Biden’s Approach to Pakistan — Perhaps Presidential


In discussing Pakistan on a media conference call today, Foreign Relations Chairman Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) advocated a more nuanced policy attuned to the regional contours and contemporary contingencies than the U.S. political and electoral arena will usually allow. Biden described the Pakistani state of national emergency as unsustainable and, without rehashing another democratic sermon on the mount, called on the U.S. to utilize a number of levers at its disposal to move President Musharraf and Pakistan away from this extremely precarious position.
The four part plan he laid out included large, unconditional financial support for non-security projects such as schools, roads, clinics, etc; conditioning of security aid on performance; support for judicial, political, and good government reforms; and finally and increase in public diplomacy and high impact support.
Sen. Biden first correctly linked the current instability to the administration’s poor management and near desertion of Afghanistan by early 2002. He downplayed the notion that the rise of terrorism resulted from the absence of a fully functioning liberal democracy in Pakistan, instead arguing that Musharraf saw the U.S. packing up its bags in Afghanistan soon after the invasion (in preparation for Iraq) and responded by hedging against the U.S. departure and cutting other “Faustian bargains.” Pakistan had experience being burned by the U.S. in the past. They were left holding the bag and contending with unmanageable militants when the U.S. — after partnering with Pakistan to foster and back the mujahedeen in the late 80s to counter the Soviet threat — promptly departed.
A second assessment the senator made concerned the failure of the U.S. to extend engagement to the Pakistani moderate majority. While Musharraf is conveniently being treated as the fall guy who snuffed out democracy in his country, it’s important to remember that the U.S. abetted this trend by raising expectations by declaring democracy was on the march and then failing to broaden its engagement in Pakistan and Afghanistan (as they both shared the territory that formed the hotbed of terrorism). This was a result of our policy to deal with al Qaeda on the cheap — to simply fund the Pakistani military to kill terrorists rather than invest in altering the structures that gave rise to terrorism. A Musharraf policy rather than a Pakistan policy derived from limited U.S. interest and attention span.
The fact is the United States has never demonstrated its commitment to engage the broader Pakistani public for the long haul. Sen. Biden has suggested we do otherwise but he’s honest about the front-end costs. While the U.S. needs to move Musharraf away from the unsustainable state of emergency he has declared, it will not be done on the cheap with platitudes of democracy and the quick fix of an election date. It will take, as the senator suggested, an unconditional, long-term investment in economic and political structures that will enfranchise larger parts of the population and signal to the Pakistani people, government, and military the seriousness of our engagement. Only broad, long-term investment will begin to engender confidence amongst civilians to ally with the U.S. and trust within the military and intelligence services to cooperate further and stop hedging against our expected departure.

I’m not certain conditioning security funds is the most likely way to quell instability and continue our mission of combating violent extremist elements in the Northwest frontier province. (It’s worth noting that in a phone interview on CNN last night, even Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry refrained from calling on conditional funding concerned that it might threaten Pakistan’s national interest and well-being). But I do think we need to heavily support political reforms and good governance with more tangible incentives and less sermonizing. Finally, we can no longer afford to watch the pitch go by when it comes to public diplomacy and high impact support. Biden mentioned U.S. aid after the Pakistani earthquake in late 2005 as a success story but in actuality, we missed a huge opportunity. Regional analysts suggested that a large display of U.S. support and compassion, like the kind that more than doubled our local public support in Indonesia after the Tsunami, was in order. But the U.S. waited too long and offered too little that others, like the Cubans, filled the void we left.
While Sen. Biden spoke many truths today, he was not able to admit what is an anathema to most U.S. politicians — that our influence over this situation is rather limited and waning (especially as we have slipped in recent years in our strategic and moral credibility). Pakistan itself still needs to embark upon a national dialogue — first centered on issues of national security, and second on the military’s relationship to society. Most Pakistanis do not yet see it in their interest to ally with the U.S. to fight is ostensibly our war on terrorism (though a shift may be palpable as terrorists are beginning to move from the frontier provinces to attacking urban centers). And because the military has historically been the modernizing vanguard contrasted against a series of incompetent and perpetually feuding civilian governments, the military has perhaps received too much latitude from the Pakistani public.
The U.S. can try to back a certain process or simply broker political stopgaps — like a Mushrraf-Bhutto deal — to ease the transition. But the real heavy lifting will eventually have to be done by the Pakistani people and institutions. The best thing we can do to shape the process is to invest in a steady set of incentives gradually leading Pakistani military and civilian institutions in a more constructive and stable direction.
At the same time, Sen. Biden was right to step back and caution against distracting ourselves by creating new strategic quandaries, for instance opening up another military front against Iran. Our near abandonment of Afghanistan in 2002 and our current Pakistan problem it subsequently gave rise to should remind us of the costs of such an endeavor.
— Sameer Lalwani


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