Obama's Pakistan Problem

While the president ponders the way forward in Afghanistan, Pakistan looms as perhaps his greatest foreign policy challenge. Shirin R. Tahir-Kheli on how the past can help point the way forward.

While the president ponders the way forward in Afghanistan, Pakistan looms as perhaps his greatest foreign-policy challenge. Shirin R. Tahir-Kheli on how the past can help point the way forward.

Despite all the attention on Afghanistan, Pakistan is likely to be the most challenging foreign-policy problem that President Obama has inherited. External issues facing that country pose a formidable challenge. Years of internal misrule have left a legacy that currently intersects ethnic and sectarian grievances with dangerous extremist elements armed with messianic visions of change. Of course, not all of Pakistan’s problems are of America’s making. Nor can they all be solved by the U.S. alone. Still, as the U.S. embarks on another phase of engagement with Pakistan, some lessons from the past are worth remembering.

The Peshawar that I grew up in reflected a milieu that was extremely welcoming of foreign guests. My father started the first exchange program between Peshawar University—of which he was the head—and a major American university. The American families who came to Peshawar were feted as representing a country known for its enormous generosity and great, welcoming hospitality. Indeed, the U.S. was viewed as a true friend of the newly emerging Pakistan. That image is in stunning contrast with the current one. Today the U.S. is often seen as an unjust country that is housed by “infidels.” How did such an astounding change of view come about?

The U.S. was once viewed as a true friend of the newly emerging Pakistan. Today America is often seen as an unjust country that is housed by “infidels.” How did such an astounding change of view come about?

In Pakistan’s mind, India has always loomed large. Despite a history of strained relations, punctuated by active hostility, the enlightened elites in both India and Pakistan have dreamed of a future with close and friendly relations between the two neighbors. Unfortunately, these dreams have remained unrealized.

Good relations between India and Pakistan have also been deemed to be of value to the national security of the United States. All three of the Republican administrations that I have served have realized their strategic importance. In the wake of the nuclear deal with India that became the signature commitment by the George W. Bush White House, the U.S. missed an opportunity to promote an overall rapprochement between India and Pakistan. Both the White House and the State Department showed absolutely no interest (during the period between 2003 and 2008) in pursuing what surely reflects long-term interests of both India and the U.S. This is especially sad because there then existed—as indeed it still does—political will, both in Islamabad and New Delhi, toward economic cooperation and regional harmony. The loss of interest in helping the two countries to achieve a stable mutual accord, fed into the Pakistani view that there was no point in expecting the U.S. to help with issues central to the long-term welfare of Pakistan. Indeed, a long list of events in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship are seen by Pakistanis as attempted violation of their sovereignty: the Eisenhower visit to Pakistan, the perceived Kennedy bias in favor of India, the abrupt end of U.S. assistance after Pakistan’s successful fight for the expulsion of Soviets from Afghanistan during the Reagan era--a case of “use us and leave us”—and the latest perceived affront, congressionally mandated conditions reflected in the new proposed aid package.

Fatima Bhutto: Terrified Whispers in PakistanAs the U.S. faces up to the challenges presented by the Taliban and al Qaeda, a number of issues need to be kept in mind. First, while American policy moves in increments of four years, based on presidential election cycles, Pakistanis view American foreign policy toward South Asia as a continuum. This causes a disconnect that often leads to frustration in both corners. Therefore, once the careful deliberations that the Obama administration is currently involved in are completed, it would be wise to set up procedures, priorities and goals on a long-term, automatically rescheduling format. Among the relevant procedures and priorities:

—Encourage and help Pakistan face up to the reality that its very existence is being threatened by the extremists who have hijacked the religion that they claim to avow fidelity to—and have turned it into a monstrous, illegitimate, un-godly theater of the macabre. In this effort, it will be important to recognize that Pakistani military is unlikely to put its heart into this fight because they instinctively keep their gaze toward the East. Therefore, for this effort to be successful, the U.S. will have to use its good offices to help Pakistan and India achieve a full and long-lasting rapprochement.

—Pakistan will have to face up to the fact that there are no “good terrorists.” Terrorism of all creeds and colors has to be fought.

—The current attempt to put in place a multi-year assistance package helps mitigate the charge that the U.S. policy reflects a short attention span. Hence, it is imperative that the Obama administration keep the longevity of the package in the forefront of their outreach to Pakistanis.

—Anti-Americanism has engendered fellowship among erstwhile unlikely bedfellows. The Pushtun Taliban of the North West Frontier are now entwined with the Punjabi militant groups who operate with impunity in the largest province in Pakistan. Traditional disparaging by Pashtuns of the ‘Punjo’pyes’—a derogatory reference to Punjabis—is now replaced by tactical cooperation by extremists across regional lines. This renders essentially all parts of Pakistan unsafe. Washington will need to carefully calibrate development assistance with a light footprint, insist on its use only where it is most needed and at the time when it is best utilized. Only when an average Pakistani tastes the fruits of such assistance and experiences some noticeable improvement in his life, will his old feelings of friendship with the U.S. rekindle.

—As the recent events in Afghanistan have demonstrated, the electoral process is the starting point of legitimacy in governance. Despite democracy, governance in Pakistan has not shown any marked improvement in the last year. As large sums of money flow to Pakistan, it is imperative to demonstrate that the regime is not corrupt.

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—Finally, the U.S. model for the dispensation of assistance is badly broken. After taking away the 40 % for American contractors and another large fraction for Pakistani contractors, miniscule amounts actually get delivered. These processes urgently need fixing.

Shirin Tahir-Kheli served at the National Security Council in three Republican administrations. She was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for Special Political Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration. During 2005-06 she served as the Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State for UN Reform and in 2006-08 served as Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State for Women’s Empowerment.

Tahir-Kheli was the founding Director of the South Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. She is a 2009 Carnegie Scholar working on a study of U.S. engagement with the Muslim World during the George W. Bush administrations “Diplomacy Without Negotiation”.