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Re-Arranging Pakistan’s Deck Chairs

• July 20, 2009 • 4:10 PM

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits India, we look at its neighbor and enemy Pakistan, America’s oldest friend in the Subcontinent. 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 does it go from here, our Ken Stier asks in the first of a two-part analysis.

Part I of a look at the entwined fates of the United States and Pakistan. Click here to see part II, “Pakistan, Captain America’s On the Phone.”

When then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell confronted Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, soon after the 9/11 attack, with an either-you-are-with-us-or-against-us proposition, Gen. Musharraf did what most modern military men do when contemplating battle — he war-gamed it.

Not surprisingly, in the game, Pakistan did not fare well against the might of the U.S., and so the general sensibly threw his country’s lot in with the Americans. In return, the American government has showered Pakistan with $15 billion through the current fiscal year.

That money was meant to compensate Pakistan for its pain in helping fight al-Qaeda (it lost 1,500 soldiers fighting in tribal areas in just the last two years, and hundreds of security personnel police, etc., have been killed in terrorist attacks) and to help transform the country into a stable, prosperous and democratic country, at peace with itself and its neighbors.

That’s not exactly how it worked out.

In many ways, Pakistan today is a bigger problem than it was before the U.S. opened up the aid spigot. Wracked by multiple insurgencies and proliferating militant groups that increasingly have turned on the state, Pakistan is less secure internally and a greater source of regional instability than ever before.

Most immediately, this poses a threat to its neighbors, Afghanistan, and even more so for India, which Pakistan regards as its primordial enemy. The two were cleaved apart in the bloody dissolution of the British Raj in 1947 and have been in conflict ever since, fighting three full-scale wars, the last one in 1971 when India intervened in a civil war and helped Bangladesh gain independence from Islamabad (under which it had been East Pakistan).

The resultant security obsession with India has made Pakistan’s military resistant, practically up to the present, to reorienting its defense posture to include counterinsurgency capabilities needed to deal with growing internal threats.

This domestic challenge is compounded by Pakistan’s complex ethnic stew — 60 languages are spoken — while the state’s main instrument, the military, is dominated by lowland Punjabis. Their intrusions trigger deep historical animosities among other minority groups, especially among the Pashtuns, which make up the bulk of the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Into this cauldron the U.S. has poured, over decades, tens of billions of dollars — and yet Pakistanis are more anti-American than ever. Some polls show the U.S. getting more blame, by margins of more than 3 to 1, for the country’s violence than the various militant groups.

Losing or Lost?
This all prompts a new consensus in Washington on the need for a substantially new way to deal with Pakistan. It comes as the U.S. is poised for a significantly expanded engagement in Pakistan, increasingly seen as the crux of problems plaguing South Asia, including Afghanistan. Because the fate of Afghanistan and Pakistan now seem inextricably linked, pundits tend to refer to these two a single AfPak theater — or PakAf, if you believe strategy needs to concentrate on Pakistan.

The new engagement will involve a huge commitment of American military, intelligence, diplomatic and development assistance resources (some redeployed from Iraq) that can be expected to last at least a decade.

But just as the U.S. is poised to roll up its hegemonic sleeves and get down to some tough work, there is a palpable sense that Pakistan may already be, at this late stage, nearly a lost cause. That’s not just because the task of turning it around will overtax our resources and capabilities. It’s because, as Daniel Markey of the Council of Foreign Relations notes, “many critical dynamics in the region are, to a significant degree, outside America’s capacity to control, no matter how hard it tries.”

Indeed, says the Rand Corp.’s Christine Fair. “The biggest hindrances to ‘saving Pakistan’ are the intentions, interests and strategic calculations of the Pakistani state itself, in addition to the extremely limited capacity to affect the kind of change the United States and the rest of the international community demand.”

For that reason, she adds, “while hoping for the best, Washington must also be prepared for the worst-case scenario that Pakistan, despite reconfigured assistance and cooperation, remains unable or unwilling to act to secure its future and that of the region.”

In short, Pakistan faces the prospects of becoming a failed state, the world’s first with nuclear weapons. Little wonder then that there is increasing attention in Washington on just how secure Pakistan’s nuclear facilities might be (as in this Senate briefing). Indeed, it’s fair to say there would be a lot less fuss about Pakistan — even with its 175 million people, making it the sixth most populous country in the world and the second largest Muslim-majority nation (after Indonesia) — if it did not have nukes.

