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The South Asia Channel

Why Obama Won’t Visit Pakistan

Pakistan needs to take a hard look at its economic activities and contradictory policies before the United States can or will take notice.

G20 Leaders Meet In St. Petersburg For The Summit
SAINT PETERSBURG - SEPTEMBER 05: In this handout image provided by Host Photo Agency, President of the United States of America Barack Obama arrives for the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The G20 summit is expected to be dominated by the issue of military action in Syria while issues surrounding the global economy, including tax avoidance by multinationals, will also be discussed duing the two-day summit. (Photo by Roman Yandolin/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images)

In January 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama made his second visit to the South Asia region, yet failed to visit Pakistan. Instead he went to India, again.

From an Indian point of view, the visit was a successful one. Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did away with the impediments surrounding the transfer of civil nuclear technology, renewing a 2005 agreement whose implementation had been delayed by disputes on both sides. (In 2010, India passed legislation enabling the Nuclear Power Corporation — the government agency that oversees the country’s nuclear power industry — to sue suppliers for compensation in the case of an accident, while the United States insisted on tracking nuclear fissile material. Now India has agreed to share liability and the United States has waived the condition of tracking fissile material.) However, the success of Obama’s India trip was a hard pill to swallow for Pakistan.

Pakistan’s foreign office tried its best to ensure that Obama would visit Pakistan, but its efforts were in vain. Obama even told Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a phone call apprising Sharif of his upcoming visit to India, that he would visit Pakistan when the security situation there became normalized. Chaudhry Sarwar, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province and a former British parliamentarian, said the move by Obama reflected the “diplomatic failure” of Pakistan’s foreign policy — comments that played a large role in Sarwar tendering his resignation days later. Though his statements challenged Pakistan’s official line that it and the United States are close allies, he may have been right.

A cogent foreign policy has been nonexistent in Pakistan since 1947. From day one, it has not tried to garner friendly relations with its immediate neighbors, India and Afghanistan. As Pakistani statesman Husain Haqqani noted in his 2013 book, Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, Muhammad Ali Jinnah — Pakistan’s founder — believed that Pakistan was “essential to prevent ‘Hindu imperialism’ from spreading.” During the Cold War, Pakistan considered the Soviet Union, India, and, to some extent, Afghanistan as the enemy.

India, on the other hand, the world’s largest democracy, has friendly bilateral relations with much of the world; Pakistan is the exception. In Afghanistan alone, India has invested in mineral resource exploration; worked to complete a number of health, education, and communication projects; and signed a strategic pact in 2011 that increased its training of Afghan army personnel.

Instead of investing in its own infrastructure and social services, or even its neighbors, like India has, Pakistan has put more of an emphasis on its defense. For instance, it doubled its defense spending over the last five years — spending almost 30 percent of the state’s budget and greatly contributing to a budget deficit — in what Sharif has categorized as a “waste [of] massive resources in an arms race” with India.

This deficit, in part, has caused Pakistan’s economy to remain sluggish (especially when compared to India, whose economic growth now outpaces China), with only small improvements since 2006. Ishaq Dar, Pakistan’s finance minister, has admitted that more than half of the population is living below the poverty line on less than $2 per day. Health centers lack basic facilities and training, and schools, if they even exist, teach intolerance. Severe power shortages have crippled the economy, bringing some sectors to a grinding halt. And instead of being used to tackle some of these challenges, the science and technology industries are suffering as many leave the field due to poor funding caused by Pakistan’s high defense budget. In truth, Pakistan’s major exports are textiles, rice, and sporting goods.

The only “industry” the government seems to have actually invested in is jihad — by permitting safe havens and selectively targeting terrorists, essentially sanctioning these groups, which is further ruining the country. In the 1980s, then-ruler Gen. Zia ul-Haq used madrasas as straw men to fabricate religious parties’ political support for his policies, as well to recruit troops to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, these madrasas encouraged students to fight against Hindus in Kashmir, which remains in dispute, and commit sectarian killings in the country.

Yet despite the damage militants have caused within its borders, Pakistan has not taken definitive action against the jihadists operating inside the country. Groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat are involved in sectarian killings. Lashkar-e-Taiba is openly asking militants to join jihad in Kashmir. Even the much touted military operation, Zarb-e-Azb, will likely to fail deliver the desired results — much like the 2007 operation in Swat failed to destroy the Pakistani Taliban’s organizational network.

All of these factors have created hurdles for foreign investment. After Sharif came to power in 2013, he signed a number of Memorandums of Understandings with China and Iran, but few tangible results have yet to materialize. The Nandipur Power Plant — a joint venture between Pakistan and China — was only operational for five days because the electricity generated was at a record high cost. The Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project — which was on hold due to U.S. and U.N. sanctions against Iran — is finally underway with China expected to finance 85 percent of the project. China initially pulled out of a $19 billion Thar coalfield deal in 2011, citing Pakistan’s instability, only to pledge to finance 75 percent of the project four years later. And the Reko Diq mines in Balochistan have been tied up in breach of contract litigation for over five years.

There is little doubt as to why international business owners, both within and outside of China, are not ready to invest in Pakistan. And with little investment in Pakistan’s economic arena, it is no wonder why the United States would focus on India instead.

Despite what Pakistan’s “establishment” may think, the country needs to have effective bilateral and trade relations with India and Afghanistan. Better ties with its neighbors will boost Pakistan’s economic activity and reignite foreign interest, particularly that of the United States’, in the country.

Given Pakistan’s muddled development and contradictory policies, why should Obama visit Pakistan? The country has a number of issues it needs to address before the United States can or will take notice.

Roman Yandolin/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images

Mohammad Shoaib Adil is an editor of the Lahore-based Urdu magazine monthly Nia Zamana, and is currently completing a fellowship at New America.

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