While the Government of Pakistan merits charges of duplicity and incompetence for aiding and abetting Osama bin Laden, the desire of Congress to conduct a vendetta against the country and cut aid would be an emotionally understandable but realistically unwise course. Whether we like it or not, America is Pakistan’s sponsor and has been so since the early days of the Cold War.
The recipient of about $20 billion in aid since 9/11, Pakistan is the conduit for an estimated 50% of U.S. military supplies going into Afghanistan. Disrupting that effort has already happened on occasion, during tension from border incidents and Predator drone strikes.
With 29 million Pashtuns in Pakistan and nearly 13 million in Afghanistan, Pakistan has ethnic and linguistic affinity for this population. The Pashtuns have Persian antecedents and reside on two sides of an arbitrary and largely unrecognized frontier known as the Durand Line, established by the British in the late 19th century. Pakistan will therefore be, for better or for worse, the guardian of the endgame accommodation when the U.S. and NATO substantially withdraw — it cannot risk alienating this group known for its ethnic nationalism.
Democracies are not common in the Muslim world. Pakistan, the world’s second largest Muslim nation, has a parliamentary system, relatively free press, respected judiciary, and of late, interest in election reform to prevent fraud. It is a struggling, fragile democracy founded on secular principles. Many leading Pakistanis also wish to see a lesser role for the Pakistan Army, with more civilian control of the nation’s course.
While some in Pakistan recognize that they need U.S. sponsorship, opinion is quite divided about whether the U.S. or China is the natural and strategic long-term partner. China’s construction of the port at Gwadar near the Persian Gulf is an opportunity for potential use by the Chinese navy, which would then have easy proximity to some of the world’s oil lanes. U.S. vindictiveness could cause Pakistan to embrace China, although China may not rush to underwrite a bad Pakistani economy and a nation viewed in the West as a failing or potentially failed state.
The time has come for the U.S. to transform the form and substance of foreign aid to Pakistan. It continues to be vague — and a blank check. It is well-documented that it is offered through different administrative channels with various operating procedures, without sufficient transparency or third party review. U.S. aid is viewed in Pakistan as supporting the military and ISI, the intelligence service, for the benefit of an elite few — in a tide of cynicism there, it is not seen as benefiting the people of the country.
Instead, U.S. aid should be directed at natural gas and electricity development projects, as these would have a direct benefit on the daily life of the people. Natural gas is used in cooking, space heating, and automobile transportation and has industrial applications; electricity outages are well-known, affecting households and business and damaging productivity. Textiles are the leading export industry and would benefit greatly from more reliable electric power. A highly visible partnership in rural medicine could also help reposition U.S. aid to Pakistan.
There are reforms that only Pakistanis can enact for themselves: a vigorous tax collection system, land redistribution, free elections, an enhanced judiciary, and reduced control of the political system by the Pakistan Army and ISI — which have both suffered major damage to their reputations for alleged complicity in harboring and protecting bin Laden.
However, there is more that the U.S. can do: it can recommend an anti-corruption initiative, with advice from the American Bar Association. While this will be opposed by the Pakistani government, the U.S. will then be on record for promoting better governance. This should be viewed favorably in Pakistan, where much of the population is outraged over the level of corruption which impairs governance and human initiative.
As with the Raymond Davis affair, and more recently the arrest of alleged CIA informants who assisted in finding bin Laden, the relationship with Pakistan is subjected to more stress. Our dismay with Pakistan should, however, be expressed in private diplomatic channels. Public criticism only causes further intransigence and makes it easier to hype anti-American sentiment, already running at record levels.
Finally, U.S. encouragement of Indian moderation over the Kashmir dispute and the Line of Control separating the two countries would, even if only symbolic, be a constructive signal to allow Pakistan potentially to deploy more forces to address the Taliban to the west.
While the outrage over Pakistan’s harboring of Osama bin Laden is well-warranted, it is not wise to threaten to reduce U.S. civilian and military aid. Following a cooling-off period, we must hope that Congress sees that the issue is not the level of aid to Pakistan, as much as it is how that aid is structured and managed.
(These recommendations on U.S. aid and others may be found in the National Strategy Forum Review Spring 2011, “The U.S.-Pakistan Relationship: Toward a Complementary Strategy.”)