Urgent aid for Pakistan: Anatol Lieven

Urgent aid for Pakistan
By Anatol Lieven
International Herald Tribune, September 7, 2008

PESHAWAR, Pakistan:
The Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Senator Joe Biden, has drawn up an excellent long-term plan for the United States to help Pakistan economically, thereby strengthening the state against Islamist extremism. This is a vital American interest, not just because of the role of Pakistani Pashtuns in supporting the Taliban's campaign in Afghanistan, but even more importantly because Pakistan itself risks becoming a source of threats to the West that will vastly outweigh those from Afghanistan. It is to be hoped that if John McCain wins the presidential election, his administration too will devote far more attention to helping Pakistan.

The problem is, however, that Pakistan may not be able to wait that long. By the time a new administration has begun to work out its plans, it will be next spring. And as the editor of a leading Pakistani newspaper said to me in Lahore last Monday, "if the government here can't do something serious to help the population economically within six months, it will be finished."

He and others have warned that mass anger at rising food prices and lengthening electricity cuts could combine with hostility to the government's campaign against the insurgents and to Pakistan's alliance with America. Sporadic violent protests against power cuts have already occurred in several cities. The resulting instability could wreck any hope of Pakistan continuing its tough campaign against the insurgents.

Pakistan's new president, Asif Zardari of the Pakistan People's Party, is already hated by much of the population, in part because he is seen as too pro-American. His government's prestige is being damaged still further by intensifying American raids into Pakistan's tribal areas.

The main opposition party, the Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, will undoubtedly try to exploit all this as much as it possibly can. Sharif's popularity has soared in recent months, partly due to his opposition to Pakistani help to the Americans in Afghanistan and criticism of the Pakistan Army's campaign against the insurgents.

This does not mean that the United States should treat Sharif as an enemy. If he comes to power, he will probably follow a course of pragmatic cooperation with Washington. Nonetheless, initially at least, his return to power would be a blow to U.S.-Pakistani cooperation.

The Pakistani population is suffering acutely from the twin effects of the surge in the international price of oil, almost all of which Pakistan has to import, and the surge in international food prices. The latter should at least have benefited farmers - but their gains have been largely wiped out by the increased cost of fuel for their tractors, transport and water pumps.

Electricity cuts, meanwhile, have reached 16 hours a day in some areas, including the North-West Frontier Province, where the insurgency is gathering strength. The cuts stem from a number of long-term factors, including poor management and inadequate new investment in power generation. The most immediate problem, however, is that the state cannot pay some $1.4 billion in debts to the power companies, which in turn do not have the money to import necessary fuel.

The United States should make these funds available to Pakistan immediately for this specific purpose. Secondly, America should give emergency aid to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the Pakistani military offensives in Bajaur in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Swat in the North-West Frontier Province. This should be treated with the same urgency that the United States approaches natural disasters like the Pakistani earthquake four years ago.

America should also use its influence with the IMF to procure its assistance to Pakistan. It is essential, however, that this should not be made conditional on cuts in subsidies and social programs that will further hurt Pakistan's poor; such cuts would undermine the Pakistani government still further.

Limited American financial help can tide Pakistan over its immediate crisis. At the same time, the United States should urgently craft longer-term aid programs intended to strengthen resistance to the spread of insurgency.

These should be focused on the North-West Frontier Province. The planned $750 million for the tribal areas is a good idea in itself, but given the security situation and lack of basic infrastructure in these areas, it will be many years before this money can be spent effectively. Meanwhile, the North-West Frontier Province itself is in grave danger from the militants.

Unlike the tribal areas, the province does have a basic industrial infrastructure. American help should be devoted to building that infrastructure, above all in the areas of hydro-electric plants and communications. The province also badly needs hard cash to combat the militants directly. At present, for example, the North-West Frontier Province's demoralized policemen earn only two thirds of the salary of their comrades in Punjab - and half what the Taliban pays its fighters.

The sums involved are miniscule compared to those spent by the United States on the war in Afghanistan - and Pakistani help is essential if the U.S. is to have any chance of winning that war. Reliance on purely military means will be the surest way for the America to lose it.

Anatol Lieven is a professor at King's College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington. He is currently in Pakistan doing research for a book.

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