Terms of Engagement

A Long Road Ahead in Pakistan

If Obama wants to make progress, he needs to give up on making it overnight.


Last week, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations. The foreign minister is a glossy, silver-haired gentleman, and he delivered a glossy address lauding the new "Strategic Dialogue" with the United States, his government’s commitment to transparency and accountability in the distribution of humanitarian assistance for victims of the epic floods, and so forth. He was asked several terribly polite questions and answered in kind. Then I asked the minister if he worried that his government’s lack of capacity and even lack of legitimacy in the eyes of citizens was impeding development. Qureshi blew a gasket. "I really fail to understand what you’re trying to say," he shot back, "but I can tell you that there are no capacity issues. The Pakistan Army is working. [The] Pakistan Army is an institution that belongs to the government of Pakistan.… They are working under instructions of an elected government, and that is what it ought to be."

Of course, nobody believes that, not in Washington and not in Islamabad. The response to the floods has confirmed, with a vengeance, both the fecklessness of Pakistan’s civilian government and the dominance of the military. Several days ago, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in a direct confrontation unprecedented during his tenure, upbraided the country’s president and prime minister, supposedly his bosses, over the government’s rampant corruption, demanding that they fire several cabinet ministers.

All this raises a question, similar to the question posed by the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan state: What, exactly, does Barack Obama’s administration think it can accomplish there?

Although U.S. troops are fighting in Afghanistan, many of Obama’s senior advisors see Pakistan as the real prize. Al Qaeda takes shelter there; nothing threatens American national security so much as the prospect of a giant nuclear-armed state overwhelmed by terrorists; and the United States would seem to have a much better shot at establishing stability in Pakistan, a democracy and a longstanding, if wayward, ally. In the middle of the long policy debate of 2009, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said to me, "If I said to you right now, we can send $30 billion a year to Pakistan or $30 billion to Afghanistan, which would you pick? Every goddamn person says, ‘Pakistan.’ So I say, ‘OK, guys, we should be talking about a PakAf policy, not an AfPak policy.’"

In the "Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy" released this January, the White House promised an "enhanced partnership" with Pakistan that would move far beyond the military funding the previous administration provided. The promise of partnership was echoed in the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, which provides $7.5 billion to Pakistan over five years with the money divided between "high-impact, high-visibility infrastructure programs," humanitarian aid, and "government capacity development."

Those funds have only begun to be disbursed, and the imperative of responding to the flood has temporarily eclipsed long-term goals; but events of recent months have shown how very deep-seated Pakistan’s problems are. The floods, though an act of God, were enormously exacerbated by state failure. The national disaster plan, drawn up after the terrible 2005 earthquake, had never been implemented. Squabbling among Pakistan’s provinces had blocked the building of a dam on the Indus. And amid the calamity, President Asif Ali Zardari took a trip to Europe, including a widely publicized visit to his French château.

The premise of the George W. Bush administration’s highly regarded Millennium Challenge Account was that U.S. assistance would be most effective in countries where the government was at least modestly accountable to its people, made investments in education and health care, practiced economic transparency, and reined in corruption. By those standards, especially in matters of public investment, Pakistan falls way below many much poorer countries. The administration is hardly blind to the fact that Pakistan is incurring the kinds of failures that would disqualify it from receiving Millennium Challenge funds. In a very unusual moment of public criticism, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told an audience that Pakistan cannot have a tax system in which elites "pay so little it’s laughable" and expect "the United States and others to come in and help."

Alexander Thier, an expert on the region who now works at the U.S. Agency for International Development, uses the electricity sector as an example of the problem. He says, "You can build power plants until you’re blue in the face," but unless you can deal with the country’s "insufficient revenue collection," you won’t be able to make much headway. In any case, he points out, $7.5 billion does not go very far in a country as big as Pakistan. Nevertheless, Thier thinks the United States and other donors can use aid to "leverage good governance and reform." Thier also says that the Strategic Dialogue bringing together officials in a dozen areas has "allowed us to encourage the Pakistanis at the national and provincial levels to actually go through the exercise of acknowledging the problems and prioritizing them."

True, there are modest grounds for hope. Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a harsh critic of the Pakistani state, says that Zardari has installed a highly competent financial team in Islamabad. But Pakistan’s problems are political, not technocratic, and so long as the country continues to be lead by urbanized feudals who stash their wealth in Dubai and London, the deep problems will not be acknowledged and prioritized where it counts. Think how weak U.S. leverage in Afghanistan still remains, despite 100,000 troops and billions in aid, in cases where President Hamid Karzai believes that his essential interests are being threatened. The same is all too likely to prove true in Pakistan. The White House has, of course, already encountered these sharp limits on the military side: Kayani has refused to send his soldiers to fight the Taliban in North Waziristan because those militants are willing to leave Pakistan alone.

Where does this leave U.S. policy? The central lesson that the Bush administration took from 9/11 is that the United States is now menaced more by weak states than by strong ones and thus must find a way to reach inside those places and make them better. Bush’s answer to this problem was the Millennium Challenge Account in relatively nonproblematic regions, and the promotion of democracy in the danger zone of the Middle East. The conspicuous failure of democracy promotion has seriously chastened his successor in the White House, but the premise that the United States must build up weak states, above all in the Islamic world, remains central to U.S. national security policy.

The Obama administration has in some ways replaced democracy promotion with counterinsurgency and, more broadly, with a doctrine that focuses on economic and social development as well as the nurturing of democracy. That strategy, as Biden and others predicted, hasn’t worked in Afghanistan; the place is just too inhospitable. Indeed, in recent years, idealistically inclined folk — like me — have been forced to absorb one painful lesso
n after another on the limits of America’s ability to shape a better world. What if Pakistan is yet another example?

My own answer would be: patience. U.S. aid, advice, and leverage can help bend the trajectory upward in Pakistan, and even in Afghanistan. But it will do so only slowly. Shah Mahmood Qureshi will be long gone by the time Pakistan has a civilian government that is capable and legitimate. The metabolism of state-building or "enhanced partnership" is thus wholly unsuited to the urgency of preventing terrorist attacks. Nor do I think that the sight of U.S. helicopters rescuing Pakistanis from floodwaters will make ordinary people more sympathetic to the U.S. counterterrorism agenda or to the drone strikes along the border. Only a change in policy will do that.

It turns out, alas, that the weak countries that pose a threat to U.S. national security interests are also refractory places disinclined to accommodate U.S. interests. Policymakers should view them as long-term projects and lower their expectations for short-term progress.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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