President Obama’s speech on Tuesday night was significant both for what was explicitly stated – more troops for Afghanistan – and for what was not said –American policy towards Pakistan.
What America faces in South Asia is something unique: for the first time in decades not only is South Asia critical to American security interests but America has three allies in the region – Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – who share antagonistic relationships with each other. Afghanistan fears Pakistani intentions and has tried to ally with India to counter any Pakistani actions. Pakistan feels threatened by supposed Indian nefarious designs and seeks to prevent any Indo-Afghan ties. India has very good ties with Afghanistan but has fought four wars with Pakistan.
In January 2009 reflecting the importance of Pakistan and Afghanistan for American security interests, the Obama administration appointed Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since March 2008 Pakistan’s civilian government led by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has shown its willingness to support the American-led war on terror. In April 2009 the Pakistani army launched an operation to weed out the jihadi groups ensconced in Swat and Malakand region of Pakistan’s North West. In October 2009 the military also took on militants based in South Waziristan.
However, going forward if the Obama administration wants to succeed, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship requires commitments from both sides.
In order to gain Pakistani support the United States leadership needs to strengthen, support and stabilize Pakistan.
- Strengthen – Even though Pakistan is the oldest American ally in South Asia the relationship has always been tactical not strategic in nature. Since Pakistani help was required primarily for Middle Eastern security related aims, instead of linkages between various elements of American and Pakistani societies the only strong relationship which developed was military-to-military. There is a need to convert the American-Pakistani relationship from one which has been primarily based on short-term collaboration to one based on long-term ties.
- Support – A strong symbol of this American commitment is American aid in supporting Pakistani democracy and economy. American aid to Pakistan dates back to the 1954 Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement, However, Pakistan’s stability requires massive investment – not aid – to boost the economy, re-build the educational sector and through this mechanism support the civilian democratic government. American investment to rebuild the Pakistani economy, especially infrastructure, energy and industry, is critical.
- Stabilize –Pakistan’s tense relations with both its neighbors, India and Afghanistan means that American support to improve these relations is paramount for moving towards a stable and peaceful South Asia. American policy makers face the challenge of persuading Afghanistan, Pakistan and India that close ties with any of the other two countries is not detrimental to any one country and instead is beneficial for all. In addition, America has traditionally been reluctant to directly interfere in the Kashmir dispute, and has preferred to encourage the two countries to carry on bilateral dialogue. However, as India-U.S. relations strengthen and Indian policymakers view America in a more benign light there needs to be more American encouragement of the ‘Composite Dialogue’ between India and Pakistan.
In return the Pakistani leadership – civilian and military – needs to build institutions, tackle the insurgency and implement economic and development related policies.
- Institution-building: Even though Pakistan was created as a parliamentary democracy, with the exception of the military none of the key institutions – legislature, executive and judiciary – have built strong roots. In addition Pakistan’s political parties depend either on the personal charisma of their leaders or on ethnic ties for their support base, not grass roots organizational support. Pakistan’s leaders – those within power and outside of it – need to declare a moratorium for a year or two on their personal differences and concentrate instead on building institutions.
- Insurgency-tackling: A concerted effort and a national will needs to be created to tackle the extremist groups based in various parts of Pakistan. The earlier policy of treating some of these groups as “assets” vis-à-vis Pakistan’s neighbors needs to be abandoned fully.
- Implementing development related policies: The public schooling system is in disarray, the economy is recovering very slowly, infrastructure needs massive overhauling, there is an impending energy crisis and the economy is still agriculture-textile based. These facts become critical when we realize that more than half of Pakistan’s 175 million population is under the age of 25 years.
This is not an easy task for either country’s leadership. There is a baggage of mistrust on both sides and rising anti-Americanism in Pakistan does not help. However, when the fate of over 1.5 billion South Asians in addition to 300 million Americans is at stake, there is a need to seriously rethink strategies and policies.