Pakistan's Window of Opportunity

After eight years of military rule, Pakistanis desperately want their newly elected civilian government to fulfill their country's promise. Public support will inevitably ebb and flow because of the sudden shift to democratic governance, but the underlying dynamic is positive. The United States should fully encourage the democratic opening during this critical period.

On a recent visit to Pakistan, we discussed these changes with more than 200 political party leaders, police chiefs, judges, clerics, journalists and students. They were animated by the return of a constitutional order, even with all the challenges that accompany it.

Within weeks of taking office after the Feb. 18 elections, the coalition government was already working on an ambitious agenda. This includes a number of reforms, such as trying to reinstate the judges deposed by President Pervez Musharraf and supporting a U.N.-led investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. At the same time, Pakistan is facing several daunting challenges that threaten to derail this fragile course. The economy is slowing. The restoration of unseated judges only represents part of a larger rule of law crisis that could implicate many of Pakistan's leaders.

Further, pre-election terrorist attacks and the expansion of Pakistan's Taliban into the North West Frontier Province have increased fears of extremist violence throughout Pakistan. The threat posed by Al Qaeda and other foreign militants, who cross back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan, seems to be on the rise. Analysts have only a rudimentary understanding of these complicated alliances and dynamics (tragically demonstrated on June 11 after a U.S. airstrike killed 11 Pakistani border guards). This type of mistake serves as a stark reminder of the lessons from the 2006 U.S. counter-insurgency manual: an operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents.

With Pakistanis now trying to focus on issues that really matter, how can the U.S. help to consolidate reforms and encourage this nascent democracy?

We endorse a strategic approach, one that requires dramatic changes. The inconsistent, one-dimensional, military-dominated relationship between the United States and Pakistan needs to be more expansive, mutually reinforcing and include realistic agreements. Assistance should focus on three challenges that matter to Pakistan's people.

First, Pakistan needs fundamental rule-of-law reforms in the legal, penal, police, intelligence and military spheres. Pakistanis' sense of justice has been undermined at every level. Reforms need to be thorough and targeted. For example, at the top, confidence could be restored by independent public inquiries to investigate controversies that divide Pakistanis, such as official corruption, the Red Mosque siege, and violence in Karachi. Such inquiries could be led by a mix of well-respected Pakistanis and international legal and financial investigators.

Second, Pakistan needs a regional approach to confront violent extremism. Pakistan's neighbors -- notably Afghanistan, India and China -- are also interested in "draining the swamp" of extremist militants from the region. The proposed Pakistan-Afghanistan Jirga could be fully endorsed by international partners, so as to develop new means of guarding porous borders, de-radicalizing some militants, restoring traditional systems of justice, and capturing those who have already committed crimes. At the same time, both India and Pakistan are finally experiencing "Kashmir fatigue." U.S. attention could help broker a lasting deal over the disputed territory.

Third, public investments and assistance must reach more of Pakistan's 165 million people. Sen. Joseph Biden's proposal for a $7 billion, multi-year "democracy dividend" aid package captured the imagination of those we spoke with. This bill should be aimed at youth, given that half of the population is less than 20 years of age. Aid for education and health should be tied to Pakistani expenditures, shared with the four provinces and publicly accounted for in Pakistan's active press.

Now, more than ever before, America needs to ensure that its support addresses the country's most pressing concerns, in full partnership with the people of Pakistan. Such a strategic approach complies fully with our values and principles, and is an opportunity for the United States as well to fulfill its promise.

Rick Barton and Karin von Hippel From the Center for Strategic and International Studies. They are co-directors of the PCR Project at CSIS.