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Terms of Engagement

The Pit of Despair

In the streets of Pakistan, people have had it about up to here. For the Obama administration’s diminished goals there, maybe that’s not a bad thing.


Here is a sad, sad statistic for you: a grand total of 6 percent of Pakistanis aged 18 to 29 believe that their country is "heading in the right direction." Four years ago, the figure was 14 percent. The next generation of Pakistanis, in short, is sinking into despair. But it’s not just sad, the way it would be if 94 percent of Somalis or Congolese had given up on their future. It’s also extremely dangerous, because Pakistan has 185 million people, a large nuclear stockpile, and an array of violent Islamist groups who are terrorizing the country’s own people and its neighbors.

There is something viscerally satisfying about the prospect of leaving Pakistan to stew in its own juices. Americans are feeling betrayed by a country they once viewed as a staunch ally in the war on terror. Even Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an extremely patient interlocutor with Pakistan’s leadership class, testified in 2011 that the brutal Haqqani network of the Afghan Taliban was "a veritable arm" of Pakistani intelligence and added that the country would never be a "respected and prosperous nation" unless it mended its ways. And now, with America’s endless military engagement in Afghanistan scheduled to draw to a close in 2014, the United States has the chance to disengage from Pakistan as well. But the truth is that we can’t actually afford to indulge that impulse.

Pakistan is the example par excellence of the hopeless predicaments that Barack Obama inherited from George W. Bush. My personal shorthand for these snarled knots is: "You have to, but you can’t." You have to persuade Iran to end its nuclear program through blandishments and threats; you have to leave behind a government and an army that the Afghan people can believe in; you have to convince Pakistan’s military and intelligence leaders that the Afghan Taliban is their enemy, not their instrument. But you can’t. So you come up with a decent-sounding-if-not-terribly-persuasive plan and send it off with a prayer. This degree-of-difficulty problem is why I’ve always been more sympathetic to Obama than many of his critics on both the left and right.

Bush never had a vision of U.S.-Pakistan relations much beyond, "You’re with us or against us." Obama has tried to do better, through a combination of development assistance, democracy support, and the intensely focused diplomacy of Richard Holbrooke, the late special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The "strategic partnership" that Holbrooke forged was supposed to demonstrate a deep and abiding commitment which would not only improve Pakistan’s economic and security capacity but flatter the country’s leaders into greater compliance with U.S. objectives. That didn’t happen. Holbrooke hoped that U.S. aid, channeled through Pakistani institutions, would help bolster the civilian government, and improve America’s standing. That didn’t happen either. The relationship cratered in 2011, either because Holbrooke died in late 2010 or, more likely, because of popular fury when U.S. forces crossed into Pakistani territory to kill Osama bin Laden, and later killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the border. The policy failed because it couldn’t succeed.

In recent days, I’ve been talking with current and former administration officials who deal with the region, and several things have become clear. First, the deep freeze is over. U.S. military and intelligence officials are now meeting regularly with their opposite number. The Pakistanis have slightly opened the spigot on diplomatic visas, which they choke off at moments of pique. Bilateral working groups on the economy, security, education and defense have been meeting, and issuing soothing press releases. The United States, as one intelligence official I spoke to confirmed, has significantly slowed the pace of drone attacks; the Pakistani side has lowered the rhetoric. It does not hurt that Pakistan is preoccupied with national elections now scheduled for May 11.

It’s not only temperatures that have cooled; so have expectations. The strategic partnership is history. "There’s a lot of wisdom in having a more modest relationship," as one official said to me. "On things like the Haqqanis, our long-term goals don’t align. It’s better to recognize that they don’t and work on what we have in common." In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States (and no relation to the jihadists), suggested that the two sides admit the truth and "explore ways to structure a nonallied relationship." That’s not so far from what’s happening now, though no one would dare to call it that. The chastened wisdom of 2013: "We can’t, so we won’t."

The Obama administration still depends on Islamabad for its exit strategy from Afghanistan, both because Pakistani intelligence continues to use Taliban proxies to destabilize its neighbor and because political reconciliation between the Afghans and the Taliban will never happen without active Pakistani engagement. Islamabad has made a few gestures towards the reconciliation process, as I described in an earlier column, but nothing decisive; Afghan leaders remain extremely skeptical of Islamabad’s intentions. The United States is withdrawing one way or another, and Afghanistan will cope as well as it can with whatever support from the U.S. and foreign donors it continues to receive.

After 2014, Afghanistan will fade away; but Pakistan will still cling to America’s trouser cuffs like a tenacious burr. What will become of U.S.-Pakistan relations when U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan ends? American officials have been at pains to say: We’re staying. In a recent speech in Islamabad, U.S. Ambassador Richard Olson said, not once but twice, "2014 is not 1989" — that infamous year when the Soviets packed up and left the region, and then the United States did so as well. Those working groups will keep working; aid will keep flowing. Of course, the fact that a growing number of lawmakers oppose that aid, and that Congress has blocked free-trade legislation that would allow Pakistan to establish so-called Reconstruction Opportunity Zones to export textiles to the United States, makes Pakistanis understandably skeptical of that claim.

If abandoning Pakistan is a bad idea (no matter how gratifying) and if at the same time Washington has little if any ability to make military and intelligence officials in Islamabad comply with U.S. counterterror goals, the best solution may be to focus on the war on despair rather than the war on terror. It is, after all, despair among ordinary Pakistanis, not the brutality of jihadists in Waziristan, which makes Pakistan so dangerous to itself, its neighbors and the United States.

Post-2014, or for that matter starting now, Obama should give more authority to U.S. diplomats, and less to the Pentagon and the CIA. He should push for trade legislation –which will create manufacturing jobs — once Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wins his primary against an expected Tea Party opponent, and thus can safely contemplate offending the textile industry. And the administration should stop doing things that play into the hands of Pakistan’s extremists and obscurantists, like issuing ultimatums about covert support for extremists (leave that to Congress) and authorizing drone strikes, save in exceptional circumstances. Obama can’t do anything to make most Pakistanis stop hating America, but he can stop doing things that distract Pakistanis from addressing their own problems.

now, there are very few signs that Pakistan’s corrupt and feudal political class is prepared to face those problems. While it’s a very good thing that the regime of President Asif Ali Zardari just became the first civilian government to serve out a full term in Pakistani history, there is no reason to expect the next government to be any less feckless than his. (It may, in fact, be his.) The only saving grace in Pakistan is that few people have fond memories of the last era of military rule: former Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has returned to Pakistan in the hopes of starting a political career, appears to have zero appeal. Democracy in Pakistan is thus likely to survive its own persistent failure. That is a genuinely good thing.

Nothing good will happen soon; but perhaps someday Pakistan’s democracy can begin to make inroads on Pakistan’s despair. With low expectations and a modest investment, Washington can afford to be patient.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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