By Dan Twining As President Obama hosts the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan in Washington tomorrow and calls on Congress to increase assistance to both countries, his administration can claim credit for regionalizing America’s strategy for victory in Afghanistan. This was an overdue shift, one recommended by the Bush administration’s various 2008 strategic reviews of ...
By Dan Twining
By Dan Twining
As President Obama hosts the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan in Washington tomorrow and calls on Congress to increase assistance to both countries, his administration can claim credit for regionalizing America’s strategy for victory in Afghanistan. This was an overdue shift, one recommended by the Bush administration’s various 2008 strategic reviews of Afghanistan policy. But Pakistan’s latest internal crisis underlines how the fusion of "Af-Pak" as a guide to U.S. interests in South Asia also carries risks.
Clearly, taking into account and leveraging regional dynamics is essential to the success of U.S. policy towards both countries. But there is also a danger that the unitary "Af-Pak" prism fails to sufficiently account for America’s differentiated interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To put it bluntly, U.S. policy towards Pakistan offers some compelling lessons for what not to do in Afghanistan.
Under successive Democratic and Republican administrations, the United States personalized Pakistan policy, investing in a single leader at the expense of a broader constellation of civic forces. In doing so, Washington has become a decisive actor in Pakistan’s domestic politics; Pakistanis lament that their leaders rule only with the consent of the "Army, Allah, and America." U.S. interventionism has unwittingly weakened political parties, discouraged coalition-building, stifled reform, and tied American interests to unpopular strongmen.
Meanwhile, billions of dollars in unconditional assistance to Pakistan’s military has created perverse incentives for its leaders to manage rather than defeat Islamist militancy in order to keep the aid money flowing. Flush with American resources, Pakistan’s security services have played a double game: fighting some militant groups while sponsoring others as instruments of strategic influence — including, ironically, against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as well as against friendly governments in Kabul and New Delhi.
Although its government and armed forces contain many patriots, its dependence on and manipulation of foreign aid flows means that Pakistan risks becoming, like some African countries, a rentier state in which predatory elites pursue policies designed to maximize external patronage in service to parochial interests, rather than national ones. The Pakistani military’s reluctance to engage Taliban militants in Swat can be understood in this light. The military is most useful as a partner of the United States — one deserving of billions of dollars in new hardware and equipment, naturally — only as long as the militant threat persists. This creates incentives to keep jihadism simmering without boiling over.
So what are the lessons for Afghanistan? America’s interest lies in a genuinely free and fair national election this fall. Washington shouldn’t play favorites; nor should it appear to be actively undermining President Karzai’s candidacy, as some senior administration officials seemed to do earlier this year. Western assistance should build Afghan capacity at all levels of government, rather than creating structural dependencies on international aid that hollow out domestic institutions, decrease incentives for reform, and benefit a narrow ruling elite.
The United States must be especially careful to match its sustained buildup of Afghan security forces with investments of equal scale in Afghanistan’s civilian institutions. Governance and development require security. But if the Afghan National Army – by far the most capable institution in the country today – retains this role over time, we will have put Afghanistan on a slippery slope to Army dominion over political life, as in Pakistan.
America can afford to match its military buildup with sustained investments in Afghanistan’s civilian institutions, as the Kerry-Lugar legislation before Congress proposes to do for Pakistan, because the Taliban in both countries are defeatable adversaries. More Taliban foot soldiers fight for money than love of jihad, and polling by the Asia Foundation shows they enjoy the support of only 7 percent of Afghans. By contrast, 78 percent believe democracy is the best form of government.
In Pakistan, Islamists garnered their highest popular support during General Musharraf’s dictatorship; in the 2008 elections, Islamist parties received only a fraction of the vote. While President Zardari is deeply unpopular, polls show that over 4 in 5 Pakistanis support his mainstream rival Nawaz Sharif, who condemns Taliban efforts to extend medieval rule in Swat across the Pakistani heartland.
Despite all its problems, a moderate majority and strong army make Pakistan unripe for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution. But weak institutions and dysfunctional civil-military relations handicap the government’s ability to respond to the Taliban challenge. That is why Congress must carefully benchmark military assistance — both to promote near-term counterterrorism goals and to redress the civil-military imbalance that remains the Achilles’ heel of the Pakistani state.
It is also why the international community should focus on "hardening" Afghanistan against cross-border threats from Pakistan as part of a generational commitment to state-building in both countries. The alternative — tying progress in Afghanistan to the resolution of Pakistan’s enormous security and governance challenges, as senior administration officials have suggested — is a recipe for strategic failure.
A successful South Asia policy, while attentive to regional dynamics, will pursue differentiated strategies toward Pakistan, Afghanistan — and India. An enduring Indo-U.S. partnership remains the region’s great strategic prize. Just as President Bush de-hyphenated India and Pakistan, so should Obama de-hyphenate Af-Pak.
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