has started to back regional confidence building measures and offered to play a discrete firefighting role whenever civil-military tension in Pakistan increases. That effort is worthy of U.S. support. Equally helpful was the United States' recent request that Pakistan bring the Haqqani network to the table instead of trying to crush it. Similarly, Pakistan's military rightly argues that, if the United States wants to negotiate with the Taliban (as it seems ready to do), it makes little sense for Pakistan to make more enemies by attacking those militants that have not struck against Pakistani interests.

Finally, if U.S. policymakers are frustrated in their dealings with both the Pakistani military officials and the present ruling class, they should start investing in Pakistani civil society. Although it is weak at present, it could eventually gain power, and, as it does, create a new, more responsible, political class. To get on friendly terms with this sector, the United States could assist in education. The largest contingent of Fulbright scholars in the United States currently comes from Pakistan. Building on such ties will go a long way toward fostering good relations between the two countries' next generation of political leaders.

In addition, the United States could support civilian mega-projects, for example helping build a hydroelectric dam to assist Pakistan in tackling its crippling electricity shortages. Such support is exactly what the United States did in the 1960s. The goodwill such a project would earn for the United States would surely be outweigh the benefits of financing two dozen small-scale projects in remote areas, as it does now. Further, by supporting the country's comparatively vibrant arts and literature sectors, the United States can build foundations for healthy long-term relationship.

On the Pakistani civilian side, the time is ripe to look seriously at the domestic state of affairs. Joblessness is increasingly leading to public unrest and rioting. The relationships between the country's many ethnic groups remain tense. Violent sectarianism lingers. And dwindling economic prospects are socially corrosive. Opening up trade relations with India would be one way to bolster the Pakistani economy. And U.S. support for this process could earn goodwill from influential Pakistani traders and from many who want a peaceful South Asia. Last but not the least, without improved governance none of this can be achieved. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan has an educated and relatively progressive professional class (including sections of bureaucracy), which could eventually be employed to transform Pakistan. There is capacity to reform lower levels of bureaucracy as well. This is one of the slogans of Imran Khan and it resonates with people.

Islamabad and Washington are realizing just how damaging a parting of ways could be. Now they must forge a more positive relationship. That won't be achieved by waiting things out or by paying for the problems to go away.

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