The Country Most Likely to Trigger 3 a.m. Calls

Pakistan Will Be the Next President's Biggest Challenge


Which country is likely to create to the most emergency meetings for the next administration’s National Security Council? Here’s a hint—it’s not Iraq, and it probably won’t be Iran or China.

The wild card for the next administration is Pakistan. The country continues to stand at the nexus of the most pressing security challenges: nuclear weapons, international terrorism, religious extremism, endemic poverty, and political reform. The best and worst things about the Bush administration’s approach to the world are found in his Pakistan policy, and President Bush’s achievements and mistakes in Pakistan offer the best lessons for how the next U.S. president should set a new global strategy.

Perhaps the best foreign policy moment for the Bush administration was its response to the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, which killed more than 75,000 people. The Bush administration rapidly responded, providing $500 million for earthquake relief and sending U.S. helicopters and soldiers to deliver emergency assistance. Immediately afterward, polls showed that the number of Pakistanis with a favorable opinion of the United States doubled. When the United States does the right thing by focusing on policies that broadly benefit people around the world, other countries notice, and they are more likely to be stronger allies and partners in the long run for the United States.

Unfortunately, the worst thing about the Bush administration’s Pakistan policy washed away any of the gains achieved from providing emergency relief. In nearly every single speech on national security, President Bush has made a central argument that has been called the Freedom Agenda. In Bush’s worldview, the forces of freedom and democracy would defeat the forces of terrorism and extremism. The Freedom Strategy was an extension of the “us versus them,” “with us or against us” reaction the Bush administration had to the devastating September 11th attacks here at home. But there have been two main problems with the Bush Freedom Strategy.

First, the actual policy didn’t match the rhetoric in several prominent cases, including Pakistan. President Bush talked a good game when it came to freedom, but when Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf took an autocratic turn in late 2007, imposed emergency rule, and jailed judges, lawyers, and peaceful civil society activists, President Bush offered no criticisms or major shifts in policy. Musharraf remains in power, but diminished and discredited, just like U.S. power and influence in Pakistan.

Second, the Freedom Strategy of the Bush administration ignored some basic needs of people that actually shape the policies of other countries and directly affect the region’s stability. Blind faith in the ballot box as the cure-all to terrorism and extremism has actually not played out so well in Pakistan, as well as other countries. In fact, in some key instances, the strategy backfired, actually empowering terrorist groups such as the Palestinian Hamas and threatening allies such as Israel.

The damage of the Bush administration’s failed freedom strategy is most acute in Pakistan, and the threats loom the largest for the next U.S. administration because of the country’s internal instability, the effect that this instability is having on the war in Afghanistan, and the save haven and training ground that it provides for terrorists.

Pakistan is a strategically vital country with a population larger than Russia, but it continues to suffer from internal instability. The February 2008 elections presented an important opportunity for Pakistan’s leaders to take a step forward in stabilizing their country, but the results so far have been continued factional infighting.

Pakistan’s internal instability is directly affecting the war in Afghanistan, which is going poorly by all accounts. New U.S. military data released earlier this week showed that insurgent activity is increasingly sharply in Afghanistan, and that attacks are up 40 percent in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces along the border with Pakistan. Also this week, Afghan officials accused Pakistan’s intelligence agency of complicity in an attempted assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai in April.

But Pakistan is most likely to create the biggest headache for the next U.S. president because it is the country that U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly cited as the most important haven and training ground for global terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. It is also the place that is the best guess among intelligence agencies for where top Al Qaeda leaders like Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri currently reside. Military and intelligence officials have warned that the next terrorist attack will most likely come from Pakistan.

What does this mean for the next U.S. president? It means that he is going to need to be prepared to address the difficult challenges posed by Pakistan. Simply holding another round of elections—the central prescription of the Bush freedom strategy—or pouring money into Pakistan’s military won’t answer the tough questions. It also means that the current candidates need to go beyond vague descriptions about what they would do. The sum total of John McCain’s approach on Pakistan is best described by his rhetoric that he would “follow Bin Laden to the gates of hell.” Senator Barack Obama has discussed how he would conduct unilateral military strikes in Pakistan if he had actionable intelligence against terrorist groups, which is merely a statement of current policy. Obama has also talked about the downsides of blindly supporting President Musharraf.

To move beyond this narrow debate, the next U.S. president needs to make a shift from the Bush freedom agenda and take a more comprehensive approach to Pakistan—one that uses the full range of America’s considerable powers. The strategy should put at its central focus the positive lesson learned from the Bush administration’s best foreign policy moment—the earthquake relief in 2005—and prioritize the policies that most directly improve the prosperity of the Pakistani people.

Making a shift like this is easier said than done because it requires a fully integrated use of all U.S. powers. A prosperity agenda for Pakistan doesn’t simply mean social welfare and development programs—though that is one key component. It isn’t just handouts and do-gooder policies. A prosperity agenda means helping the Pakistani government provide basic security to its people by making the police more competent and less corrupt so that Pakistanis feel secure from terrorist and criminal groups. It means boosting the capacity of the Pakistani government to deliver basic services like electricity and clean water to its people. And it means helping Pakistan eradicate lawless zones of instability will directly make Americans safer by squeezing terrorist organizations that have used Pakistan’s territory as a safe haven.

The lessons from how the Bush administration applied its Freedom Agenda in Pakistan are important for setting the framework for a new global approach in the next administration, one that practices what it preaches and puts a higher premium on the prosperity of people at home and abroad.