Changing US policy toward Pakistan

US policy towards Pakistan is inextricably tied up with its activities in Afghanistan, and Obama cannot afford to ignore it. If he is to have any hope of mending the US’s troubled relationship with the state, a fundamental reassessment of the situation is essential.

By Ahmad Faruqui, Associate, Pakistan Research Unit, University of Bradford

In overwhelming numbers, Americans have voted for a change on 4 November. Nowhere is the need for change more apparent than in US policy toward Pakistan, which is inextricably tied up with its policy toward Afghanistan.

Seven years on, the war in Afghanistan is not going well. This fact has reluctantly been conceded even by Bush administration officials, from Defense Secretary Robert Gates on down. With an eye to assessing the situation first-hand, General David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, is currently touring Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan continues to be in the news every day, often taking pride of place on the front page. The story is either about US drone-launched missile attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan or counter-attacks by the Pakistani franchise of the Taliban in urban areas and near military bases. In both cases, large numbers of civilians including women and children are killed, further destabilising the country.

Unfortunately, there is more trouble brewing in Pakistan than these headlines convey. The state seems to be losing control of the streets. Law and order in most parts of the country is at an all time low, with robberies, muggings, kidnappings and killings being carried out on an unprecedented scale. The economy is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

It began to slide long before the current crisis on Wall Street. Capital is fleeing the country, imports are outpacing exports and government spending is outstripping revenues. The trade and budget deficits are in the red. The value of the rupee (Rs) against the dollar has plummeted from Rs60 per dollar to Rs85 per dollar. Inflation is rampant throughout the economy, with rates in excess of 20 per cent per year, even though the price of oil has fallen dramatically. Unemployment is rising and the population is nearing 170 million.

The only bright light is that the nation has been returned to democracy – but only partially. The numerous amendments made to the Constitution by General Pervez Musharraf to transfer executive authority from parliament to his person are still in place. Consequently, the new president, who is the widower of Benazir Bhutto, and who earned the moniker of ‘Mr. Ten Per Cent’ during her two terms as prime minister, controls the reins of power. His prime minister, Sved Yousaf Raza Gillani, seems incapable of making any policy decisions on his own or making a persuasive speech before domestic or international audiences. The judges of the Supreme Court, who were fired en masse by Musharraf on 3 November last year, have yet to be restored. The system of checks and balance, critical to the institutionalisation of a democratic process, is in disrepair.

Pakistan’s future as a nation state is not in doubt at this point, but if current trends continue it will become an issue. Its half-a-million strong army, equipped with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, is very much there, ready to fend off any threats to its territorial integrity from its traditional nemesis across the eastern border, India. But the army appears to be powerless when facing off rag-tag bands of militants, largely derivatives of the Afghan Taliban. The Pashtun ethnicity creates an immediate bond between the people who live on both sides of the Durand Line.

The Pakistani Taliban are spreading their tentacles beyond Pakistan’s Frontier Province and have branched out into the other three provinces. In a recent incident, they struck in Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural epicentre well-known for its liberal values, poetry and writing. Storekeepers selling DVDs laced with porn imagery were mailed an unsigned letter asking them to stop selling such merchandise. The letter, which came after a bomb exploded in one of the local bazaars in a place where young couples mixed freely, sent shock waves through the DVD trading community. The storekeepers staged a bonfire of the pornographic DVDs to placate the Taliban. When one of them was found hoarding the merchandise, the other storekeepers blackened his face with charcoal and paraded him through the streets.

There may be temptation in the Obama administration to ignore Pakistan. But that is not an option; it is too big to ignore. How much leverage does the US have over developments in Pakistan? It is clear to even the most casual observer, not just to Washington’s ambassador in Pakistan, that American influence in Pakistan has waned considerably during the eight years of the Bush administration.

In Pakistan, Americans are unwelcome. The Predator Drones, not the Statue of Liberty, are the most visible face of the US in that country. Prevailing sentiment has turned very anti-American during the Bush presidency, driven by three primary factors: US support for Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorial rule in Pakistan; the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. It has scarcely helped matters that the Bush administration has failed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian problem and that some of its leaders have talked openly about bombing Iran and staying in the Middle East for a hundred years.

But the election of Democratic Senator Barack Obama creates a unique opportunity to begin turning that relationship around. How should the turn around be pursued?

Before proceeding further, it is important to note that Pakistan’s problems are deep-rooted and took several years to get to their present state of maturation. They cannot be solved overnight.

Before saying what should be done, it is necessary to say what should not be done. Invading Waziristan in order to hunt down the leaders of Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, tempting as it is, would be a disaster. Any such incursion would be viewed by 170 million Pakistanis as an attack on their country, not just on Waziristan. Suicide attacks on soft civilian targets would get a boost throughout the country, just as they did when the Pakistani army attacked the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007. Al-Qa’ida would have a field day picking off American targets throughout the Muslim world.

