How Obama Can Fix U.S.-Pakistani Relations
Helping Islamabad Through The Democratic Transition
The U.S.-Pakistani relationship has become defined by mutual dissatisfaction and by impatience on both sides. The November 26 NATO operation in Pakistan's northwestern tribal area, which led to the deaths of more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers, is a case in point. In a recent town hall meeting in Islamabad with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an audience member complained that the United States is "like a mother-in-law." "We are trying to please you," she said, "and every time you come and visit us you have a new idea."
The problem, of course, is larger than any American failure to consistently convey its preferences to Pakistan, such as its requests that Pakistan stop distinguishing between "good" Taliban and "bad" Taliban and it aid Washington in defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan. Like some daughters-in-law, Pakistan disregards the nagging. Indeed, it might not be capable of living up to U.S. demands even if it wanted to. Repairing the fractured relationship will require creativity. More, it will require a reappraisal of U.S. strategic interests in South Asia.
Pakistan is just under four years into a difficult democratic transition. Commentators argue for giving the country some time, while empowering its democratic civilian government over its military. That, they believe, will eventually set the country right. Yet for the civilians to be supreme, they first need to be competent. That does not happen overnight. Poor governance -- a product of severe economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, and bureaucratic inability -- tops the list of causes of Pakistan's predicament.
Take the state of affairs in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which borders Afghanistan. The nearly ten million Pashtuns who live in the mountainous buffer zone are governed by a draconian British-era civil code. Extremely isolated, this unfortunate land has been a staging ground for militants and warriors of all stripes for decades. After 9/11, things in FATA got even worse. Islamabad had no coherent policy for handling the terrorists who converged on the area. In some cases, it waited too long before acting, and in others, the military used disproportionate force, leading to high civilian casualties. A new generation of Taliban emerged, in the process wreaking havoc on the rest of the country. In the last decade, terrorists, mostly operating out of FATA, have killed some 25,000 Pakistani civilians, 4,000 army soldiers, and 3,500 law enforcement officials. After the civilians came to power again in 2008, they attempted political reforms in FATA, but only on paper; civilian and military leaders were never able to come to a consensus on implementing reforms. The governance problems in the rest of Pakistan are less extreme but no less problematic.
One bright spot in recent years has been a vibrant lawyers' movement that seemed to signal the dawn of a new professional and largely independent judiciary. Hopes were dashed however, due to the government's lack of investment in, and the general dysfunction of, the criminal justice system. The net result is further public disenchantment with the country's leading political parties and the rise of the charismatic former cricket hero Imran Khan, who leads the Justice Party and pledges to clean the political Augean stables and strengthen independent judiciary.
The fault is not the government's alone. Because of the burgeoning defense budget -- some of which was meant to enhance counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capacity -- there has been little funding to do anything, especially to build up a civilian law enforcement capacity. Pakistan's police are severely underequipped, poorly trained, and subject to political manipulation. Politicians often favor loyalty over merit in appointments and transfers. At their roots, terrorism and violent religious extremism are law enforcement problems, but without forensic laboratories, a sound criminal justice system, and investigative capabilities, the state cannot fight them. Nor can the military: it is not trained or organized to perform domestic law and order duties. Moreover, it has failed whenever called on to do so, preferring instead to build up against external threats, primarily India.
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