A Push for a Pakistan Plan

By Craig Cohen and Derek Chollet, fellows at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (THE WASHINGTON POST, 12/01/07):

Now that Democrats in Congress are beginning to flex their muscles, everyone is guessing whether more intrusive oversight will influence the Bush administration’s approach to foreign policy.

This week the House passed a bill to fully implement the 9/11 Commission recommendations. Included was a 180-day window for President Bush to come up with a long-term strategy for Pakistan. Since the 9/11 commissioners last year graded the administration’s approach to Pakistan a lowly C+, this policy review is long overdue.

No doubt it comes at a difficult time for a weary administration. Given the range of crises confronting the United States today — Iraq’s implosion, North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs, Afghanistan’s instability, and Darfur’s genocide — it is tempting to push aside seemingly less immediate problems.

But Pakistan remains one of Washington’s biggest unspoken worries. It seems to be in perpetual crisis, just one event away from going over the edge. No one doubts that the costs of Pakistan’s freefall would be tremendous. Yet the current options to prevent this from happening are few and far between.

In the past six months we’ve seen a number of sparks that could set Pakistan aflame. Last October a Pakistan military strike on a madrassah in Bajaur prompted the deadliest suicide attack against Pakistani soldiers on record, killing 42.

The government’s extra-judicial killing of the influential rebel leader Nawab Bugti last August reaffirmed for many Pakistanis that they live in a lawless society.

And there is mounting evidence that the Taliban and al Qaeda continue to find refuge and training in Pakistan, increasing the possibility of future violations of Pakistani sovereignty by NATO or U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

It’s clear that Pakistan’s military President, General Pervez Musharraf, is caught between America’s security demands and his own citizens’ hostility toward U.S. interference. A governance crisis — if Musharraf disappears or is overthrown — could quickly make a nuclear Pakistan one of the top foreign policy issues the United States has to address.

Yet despite the stakes, America’s Pakistan policy remains shockingly unimaginative and reactive. The hallmark is stability, which since 9/11 has boiled down to unflagging support for Musharraf, and hope for the best.

This policy obscures the key question of what America wants from Pakistan in the first place, and reaffirms U.S. dependence on a man who might be gone tomorrow. The default setting is “stay the course,” at least until the next crisis erupts.

For all the talk of America’s global dominance, we find ourselves with very little leverage to influence events in Pakistan. U.S. engagement demonstrates the limits of our hard power. We’ve spent billions to buy the cooperation of the Pakistani military since 9/11, and all we get in return may be just enough help to keep the money coming.

Our soft power in Pakistan — the ability to influence by attraction and persuasion — is far lower than it could be considering the historic, economic, and personal bonds that unite our two countries. Is it possible for the United States to convince Pakistanis that we’re interested in a serious long-term partnership, rather than merely a short-term alliance of convenience?

Doing so will require a better understanding of Pakistan, as well as an assistance strategy more aligned with the needs of average Pakistanis.

First, how well do we know Pakistan? Limited by security restrictions and our over-reliance on elites, U.S. officials are unfamiliar with the likely drivers of future events, including lower ranks of the military, Pakistani intelligence and Islamist parties, as well as the Pakistani business community. Better engagement begins with better understanding.

Second, is there a real strategy guiding U.S. assistance efforts? U.S. assistance to Pakistan is highly personalized, militarized and centralized, with very little reaching the vast majority of Pakistanis. How can the U.S. expect to impact education in a country of 170 million — 40% of whom are under 14 — when we spend less on education there each year than Portland, Maine spends on its students?

Congress is right to push administration officials to articulate their plan for Pakistan. Is the priority to guide India and Pakistan away from the nuclear precipice, keep nukes out of the hands of terrorists, rebuild Afghanistan, hunt down al Qaeda, or help Pakistan to prosper?

A constant crisis mentality often precludes strategic thinking. When you’re in a high-wire juggling act, it’s not easy to look off to the horizon.

A closer look at the numbers for U.S. assistance to Pakistan since 9/11 may spark a broader discussion of long-term objectives. For instance, what effect have the billions spent on Coalition Support Funds had on Pakistan’s capacity and willingness to confront the Taliban and al Qaeda? What effect has U.S. assistance had on the chances of civilian, democratic, moderate leadership emerging in Pakistan over the long-run?

Money isn’t everything, but it often sends a clearer signal of our priorities than official statements.

Elections and transitions offer the opportunity to rethink America’s interests and policy options. If we squander the chance and allow our approach to Pakistan to be governed by little more than blind faith, both Musharraf and U.S. policy are sure to remain in the line of fire for the foreseeable future.