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Despite popular opinion to the contrary, the U.S. should continue to aid Pakistan.
If there’s one thing the average American and the average Pakistani can agree on, it’s that they don’t like each other’s countries very much. But they still need each other.
According to a Pew Global Attitudes survey published last month, only 11% of Pakistanis hold a favorable view of the United States, the lowest level in 11 years of polling. Scarcely a week goes by without an anti-American protest erupting in some corner of Pakistan. The country appears to host an endless supply of hyper-ventilating mullahs and television talking heads eager to blame the evil Yankee, along with perennial sidekicks India and Israel, for everything from flood waters in the Punjab to traffic jams in Karachi.
In the purest expression of this paranoid style, the U.S. government appears to exist for only one purpose: to devise byzantine plots to rob Pakistan of its precious “strategic assets,” or nuclear weapons. Last month, Pakistan’s parliament passed a unanimous resolution condemning the bin Laden raid and drone strikes against Islamic militants in the lawless badlands near Afghanistan.
As in many places, America-bashing and Islamic fundamentalism go hand in hand. The Pew study finds that nearly half of Pakistan’s Muslims sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, the highest proportion of all countries surveyed. The country of course hosts a well-known witches’ brew of jihadist outfits that includes various shades of the Taliban; Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks; and the rump leadership of what has come to be called al Qaeda Central.
In America too, both numbers and anecdote point toward disenchantment. A BBC survey earlier this year showed that three out of four Americans hold an unfavorable view of Pakistan. According to a Fox News poll taken after the bin Laden raid, a similar proportion of Americans would like the U.S. to cut off aid to Pakistan, which has totaled more than $20 billion since the 9/11 terrorist attacks 10 years ago. Scroll through the comments on Pakistan stories in any major American newspaper, and you’ll encounter a tone of overwhelming skepticism.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that calls in Congress to cut aid to Pakistan as punishment for harboring bin Laden and potentially other terrorists have reached their loudest level in years. With the American economy still hurting, and no end to Pakistan’s troubles in sight, is it time for the U.S. to cut its losses?
Emotionally satisfying as that may be, it would also be shortsighted. To begin with, to borrow the writer Steve Coll’s memorable phrase, Pakistan’s size and nuclear weapons program make it the AIG of nation states, too big to fail. Throw into the mix Pakistan’s control of vital supply routes to Afghanistan, and the need for some form of cooperation to keep up the pressure on terrorists, and you have the main practical argument against walking away.
But there is another, less obvious, reason for keeping the faith. Pakistan may be teetering but it’s hardly a lost cause. Ten years ago the country was ruled by a general who had seized power in a coup, housed a largely tame and ill-informed media, and had spent the previous two decades welcoming jihadists from across the globe. Indeed, pre-9/11 Pakistan more or less openly backed terrorism as an instrument of policy, and helped create arguably the world’s most brutal Islamist regime in history under the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Today things are less black and white. The army still wields far too much influence, but at least it has handed over the formal reins of power to elected politicians. President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani ought to have used the crisis surrounding the bin Laden raid and last month’s audacious terrorist attack on a naval base in Karachi to assert greater civilian control over the military. Nonetheless, as long as Pakistan perseveres with elections, next due in 2013, over time civilian politicians will likely assert control as they have in every other country in the subcontinent, including those with strong militaries such as Bangladesh and Nepal.
A glance at Pakistani society shows that its media is the gutsiest in South Asia. This is so despite the abundance of whack jobs such as the conspiracy theorist Zaid Hamid on local television and the gloom generated by this week’s brutal murder of investigative reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad. More journalists die each year in Pakistan than in most countries, but only because they refuse to be cowed by either the mullahs or the generals. While brave Pakistanis deserve the credit, it’s close ties with the United States that tends to help civil society in Muslim countries. Just compare pro-U.S. Egypt and Tunisia with the mullahcracy in Iran or the police state in Syria.
Finally, while Islamabad’s record on fighting terrorism remains sub-par–with no concrete signs of its intelligence agency abandoning its double game–here too we’ve seen modest improvements. Pakistan has helped the U.S. round up scores of al Qaeda terrorists, and a spate of terrorist attacks in Pakistani cities has forced elites to begin grappling with the strategic blunder of nurturing jihadism for petty tactical gains against India and Afghanistan.
All this suggests that only the U.S. can help consolidate Pakistani democracy, rein in the military and end Islamabad’s love affair with terrorism. The odds may not look great, but neither are they as hopeless as recent headlines suggest. For now at least, America has no choice but to stay in the game.
Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.
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