The continuation of drone-launched missiles on suspected targets is a bad idea that should be put out to pasture. The Pakistani government, weak as it is, has made this very clear to the Americans as has the Pakistani army chief. These attacks require precise human intelligence on the ground, which is rarely there. They result in civilian causalities which often make it easier for the terrorists to recruit people to their cause. And handing over the drones to the Pakistanis, as some have suggested, won’t solve the problem either – the people will see right through this ploy.

So what are the policy options that should be on the table for the Obama administration? They fall into three categories:

  • Status Quo
  • Incremental Change
  • Radical Change

Status Quo

If we define the status quo as a continuation of the past policy of bringing ‘shock and awe’ to the region, then it is clear to even the most vocal advocates of that policy that the status quo is not an option. There is no better guarantee of failure. It is widely accepted that the Taliban are resurgent in part because the US has largely pursued a military option in Afghanistan, and that too with insufficient force. The Afghan president is becoming increasingly unpopular and ineffective. Trading in opium is on the rise. And it is clear that the US has failed to dislodge the warlords who continue to rule the country, especially in its vast countryside.

Incremental Change

This would involve application of General Petraeus’ Iraqi formula to bring peace to Afghanistan. This encompasses a pincer movement aimed at marginalising the insurgency. One branch of the pincer operates along the military axis and the other operates along a political axis. The first branch involves a temporary surge in US troop strength to impose law and order on the streets while the other seeks to co-opt some of the tribes to our side. Obviously, this involves talking to members of the Taliban.

Saudi-sponsored talks have begun between elements of the Taliban and the Karzai government. There is recognition, even in the higher echelons of the US military, that the war cannot be won simply by killing people. In other words, the time for a military solution is gone, if it was ever there, and there are many who question whether Afghanistan has ever really been conquered by force. Through the centuries, Afghanistan has fallen to conquerors that were subsequently unable to occupy it. The Soviets failed just as the British had failed a century earlier. The US will fare not much better.

The success of this option depends on being able to separate the good Taliban from the bad Taliban, who are sworn to pursuing terrorism as a weapon for achieving their political goals and who brought Al-Qa’ida to the region.

Radical Change

There is a growing recognition that the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan are inter-linked and that a regional solution is needed. But the regional solution may have to include a third country, India.

Much of the extremism in the region can be traced back to the links between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and various radical groups which were set up to mount a guerilla war against India in Kashmir. The ISI has created an illusion to which many Pakistanis now subscribe, that India dreams of reabsorbing Pakistan and creating a greater India, the Akhand Bharat of antiquity. Memories of the vivisection performed by the Indians in 1971 continue to be refreshed in Pakistan’s military academies as new classes of gentlemen cadets come and go.

This insecurity has led Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons, maintain a large military and, most notably, to engage in unending war with India through guerrilla forces. The object of this proxy war is two-fold. Firstly, it aims to tie down the much larger Indian army in Kashmir, making it difficult for India to mount a full-scale invasion of Pakistan while simultaneously bleeding the Indian Treasury and weakening the country. Secondly, it is hoped that it will create strategic depth in Afghanistan that would allow Pakistani forces to retreat if faced with an all-out Indian invasion. The latter strategy led Pakistan to seek a partner government in Kabul once the Soviets withdrew, and that ultimately led to the rise of the Taliban.

The war on terror will only be won if Pakistan takes ownership of it. And Pakistan will only do so if its own underlying insecurities are addressed. Kashmir is the most manifest demonstration of this insecurity. The Obama administration should actively seek to resolve the conflict between India and Pakistan. If resolved, it has the potential to transform the strategic culture of the region.

Finally, the Radical Change policy option would need to be equipped with a long-term component focusing on human and economic development in Pakistan. The Biden-Lugar Senate Bill would be a good place to start. This would provide $1.5 billion annually to Pakistan over the next five years, with the possibility of providing the same amount for another five years. Of course, for this aid program to be successful, it will need to have clear goals and to be monitored closely.


The status quo is not an option. Incremental change may be the best way for the Obama administration to get its feet wet. But there is no guarantee of its success, since the evidence from Iraq does not yet have a long history and since Afghanistan’s tribal culture is very different from Iraq’s, a fact acknowledged by America’s top general in Afghanistan. It would be best to engage in a more fundamental reassessment of the situation that would allow the Radical Change option to be implemented. That is where the president-elect should now focus on his energies.

Ahmad Faruqui’s third book on Pakistan, 'Musharraf’s Pakistan, Bush’s America and The Middle East', has just been published in Pakistan by Vanguard Books. He writes regularly in the Dawn newspaper.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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