New York Times, July 28, 2008
Pakistan’s new civilian prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, is in Washington this week for what we are sure will be a difficult set of meetings.
Mr. Gilani’s constituents deeply resent the United States for propping up and enabling their former dictator, Pervez Musharraf. President Bush, who directed that enabling, must have his own serious doubts about Mr. Gilani’s willingness to fight Taliban and Qaeda forces that are using Pakistan as a safe haven.
That is why Mr. Bush needs to use this visit to recast relations — making clear that he is committed to strengthening both Pakistan’s democracy and its ability to fight extremism. That will require a lot more economic assistance and more carefully monitored military aid.
For their part, Pakistan’s civilian leaders must provide more honest and effective governance. They must tell their voters that extremism also threatens Pakistan — and that this is not just America’s fight.
The government also needs to find new ways of asserting its authority in the tribal areas, by providing better social services, promoting economic development and working more closely with tribal leaders. And it must send more elite troops trained in counterinsurgency to take on Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Both sides would be better able to achieve these goals if Congress approved legislation introduced this month by Senator Joseph Biden and Senator Richard Lugar that provides for substantial long-term increases in economic assistance to Pakistan and tighter monitoring of American military assistance. The White House needs to give this bipartisan initiative its strong support.
The imbalance it seeks to remedy between lavish but misdirected military aid and miserly economic assistance was highlighted in the recent Congressional skirmish over who would pay for modernizing Pakistan’s jet fighters.
The modernized F-16 is a high-technology plane, mainly intended to deter India, and is poorly suited to counterinsurgency operations along the Afghan border. The original plan was for Pakistan to pay the $230 million a year. But now the White House and Mr. Gilani want Congress to pick up the tab.
Mr. Gilani is eager to keep the Pakistani military happy — and the new army commander, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is a professional who has supported the transition to civilian government. If Washington pays, it would also, in theory, free up those millions for badly needed social spending.
If spent wisely, that money could go far. A program to control and prevent hepatitis B infections would cost roughly $100 million. A public-health laboratory network could be set up for $30 million.
Under present aid formulas, Washington can pay for the F-16 upgrades only by shifting funds from equipment better suited for fighting the Taliban. Pakistan needs more such equipment — not less — including Cobra helicopters and night-vision goggles.
Pakistan should not be modernizing the F-16’s at all, but that deal was made long ago. Congress should hold its nose and approve this year’s F-16 money, plus additional emergency funds for the helicopters and goggles. Then it should quickly enact the Biden-Lugar legislation.
That way, Pakistan will have reliable funding for future social programs and be able to focus American military aid on counterterrorism. It is an imperfect solution but could be the start of a better relationship — one that promotes democracy and the fight against Al Qaeda.