So, how did we get to this messy impasse? Both as a U.S. taxpayer, and privileged citizen of the global hegemon, there is good reason to be disappointed, if not angry. The United States has already spent billions since becoming Pakistan’s main patron decades ago and is about to spill more blood and treasure there. Afghanistan, meanwhile, has burned through more than $190 billion all by itself since 9/11. (For a dizzying sense of the cost of war see costofwar.com. But to be really nauseated by what these expenditures mean Americans have to forgo at home — even down to the state, county and city level — be sure to visit nationalpriorities.org.)

There is no way around the verdict that the U.S. has done a lousy job, particularly in the last seven years. Not only does it have precious little to show for the billions pumped into Pakistan, it has arguably made things worse.

Certainly lopsided aid has aggravated a central imbalance in Pakistan.

All but $3.2 billion of recent aid went to the Pakistani military, which has ruled the country for half of the nation’s 62 years of existence. During that time it has amassed a business empire worth an estimated $38 billion — easily the largest single corporate interest in the country — and it brooks virtually no civilian oversight. (The Pakistani military has long and effectively dictated its own budget, typically submitting a one-line item to the Parliament; in June 2008, for the first time, it submitted a two-page budget, without any real scrutiny.)

Close to $6 billion of the recent aid went to reimburse Pakistan for its cost in prosecuting the “global war on terror,” but it bought only fitful pressure on jihadist groups of concern to the U.S., which have also been instruments of foreign policy for Pakistan for decades.

Looking at U.S. aid spent on the civilian sector, it is hard to point to anything of substance.

Take, for example, the high-profile concern the U.S. has had about reforming Pakistan’s educational system, which Washington worried was too dominated by the Islamic religious schools known as madrassas. (That fear itself was a vast exaggeration; madrassas account for fewer than 1 percent of students — a “rounding error,” says Fair). The U.S. spent $159 million on a five-year reform plan, but as a report by the USAID’s inspector general makes clear, there is no way to independently assess whether the program achieved its desired results of boosting literacy, strengthening policy and planning, and teacher and administrator training, as part of “comprehensive school improvement.”

Instead the “audit team observed the furniture, computer, books and other teaching aids brought into use at two different (Education Sector Reform Action)-funded resource centers,” (page 4 in the summary section of this USAID report), which critics say is illustrative of how the agency continues to focus on easily measured outputs rather than qualitative outcomes that make a difference on the ground.

Such results trigger lots of talk about new assistance models — a “complete overhaul” of civilian assistance — and a new way of thinking of the development challenge. A White House White Paper released on March 27, the same day President Obama gave a speech on the subject, notes that the “core goal of the U.S. must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.”

But to do that, the paper notes, will “require a new way of thinking about the challenges, a wide-ranging diplomatic strategy to build support for the effort, enhanced engagement with the publics in the region and at home, and a realization that all elements of international power — diplomatic, informational, military and economic — must be brought to bear. They will also require a significant change in the management, resources, and focus of our foreign assistance.”

History and a legacy of past neglect make this a Herculean task.

A “trust deficit,” as the experts note, exists between the U.S. and Pakistan because of what each considers the other’s infidelities. The U.S. sees duplicity in Pakistan’s continued secret support of militant groups they have publicly disavowed, while Pakistan’s collective memory is seared by the U.S. arms cut-off during Pakistan’s 1965 and 1971 wars with India. Another black mark against Washington is the 1985 Pressler Amendment, which restricted military aid after Pakistan developed nuclear weapons. Islamabad saw this as unfair punishment, since there were no comparable sanctions against India for its nuke program. (Nor has India created a nuclear evangelist like Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan, who, in addition to spearheading Pakistan’s program, sold nuclear know-how to both Iran and North Korea.)

Then, there was the U.S.’s effective withdrawal from the region after it managed to “bleed white” the Soviet Union forces by stoking the mujahedeen (including Osama bin Laden), leaving Pakistan to deal with the aftermath of refugees and continued violence.

“This fateful decision still haunts U.S.-Pakistani relations and perpetuates a debilitating distrust between our two countries,” notes Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation. But hopefully, she offers, the “re-doubling of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan should help convince Pakistanis that America will not repeat its past mistake of turning its back on South Asia like it did in the early 1990s.”

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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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