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Pakistan, Captain America’s On the Phone

• July 21, 2009 • 4:25 PM

The United States has dumped billions of dollars into Pakistan as it has sailed closer than ever to becoming a nuclear-armed failed state. Where do both nations go from here?

Part II of a look at the entwined fates of the United States and Pakistan. Click here to see part I, “Re-Arranging Pakistan’s Deck Chairs.”

Reconstituting trust is tricky enough between two individuals. In the case of star-crossed “frenemies” the United States and Pakistan, it’s complicated because the U.S. will simultaneously try to apply benchmarks to Pakistan’s internal counter-insurgency cooperation.

“We must begin [emphasis added] to develop leverage with our large-scale aid programs and ensure that U.S. taxpayer money does not indirectly end up assisting enemies that are fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan,” says Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation.

The key benchmark is whether the Pakistan military is willing to “comprehensively abandon” its ties to the local Taliban and other militant groups it has long sponsored as low-cost proxy for harassing India, its primordial enemy.

While this might seem non-negotiable from the U.S. standpoint, Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee it is an “open question” whether the U.S. can rely on Pakistan’s cooperation against al-Qaeda.

But to “test the proposition” that Pakistan can be made a dependable and effective counter-terrorism partner, the Pentagon wants to spend $400 million on training. That’s part of $3 billion to be spent over the next three years on a military that has repeatedly balked at reorienting its basic defense posture from prepping for a conventional war against India.

An alternative tack taken by Pakistan is that it already knows counterinsurgency. It just needs more equipment. Recent efforts to eject insurgents from Pakistan’s Swat Valley suggest there may be some validity to this, but only at the cost of considerable collateral damage to civilians. The result is that Pakistan’s current ham-handed counterinsurgency efforts risk, as Selig Harrison has pointed out, exacerbating millennial ethnic tensions between the Punjabi-dominated army and the country’s many tribal groups, especially the Pashtuns.

Partition’s Lasting Pain
A key word in understanding Pakistan’s relationship with India is neuralgic — originally a medical term that means a pain or irritation whose physiological basis is hard to ascertain. As the Rand Corp.’s Christine Fair notes, even if vexing border issues were solved (besides the disputed Kashmiri border — the Durand Line – that demarcates Pakistan and Afghanistan, is also disputed), it is not clear that this would lead Pakistan to abandon its sponsorship of militant groups — a policy it has practiced since the inception of the state in 1947.

“Pakistan’s fears about India are historical, neuralgic and deeply existential,” she writes. (See her disquieting Washington Quarterly article here: “The Pakistan Army cannot imagine a future wherein its very existence is not imperiled by India.”

This is primordial insecurity that will not dissolve easily. In fact, India’s arc as a strongly ascendant power — while Pakistan clearly is not — will only fan these fears. U.S. officials and think tank analysts are cognizant of the problem but tend to offer blandishments about how it might be dealt with. “The U.S. must dedicate its diplomatic resources to changing security perceptions … from zero-sum geopolitical calculations,” writes Curtis.

“A policy of inducements — through financial, technical, and diplomatic assistance — is the best means to shift the strategic calculations of influential Pakistanis and bolster moderates who share basic U.S. interests,” argues Daniel Markey of the Council of Foreign Relations.

But it’s unclear why these inducements should succeed now when they are basically the same as were on offer in the past. More likely, no amount of inducements are likely to change Pakistani’s understanding of their fundamental strategic interests.

That will require changes on the ground. There have been some interesting initiatives, but so far they have been quite preliminary and marginal. These include a trilateral military commission with Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO. Then there are a handful of border crossing stations that are jointly manned by intelligence and security officers. Mutually advantageous business could help, but bilateral trade between India and Pakistan is currently a piddling $1 billion annually, and it seems a long shot that industrial parks planned for the Afghan-Pakistani border, which will enjoy duty-free access to the U.S. market (through what are known as “reconstruction opportunity zones”), will have much of an impact.

Security and development in these three countries are now inextricably linked, and Afghanistan has now become a key cockpit where much of the rivalry between Indian and Pakistan plays out. As Curtis points out, Afghanistan-Pakistan relations can only improve in the context of reduced tensions between India and Pakistan. Some progress was actually being made in bilateral talks held between 2004 and 2007, even reportedly on the Kashmir issue — but as the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai demonstrated, progress can be quickly obliterated.

One hundred and sixty-six people were killed in the assault on one of the city’s most prestigious hotels and other high-profile sites. The group believed behind it, Lashkar-e-Taiba, has links to Pakistani intelligence services (the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and others), and so far there has been no crackdown on the group — or its militias, its FM station or hundreds of seminaries where jihadists are trained, according to Harrison. He says two leaders of the group (which has renamed itself) who had been under house arrest, were subsequently released. Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who U.S. and Indian intelligence both identify as the Mumbai attack ringleader, is still at large.

