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Our Pakistan Problem: Turmoil Requires a Shift in U.S. Policy

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A suicide bombing that claimed nearly two dozen lives earlier this week in Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore, is part of a growing trend of violence that claimed thousands of lives in the past year, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In the wake of this growing violence, the United States and other countries should resist the impulse to offer unconditional support to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who has portrayed himself as a last bastion against the terrorists.

In Pakistan and other key countries, the United States has made the mistake of putting so much focus on individual leaders and personalities, when a broader approach that seeks to support institutions and develop the entire country is what is needed now more than ever. Indeed, the turmoil in Pakistan exposes dramatic shortcomings and inconsistencies in U.S. policy toward Pakistan dating back to the Cold War up through the present day.

President George W. Bush inherited a flawed and ad-hoc policy to Pakistan from previous administrations, but his approach to Pakistan has offered no improvements. By offering Musharraf billions of dollars and years of unconditional support, the Bush administration has made three major mistakes:

  • Ignored Facts on the Ground. One central justification for President Bush’s sustained support for President Musharraf has been that the Pakistani president is a crucial ally in fighting terrorism. Yet on Musharraf’s watch, extremism is growing in Pakistan. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have reestablished safe havens in Pakistan from which they have launched attacks into Afghanistan, Pakistan, and throughout the world. Recent thwarted terrorist attacks in Germany, Scotland, and England can all be traced back to Pakistan. Today’s suicide bombing is an indication of the growing strength of these extremist groups, who have conducted numerous attacks in the last year.
  • Overemphasized military solutions. The U.S. government has overemphasized military solutions to fighting terrorism, and has not focused sufficiently on democracy promotion, economic development, and public diplomacy. Bush’s policies even contradict his own counterterrorism strategy. In its National Strategy for Combating Terrorism of 2006, the Bush administration called the war on terror a “battle of arms and a battle of ideas” and advocated democracy promotion as a long-term antidote to the terrorists’ extremism.Yet, the vast majority of U.S. funding has gone toward Pakistan’s military, not democracy promotion programs. In 2006 for example, only $22 million out of $1.6 billion in U.S. aid was given to democracy programs in Pakistan, most of it for the Election Commission, which is largely controlled by Musharraf.
  •  Ignored the will of the Pakistanis. The Bush administration’s policies have far too often ignored the will of the Pakistani people. An opinion poll released this week and conducted last year by World Opinion.org for the United States Institute of Peace shows that majorities want Pakistan to be more democratic, support an independent judiciary, and endorse international trade. While most want Islam to play a larger role in Pakistan, they view the activities of Al Qaeda, local Taliban and Pakistani Islamist groups as threats to Pakistan. The U.S. government has done little to reach out to the larger Pakistani population to strengthen their voices.

What has resulted is a population deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions. According to the poll, most Pakistanis do not believe that Pakistan-U.S. security cooperation has benefited Pakistan, and a majority (84 percent) sees the U.S. military presence in Asia as a greater threat to Pakistan than Al Qaeda and the Taliban (60 percent). Two-thirds of the Pakistanis polled do not trust the United States to “act responsibly in the world,” and a vast majority thinks the United States aims to “weaken and divide the Islamic world.” In other words, the United States has utterly failed to win over the Pakistanis.

A Shift in Priorities

Obviously, Pakistan’s current instability cannot only be blamed on the Bush administration, despite most Pakistanis’ belief that the United States has extensive control over major events in Pakistan. Pakistani leaders bear most of the responsibility for the current instability and growing extremism. In moving forward, the United States needs to shift how it approaches Pakistan, acting in accordance with our values, as well as our security concerns—approaches that do not contradict.

The United States must follow the lead of the Pakistani people and increase support for democratic institutions in Pakistan. Just as Pakistanis want an independent judiciary and a stronger democracy, the U.S. government should increase its pressure on President Musharraf to reinstate the sacked judiciary and to remove all media restrictions. The U.S. government must also expand its contacts and funding beyond the Pakistani military, listening to the Pakistanis’ belief that while the Army has done a good job in traditional military functions, such as defending Pakistan’s borders and territory, few think they have been effective in governing Pakistan or in helping economic growth.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Strategic Reset: Reclaiming Control of U.S. Security in the Middle East.  Caroline Wadhams is a National Security Senior Policy Analyst at the Center and co-author of The Forgotten Front on U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
 

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