First Impressions from Pakistan

We left for Pakistan last week with two main objectives: to gain a fresh, on-the-ground perspective of the very fluid and complicated situation in Pakistan; and to discuss the Pakistan report we released last November, which lays out a strategy for stabilizing Pakistan and the region, with a particular focus on issues of implementation given the dynamic situation here on the ground. As we conduct these meetings, we’re also getting an earful on the Obama administration’s moves since announcing the results of its policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan last month.

U.S. newspapers and television news give the impression that Islamabad is like Saigon in 1975, about to fall to the enemy. That depiction may be overstated, but the heavily guarded and fortified hotel and government buildings that we’ve visited are reminiscent of Baghdad’s Green Zone—the legacy of several high-profile bombing attacks in Punjab province and Islamabad over the past year.

We spent three full days in Islamabad—a typical government town with wide roads, big buildings, and minimal industry—before flying on to Lahore, the largest city on Pakistan’s eastern border with India. Lahore has the feel of two cities. One part is a military cantonment with a seemingly endless stretch of bases, military housing, officer clubs, and golf courses. The other is an industrial city filled with trade and commerce, as well as historical sites such as the Badshahi Mosque and Lahore Fort.

We’re now halfway through our trip, and we’ve had about three dozen meetings with more than 50 people inside and outside of government, current and former military officials, academics, and representatives from the media and civil society, as well as U.S. diplomats. Here are some of our preliminary observations:

Militant forces are placing increasing pressure on the government and people of Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban insurgency has blatantly violated disarmament agreements in the Swat valley north of Islamabad, and moved into adjacent districts in its Northwestern Frontier Province where they have taken over government offices and begun to consolidate their presence only a few hours away from the capital city. These actions are coupled with statements by several militant-aligned ideologues rejecting the country’s existing constitutional system as un-Islamic.

Many Pakistani moderates feel an increasing sense of siege. The U.S. government has been critical of Pakistani inaction against militant forces in the past, but there is a strong impression that these recent movements have served as a wake-up call for many Pakistanis who previously may have discounted the scope of the Taliban’s ambitions in their country. Extremist groups in these two cities have conducted targeted attacks on politicians and security forces, and have issued quiet threats to women who don’t cover their hair and liberals who speak their minds. Prospects for open insurgency in the country’s heartland do not seem high in the near- to mid-term, but the militants’ ability to infiltrate and carry out a sustained terror campaign against population centers in Punjab and Sindh certainly appears to be growing. Yet those who have the power to stop this assault do not seem to feel the same sense of siege, and the political establishment has not yet established a consensus on how to respond to public threats against the system.

The risk of another coup by the Pakistani military seems minimal for the immediately forseeable future. The Pakistani military does not want to take the blame for the country’s massive economic problems or inflicting civilian casualties in operations against the Taliban. The military seems to be looking to the democratically elected civilian government for leadership and political cover, which is seen as lacking.

The democratically-elected civilian government leaders are divided, dysfunctional, and lack the capacity to deliver on the basic needs of the people. Nearly everyone we have met with discussed the crisis of governance as a major challenge facing Pakistan.

The Pakistani government and people continue to see both India and the United States as colluding against them. Several people we met with expressed disappointment in what they view as a tilt in the Obama administration toward a more “pro-Indian” stance since entering office, with many noting that Kashmir, which Obama addressed during his campaign, seems to have disappeared from the discussion. Many are also suspicious that India is actively meddling in Afghanistan and the southwestern province of Baluchistan to undermine Pakistan’s national security.

What U.S. officials say matters a lot and has a major effect on public perception. The statements last week by a bevy of U.S. officials were much debated and bespeak the considerable influence we retain in Pakistan despite America’s general unpopularity. Overall, the people we met with in Pakistan expressed a strong preference for quiet diplomacy.

Many Pakistanis fear the United States wants to use them, rather than work in partnership. Many American policymakers have expressed support for the goal of moving beyond a transactional relationship with Pakistan and developing broader ties. Yet the Obama administration’s statements of the past week and the discussions in Congress of applying stricter conditionality on proposed economic assistance packages seems to have reinforced the notion among several Pakistanis that the United States wants to “use” Pakistan for its own purposes, rather than build a genuine partnership with the government and the people. The perception that the United States is a “fair weather” friend remains strong.

Pakistan sees its problems as distinct from those faced in Afghanistan. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) noted in a USA Today interview following his most recent trip to the country that many Pakistanis see the “Af-Pak” label as demeaning. They do not like being lumped in with another country that they see as much smaller and less developed politically and economically. Pakistan remains a highly stratified society with dangerously low levels of service provision for many of its citizens, but it does possess a number of institutions which, if not operating at the peak of Western standards, remain active and functioning.

Processing the many, and often conflicting, views we’ve encountered here will take time and distance. We will follow in the coming days and weeks with more developed thoughts on the future of this critical country and how the United States can best hope to manage its relations with it.

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