Another disturbing affiliation is the one between Pakistan intelligence services and Jalaluddin Haqqani, who served as the tribal affairs minister in the Taliban government in Kabul during the late 1990s. He is believed to have been behind the suicide attack at the Indian Embassy last July, which killed two senior Indian officials and more than 50 Afghan civilians. This terror-sponsorship makes it difficult for New Delhi to deal with Islamabad, although it might help if India would acknowledge a link between Mumbai and Kashmir — Lashkar-e-Taiba, after all, recruits on the basis of this issue.

The U.S. Has a Role
With hotheads like these stirring the cauldron it seems unlikely there will be any improvements in “security perceptions” any time soon. And it is at this juncture in considering the bedeviled region that U.S. analysts reach for a longer-term tonic by advocating that the U.S. help train mid-career up-and-comers in the Pakistan military, and train intelligence services to be more modern-minded.

“Washington should work to influence internal debates and transform mindsets among the rising classes of Pakistani officers,” says Markey, a former State Department planning officer. The annoying implication is that the country has not been doing this during past decades in which U.S. military colleges have hosted Pakistani officers. Others suggest the U.S. reach out even further to the younger generation to make school curriculum more balanced, a move apparently already nixed by Pakistani officials concerned the U.S. may try to secularize it as well.

Perhaps the one bright streak in the new U.S. approach is the insistence on reasserting civilian authority over the military as part of an apparently new, or at least an improved, commitment to cultivate genuine democracy.

Too bad though that there is no evidence that civilian rule differs much from the military. (Although here is a strong argument for trying to bring the country’s intelligence services to civilian heel, if the nascent democracy is to stand a chance — as Indonesia and Chile have been trying to do.) Indeed, the current political culture that has evolved in Pakistan seems a symbiosis of revolving elites that do little to encroach on each other’s almost feudal prerogatives.

Still, an emphasis on civilians is welcome, if fatally belated. The rot in Pakistan has gone on unchecked for decades. Pakistan has made a career of shaking down the international community, exploiting fears of the chaos that would ensue if it were to become a failed state. One critical consequence of Pakistan’s dependency is that there are just 1.5 million taxpayers, out of population of some 180 million. As Fair notes, this undermines the essential political or social contract that exists between the governed and their leaders.

Instead, what has evolved is a culture of endemic corruption, which has not fostered economic development but has deepened foreign dependence. It is also the reason that Fair, an Urdu-speaker, regularly hears Pakistanis charge that the real, hidden aim of international largesse is to undermine Pakistan by engendering foreign dependence. (That fits with the controversial thesis presented in John Perkins’ 2004 book Confessions of an Economic Hitman.)

U.S. officials counter by insisting they are imposing tight transparency and accountability requirements — once again, annoyingly, as if for the first time. Additionally, they say, the funds will be channeled through local grassroots organizations to develop the capacity of local civil society. Currently, 70 to 80 cents of every dollar allocated in aid comes back to the U.S. instead of staying in the country it is meant to benefit because of USAID’s dependence on contractors.

This figure (found here) apparently startled Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s regional point man, and he is reportedly looking into the idea of a trust fund to get more buy-in from Pakistanis and keep more of the money in-country. (A similar setup has been working in Afghanistan.) That’s just one of many things that need to change for the U.S. to have a chance to succeed in Pakistan.

The underlying premise of all these considerations is that Pakistan is simply too big — and too frightening — to be allowed to fail. But there are some dissenting views. This includes Fair’s, who says now “we are just trying to figure out where we can put icing on this relatively unsavory cake. Nobody is really talking about the structural issues; we end up looking for things we can fix. We can bring [internally displaced persons] air-conditioned tents, but we can’t make the army engage in activities that in fact don’t displace 2 million people [as happened in retaking Swat Valley from militants].”

In her admittedly “heretical view” she says, “Pakistan has to be allowed to fail. It’s like an addict — that until it falls flat on its face, it won’t change.”

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Ken Stier
Ken Stier got started as a reporter at community newspapers, independent film and television industry publications and in public affairs TV in New York in the 1980s. After attending Columbia's School of International Affairs, he moved to Southeast Asia in time for the final Vietnamese troop withdrawal from Cambodia. From bases in Bangkok, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur, he worked for wire services, newspapers and magazines, including Time and Newsweek. Until recently, he was a features writer at CNBC.com, covering energy and the financial crisis that got him laid off. He now freelances from New York, where he has covered and worked inside the United Nations, written policy papers for think tanks, conducted proprietary research for boutique consultancies, and taught at university.

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