News reports of the Taliban’s mostly uncontested advances in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province have prompted panicky assessments and remedies. The situation in Pakistan clearly calls for heightened concern, but panic is usually not the handmaiden of sound policy decisions.
Several conclusions should now be inescapable, but still remain difficult for many Pakistanis to accept. It is now abundantly clear that the problem of Talibanization is beyond the blocking capacity of constabulary forces. Taliban irregulars will continue to intimidate and strangle settled areas within Pakistan unless their advance is contested by elements of the Pakistan Army. The Army, which has been trained and equipped to fight Hindus and not fellow Muslims, is understandably reluctant to engage in this contest unless and until it has the backing of Pakistan’s major political parties. This, in turn, requires a much more widespread public recognition of the existential threat posed to Pakistan by obscurantists carrying Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers.
A political culture within Pakistani politics and the Army that has long subsisted on blame shifting must somehow come to grips with the notion that Pakistan’s home-grown Taliban are not just America’s problem. Pakistan’s multiple weaknesses have long served as defense mechanisms against those who have called upon a succession of civilian and military governments to assume more responsibility for the country’s woes. One longstanding argument that Pakistani leaders have used against “doing more” is that they are poorly equipped to do so. But not “doing more” against the Taliban is no longer an option, which means that the Pakistan Army must stay in the field to regain ground and to protect its citizens. Sporadic engagements using the blunt instrument of air power dodges the Army’s responsibility to protect.
There are hard lessons here for the United States, as well. Many commentators have long argued that democracy is the solution to Pakistan’s ills, and that the warm embrace of Pakistan’s military leaders by past U.S. administrations has ill-served that country. There is much truth in both assertions, but neither offers a clear exit strategy to the short-term security dilemmas facing Pakistan. Neat policy prescriptions confidently offered from the comforts of academia and think tanks are unlikely to appreciably change the current mess that confronts Pakistan. This nation has a very long way to travel toward democratization, but penalizing the Army to reinforce weak political leaders is not a recipe for the successful prosecution of the Taliban. It is exceedingly hard to demand democratic reforms when barbarians are at the gate.
Members of Congress have every right to attach conditions to foreign assistance legislation, given the prior track record of U.S. aid that has done little to check Pakistan’s decline. But insisting on conditions that are unlikely to yield benefits while trampling on Pakistani sensibilities, is an odd way to make this partnership more functional. Take, for example, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s insistence that U.S. officials gain access to A.Q. Khan, who is the father of the Uranium enrichment programs in Pakistan, Iran, and perhaps North Korea. A.Q. Khan has great difficulty telling the truth. What, exactly, do Members of Congress intend to achieve by making access to him a condition for U.S. assistance?
As hard as it is for Americans to believe, Pakistan’s military leadership and civil society are also deeply aggrieved over U.S. assistance programs. Past U.S. assistance that has, in effect, taken the form of direct deposits into the Pakistani budget has had little effect in improving the quality of life. (Trickle-down economics works even more poorly in Pakistan than in the United States.) Chinese aid, on the other hand, is quite visible because it has taken the form of big construction projects, like the Karakorum Highway and the new port at Gwadar. In the future, U.S. assistance might be more effective and appreciated if it is allocated at the district level for clinics, schools, and improved sewer and water quality. The United States might approve a generic list of these and other worthy projects, while leaving it to a panel of civil society leaders within each district to decide which ones to pursue.
Big, top-down U.S. assistance sums disappear quickly in Pakistan. Nonetheless, some have called for a Marshall Plan for Pakistan. A nation that is not at peace with itself or with its neighbors is in no position to call for a Marshall Plan. Pakistanis are likely to be more appreciative of a bottom up approach that offers tangible benefits and that has local ownership. A special Pakistani Development Corps, drawn largely from the Pakistani-American community, might help deliver needed assistance projects at the district level.
It is especially galling to many Pakistanis that the United States, like the Soviet Union in the 1980s, is bombing targets on Pakistani soil. The distinctions between these cases are unlikely to be compelling within Pakistan as long as Pakistan’s leaders object publicly to U.S. drone attacks. Some U.S. commentators have suggested that these strikes are the price Pakistan pays for U.S. assistance; if so, American dollars may prove to be insufficient balm. Others suggest that Pakistani leaders are once again playing a double game over the drone attacks, which suit their security interests in ways that cannot be publicly acknowledged. If so, U.S. complaints over Pakistani duplicity will continue to be ineffectual.
Without access to classified information, it is not possible to assess whether the benefits of U.S. drone attacks are worth their manifold costs. But security clearances are not required to conclude that as long as Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders publicly oppose U.S. drone attacks, larger equities in a common fight against the Taliban will remain seriously compromised.
Last but not least, there remains the issue of Pakistan’s military procurement priorities. One of the many blame-shifting complaints one hears from Pakistani colleagues is the difficulty in obtaining combat helicopters from the United States. To be sure, this need should be addressed. But then one reads (in the April 20th issue of Defense News) the headline, “Pakistan Pushes Armor Upgrades.” As long as the Pakistan Army prepares to fight the last war, it will remain woefully unprepared to address its current challenges – even with generous U.S. assistance.