Shadow Government

How the Pakistan aid bill backfired

By Dan Twining What should we make of the current imbroglio over U.S. aid to Pakistan? The fact that a singularly generous American civilian assistance package has led to a crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations rather than improving them reveals three things: one, Pakistan’s continued civil-military imbalance, two, Pakistani public hostility to what has been viewed ...


By Dan Twining

What should we make of the current imbroglio over U.S. aid to Pakistan? The fact that a singularly generous American civilian assistance package has led to a crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations rather than improving them reveals three things: one, Pakistan’s continued civil-military imbalance, two, Pakistani public hostility to what has been viewed as Washington’s transactional relationship with their country’s leaders, and three, the imperative of a sustained U.S. commitment to Pakistan and its region that helps reconstitute the way Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders define their interests — and in turn reconfigures the possibilities for partnership between Islamabad (where the civilian government sits), Rawalpindi (the headquarters of the Pakistani Army), and Washington.

First, Pakistan’s military leadership is clearly using the conditionalities contained in the U.S. assistance package as a hammer with which to beat the country’s unpopular (and pro-American) civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari. That this is a manufactured rather than a genuine crisis should provide little comfort, however, for it demonstrates how well-intentioned U.S. congressional efforts to strengthen civilian governance in Pakistan can backfire. To take one example, provisions in the final congressional bill authorizing the assistance package urge the civilian government to assume some responsibility for military promotions — anathema to the generals, who believe civilian meddling in internal Army matters threatens both its institutional integrity and, because they define their country’s interests as derivative of the Army’s, the national security of Pakistan.

The challenge for American friends of Pakistan is to pursue policies that strengthen the country’s civilian institutions while at the same time not unduly threatening the prerogatives of the Army, working overtime to rebalance relations between them while engaging closely with both. But such is the gap between military and civilian capacity that this is the work of years, even decades — not of a single assistance package. For the moment, Washington has a compelling interest in the sustained survival of civilian government in Pakistan, a country that has been ruled by the military for roughly half its 60-year history. Policies that threaten civilian government by crossing the Army’s red lines do not contribute to that end.

Second, America needs to be a better ally of Pakistan’s moderate majority of citizens who oppose Taliban or military rule but nonetheless view the United States as an enemy, not an advocate, of liberal values in their country. In the past, the United States has supported military dictatorship in Pakistan: Washington’s embrace of General Zia al Haq and its partnership with him to support the Afghan mujahideen fighting Soviet forces in the 1980s contributed to the rise of a strand of militant Islam that had previously been quiescent in Pakistan. Washington’s support for Gen. Pervez Musharraf, not only immediately following 9/11 but well after his sell-by date, created political space for opponents of dictatorship to define their dissent with reference to an ideology of anti-American, Islamist zealotry.

Pakistanis lament that their leaders rule only with the support of “the Army, Allah, and America.” The United States is not responsible for Pakistan’s pathologies, many rooted in its violent birth as a nation and the subsequent choices of its political and military elites. But no U.S. policy to stabilize Pakistan can succeed as long as most Pakistanis view Washington as a fickle, disreputable partner that seeks a transactional relationship with their leaders and then abandons their country when narrow objectives sought by Washington are secured. Setting the matter of conditionalities aside, the Kerry-Lugar civilian assistance package promises to reconstitute relations with the Pakistani people by making sustained investments in educational, judicial, governing, and developmental institutions that provide for their welfare. But the road to a relationship of trust will be long, and American public diplomacy faces extraordinary challenges — not only in changing Pakistani public attitudes, but in emboldening Pakistani political and military leaders to speak out in defense of partnership with the United States, rather than leveraging it as a weapon against their political adversaries (see above).

Third and relatedly, America must sustain a long-term commitment to Pakistan and its region across the political-economic-military spectrum to change some of the intractable ground realities that lead Pakistani leaders to define their interests in ways inimical to those of the United States. Chris Brose and I have detailed the outlines of such an approach here. The goal of such a strategy would be to gradually reorient Pakistan’s definition of national security away from its current manifestation — supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan and terrorism against India, for instance — policies destructive to its neighbors, to us, and to itself. This would be a slow, systematic, and evolutionary — not revolutionary — approach to changing the strategic context of Pakistani decision-making and so nudging Pakistan in a direction more favorable to the interests of the United States — and the welfare of the Pakistani people.

The most important element of such a strategy is for the United States and its Western and local allies to win the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Construction of an Afghan state that can defeat the insurgency and govern its people legitimately, in conjunction with sustained investment in Pakistani civic institutions and a reorientation of the Pakistani military’s worldview, would in the long term create a dynamic in South Asia in which states like India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan define their security in ways that are positive- rather than zero-sum. It would demonstrate to the jihadists intent on undermining civilian governments in Delhi, Islamabad, and Kabul that they have no hope, separating their violent aspirations from those of citizenries that instead aspire to modernity, security, and opportunity.

By contrast, failure in Afghanistan, no matter how many American resources were subsequently shifted to Pakistan, would only compound the latter’s insecurity and misgovernance. The policy conundrums America confronts in South Asia today would pale against those we should expect if the Taliban continue their ascendance in Afghanistan, emboldening their fellow extremists in Pakistan. Just as our country should finish what we started in Afghanistan in part because it will strengthen the forces of moderation next door, so American assistance to Pakistan should empower our natural allies there rather than put them on the defensive.


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