Behind the Obama-Zardari Love Fest

At their meeting in Washington, Obama will bribe Pakistan's president with aid and guns to get him to do what he should be doing on his own: reconciling with his rival and taking on the Taliban. But what about the nukes?

Pakistan is one of the most perplexing international problems ever—and perhaps one of the most dangerous. It could be the most dangerous because the country has about 100 nuclear weapons, which could be captured by the increasingly potent Taliban extremists, who might actually be crazy enough to use them even in the face of certain American retaliation. It’s perplexing because Pakistani leaders seem incapable of setting aside their political differences, their legendary greed, and their indifference to the needs of their people, to challenge the mounting and mortal Taliban threat to their way of life, and because Washington almost certainly lacks the power to make them do the right things.

Though tempted, the Obama administration isn’t about to do political engineering and try to dump the corrupt and incompetent Zardari for the equally corrupt though more competent Sharif.

So, as President Obama and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan gather in Washington, here’s what the Obama team appears to be concocting to square the circle: a massive military and economic aid program that goes well beyond the five-year $10 billion-plus package now on the table. In other words, the United States will finance the reconciliation of Zardari with Punjab leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and in turn, their joint cohabitation with the Pakistani army. In other words, bribe them with the money and guns to do what they should be doing on their own, without the bribes, in order to save their own hides from a Taliban that will kill them and stone their women.

The only explanation for the Pakistanis’ totally self-defeating behavior is that they don’t take the Taliban threat nearly as seriously as we do. And maybe they also think that they can readily defeat the Taliban when they make up their minds. But one might conclude that the Pakistani leaders are being a bit laid-back, if not delusional, what with the Taliban now ensconced in enclaves 60 and 90 miles from their capital, Islamabad. To boot, the Pakistani army signed a deal with the Taliban giving them authority in the Swat Valley that allows them to establish Islamic law.

And if all this isn’t sufficient to scare the hell out of these civilian and military leaders, they might look to the so-called peaceful, southern region of Pakistan. There, Talibanism has spread recently like wildfire among heretofore immune farmers. Like their city brethren, these farmers have been screwed for decades by their wealthy landlords, and they aren’t going to take it anymore.

It’s just about impossible to figure out how to handle the Pakistani leaders of all stripes. Most certainly, Washington has mishandled them in the past, acted like dictators, and roused public animosity. But there’s just no way to be able to rely on the word of Pakistani leaders. The army promises to fight the Taliban in the northwest, but sends only a few thousand troops. It keeps the great bulk of soldiers on the border with India, which is really the only thing the army seems to care about. And for all the aid we’ve given them, Pakistani leaders still absolutely refuse to give Americans access to A.Q. Khan, the infamous head of their nuclear program who sold nuclear technology and more to rogue states, terrorist-sponsoring nations, and perhaps to terrorists themselves. They won’t let their closest ally interrogate the man who has caused us more harm than Osama bin Laden. And they’ve also been lying to us about their own nuclear program for decades. The Pakistani military buys our patience essentially by turning a blind eye to U.S. drones attacking the Afghan Taliban in their safe havens on Pakistan territory.

As for America’s past economic aid, much of it has made its way into the pockets of businessmen and politicians, central and local. It’s like most countries, only worse. It’s worse especially because the leaders surely understand that they must have popular support to thwart the Taliban. On the other hand, maybe they just don’t understand this.

There’s another problem with Obama’s increasing the aid package to Islamabad: Congress. It’s clear from hearings these last days that most legislators see Pakistan as a corrupt rat hole—and many of our legislators ought to know a rat hole when they see one. Some balk at any significant aid, therefore. Most, however, insist on placing tough conditions on the aid, such as accounting machinery and procedures. And they want aid cutoffs in the law if the conditions aren’t met.

The Pakistanis, of course, say this is the ugly Americans once again raising their heads and heavy hands to the long-suffering and sovereign state of Pakistan. They say their people are deeply offended by conditional American aid. (My guess is their people are offended by not receiving the benefits of the aid.) The Obama administration, like its predecessors, is fighting the conditions. They’re countering, “Just let us keep your conditions, you know, in our pockets, use them informally.” Yes, we know. In the end, the White House and Congress will reach some arrangement of lower aid totals and vague benchmarks. It’s too bad on both counts.

Then, there is that aching question of the nukes. The CIA says it thinks the number is about 100, but doesn’t really know. The CIA thinks the Pakistanis are producing more nuclear weapons annually than any other country, but isn’t sure of the number. The agency also believes it knows where many of the nuclear weapons are housed, but acknowledges that it can’t put its fingers on most of the weapons for one confounding reason: They’re mobile, and the army keeps moving them around to ensure neither India nor the United States can target them with confidence. Those guys just don’t trust India, or us.

The most reassuring words on our side come from Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. Asked about the security of the nukes, he said the United States has spent a lot of money to improve safeguards “fairly dramatically.” He said he is “comfortable” that the Pakistani military is capable of dealing with the problem. I am confident that there is someone, somewhere, who feels equally comfortable.

Americans can take comfort from two things the Obama administration has decided not to do. First, it isn’t going to send any U.S. troops into combat in Pakistan. It’s not going to start down this road. It’s fully aware we could never send enough. It will limit our military involvement to training personnel for the military aid we dispatch. Second, though tempted, it isn’t about to do political engineering and try to dump the corrupt and incompetent Zardari for the equally corrupt though more competent Sharif. It does realize the responsibility that lies down the road of overthrowing one foreign leader only to be irrevocably bound to his successor.

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Otherwise, expect a love fest between Obama and Zardari. And though three is a crowd, don’t forget about the third leader at these meetings, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. Yes, there still is an Afghanistan, and we’ll soon have more than 70,000 troops there. But that’s a small problem compared to Pakistan. As of now, Afghanistan has no nukes. Be grateful.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009) which shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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