Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Is Pakistan America's Biggest Problem?
With President Barack Obama's new regional strategy in Afghanistan, the US is attempting to involve Afghan neighbors, particularly Pakistan, to help the US aims in Afghanistan. In his OpEd published in Financial Times, Professor Anatol Lieven of London's King's College argues that the United States faces tremendous risks by trying to bend Pakistan to its will over the Afghan war. Professor Lieven goes on to say that "the stabilization and development of this country (Pakistan) is not merely an aspect of the war in Afghanistan, but a vital US interest in itself. Indeed, Pakistan in the long term is far more important than Afghanistan. The second is that changing Pakistani opinions will mean changing Pakistani society, and that is a project that will require massive, sustained and consistent aid over a generation."
The professor concludes his comments by saying that "if ... Washington thinks that it can play Pakistani governments like a fish on an aid hook in order to extract much greater help in the Afghan war, then it will undermine and finally destroy those governments, as it did that of Pervez Musharraf. Even more importantly, if it does succeed in forcing the Pakistani army to do things that its soldiers detest, it may destroy the army. This would be a catastrophe for the US that would dwarf even defeat in Afghanistan."
Here is the full version of Professor Lieven's opinion:
We will need to remind ourselves often in the next few years that the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not the Obama administration’s fault. It inherited from George W. Bush a crisis so deep and so horribly complex that dealing with it would tax the powers of St Peter, let alone a US government with many other things on its mind and on its grossly overstrained budget. Improving the situation is the best that we can hope for. Finding a “solution” to the Afghan war and its repercussions in Pakistan is not even a possibility.
On Afghanistan itself, the administration’s new strategy, set out last week, strikes most of the right notes. In particular, it is correct to emphasize the critical importance of building up the Afghan National Army, without which nothing can be achieved in Afghanistan in the long term; and on the need for the US to work towards an exit strategy rather than engage in empty rhetoric about “staying the course”. Talk of creating a modern, western-style democracy in Afghanistan has been drastically scaled back.
The administration has also done something that should have been obvious from the very beginning and reached out to Afghanistan’s northern and western neighbors. When the US eventually leaves Afghanistan, regional powers – perhaps grouped in the Shanghai Co-operation Council – will have to try to manage Afghanistan’s ongoing conflict.
As the administration seems to have understood, Iran is critical in this regard. Iranian support saved the opponents of the Taliban from complete defeat before 9/11 and will be essential to preserving whatever regime the US leaves behind in Kabul when it eventually withdraws. Trade with Iran is vital to the Afghan economy, and aid from Iran could be vital to Afghan development. Finally, because the US and Iran share the same basic agenda in Afghanistan, the US administration is quite rightly using talks on Afghanistan as an avenue towards improving the wider relationship with Tehran.
So as far as Afghanistan is concerned, so far so good. The problem is Pakistan. As the new strategy recognizes, the two countries are now hopelessly interlinked, with a Taliban insurgency rooted in the Pashtun populations of each raging on both sides of the border. Putting greatly increased US pressure on the Afghan Taliban will indeed be immensely difficult if this is not accompanied by real help from the Pakistani state and military against Taliban support on their soil.
Yet the US may well have no choice but to proceed without Pakistan. Here, it seems to me, the Obama administration still does not fully recognize the depths of the problem it is facing, or the tremendous risks it will run by trying to bend Pakistan to its will over the Afghan war. For as both opinion polls and my own research on the ground have made abundantly clear, the truth is that a large majority of ordinary Pakistanis are bitterly opposed to Pakistan helping the US, especially if this involves the Pakistani army fighting the Taliban.
It is true that calculations by the Pakistani security establishment and intelligence services also play a part in limiting Pakistani actions against the Taliban; but the basic problem is a democratic one. A democratically elected government cannot afford simply to defy a public opinion this strong. Nor indeed can an army that has to recruit its soldiers from Pakistani villages – not from Mars or Pluto – and ask them to risk their lives. As a Pakistani general put it to me last year: “We can survive without American money and arms if we have to, though of course we don’t want to. But we cannot survive without the loyalty of our jawans [men].”
If the Obama administration wants to have any hopes of transforming such public attitudes in Pakistan then it will need to fund Pakistan to a vastly greater degree than is envisaged in its new strategy, in ways that will visibly transform the lives of many ordinary Pakistanis. This requires above all massive investment in infrastructure – especially relating to water – in ways that will also generate many jobs. At $1.5bn (€1.1bn, £1bn) a year, the new US aid that is promised sounds like a lot – until you remember that Pakistan now has about 170m people. Eight dollars per head is not going to transform anything much in the country. More-over, the US statement emphasizes that the aid will be made conditional on Pakistan’s help to the US against the Taliban. This is a recipe for constant hold-ups, congressional blockages and the wrecking of any consistent, long-term programs.
Unfortunately, it seems as if the new administration has not recognized two critical facts about Pakistan. The first is that the stabilization and development of this country is not merely an aspect of the war in Afghanistan, but a vital US interest in itself. Indeed, Pakistan in the long term is far more important than Afghanistan. The second is that changing Pakistani opinions will mean changing Pakistani society, and that is a project that will require massive, sustained and consistent aid over a generation.
If on the other hand Washington thinks that it can play Pakistani governments like a fish on an aid hook in order to extract much greater help in the Afghan war, then it will undermine and finally destroy those governments, as it did that of Pervez Musharraf. Even more importantly, if it does succeed in forcing the Pakistani army to do things that its soldiers detest, it may destroy the army. This would be a catastrophe for the US that would dwarf even defeat in Afghanistan.
The writer is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. He is currently researching a book on Pakistan
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009
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