Washington ponders a policy shift toward Pakistan
In light of increasing instability in Pakistan and the apparent decline of President Pervez Musharraf’s influence, American analysts say the United States needs to broaden its approach toward Pakistan to include aid not just to its army, but to civil society organizations, political parties, the court system and police.
The United States also needs to ensure that coming elections in Pakistan are seen as fair and credible by the Pakistani people. Such a policy shift by Washington could help produce a Pakistani government with a greater ability to fight Islamist extremists on the country’s border with Afghanistan, the analysts say.
"Pakistan’s effort to counter insurgents in the Pashtun belt and beyond requires political legitimacy, which Musharraf lacks. I am optimistic that an elected prime minister can be motivated to continue the fight," said Christine Fair, an analyst at the RAND Corporation. She spoke at a hearing of a subcommittee of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, titled "US-Pakistan relations: Assassination, Instability and the Future of US Policy."
At the January 16 hearing, both Democrat and Republican members of Congress and liberal and conservative think tank representatives generally agreed on broad changes that Washington needs to make in its policy to Pakistan. "Conventional wisdom holds that in this part of the world stability and democracy are mutually exclusive. But in the case of Pakistan it is increasingly clear that holding fair and transparent elections provides the best chance for stabilizing the country," said Lisa Curtis, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "Ultimately a popularly elected civilian government working hand-in-hand with a strong military focused on its primary mission of battling extremists will provide stability and security for the Pakistani people."
But what remains to be seen is whether the key actors -- the White House, State Department and Pentagon -- agree with the expert consensus.
Several steps have been made recently in the right direction, the analysts said. The United States has vowed to make $750 million in development investments in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the border with Afghanistan. It will no longer give $200 million in aid unconditionally to the Pakistan government budget, but will administer that aid through the US Agency for International Development. The appointment of a new chief of army staff and prime minister will create new power centers in the country, possibly creating short-term instability but diffusing the influence of the increasingly unpopular Musharraf.
In the meantime, the Pentagon is assessing what changes in its training and assistance to the Pakistani Army might be needed in light of a recent uptick in violence in the FATA.
"FATA … continues to be of grave concern to us, both in the near term and the long term," said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "The safe havens are ones that we’ve worked on, hard on focusing on. We are mindful of this, that Pakistan is a sovereign country and certainly it’s really up to President Musharraf -- President Musharraf and certainly his advisers and his military to address that problem directly. But we know it’s having a significant impact, not just in Afghanistan."
Senior Pentagon officials have visited Pakistan recently with an eye toward assessing what shift might be needed in US military policy there. "Is it a threat that the [Pakistanis] are ready to handle? Do they need help? Do they need training help? Do they need other types of help? That’s what we’re trying to assess right now," said General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Despite temptations to cut military aid to Pakistan, analysts warned that doing so would run the risk of making Washington look like a fickle ally. The Pakistani military is already worried about the reliability of the United States as a military partner, given that the most high-profile weapons sale -- of F-16 fighter jets -- was held up for years. In a time of transition, the analysts said, the Pakistani Army needs to be assured that Washington is on its side.
"For the moment I would urge the Congress not to touch the fundamentals of security assistance," said Ashley Tellis, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They are in a transition where you have a new chief of army staff, who by all accounts is a professional military officer, very sympathetic to advancing US counterterrorism objectives. I would prefer to see the United States give him a chance. It’s also important not to reinforce the image that is widespread in Pakistan of the United States as an inconstant ally. And most important, I think we need to move the Pakistan-US relationship away from the transactional paradigm, where Pakistan provides services because it’s paid to provide services."
Several speakers at the hearing emphasized the need for fair elections, and the possible benefit that they would bring to the counterterrorism effort there. "A well-held election next month empowering those willing to take a stand against extremism can counter those Islamists holding up Bhutto’s assassination as a success in their campaign to destabilize Pakistan," said Mike Pence, a Republican from Indiana.
But initial indications are not good: the International Republican Institute pulled out its election monitors because it said the Pakistani government was imposing too many restrictions for them to do an adequate assessment of the vote.
The view that Musharraf should no longer be the linchpin of US strategy appears to be gaining momentum in Washington. "For US officials and policymakers it may seem like a bone-jarring assertion, but to Pakistanis it is not. President Musharraf’s credibility has plummeted over the past year." Curtis said, citing his dismissal of the chief justice of the supreme court, the imposition of emergency rule, and his clumsy handling of the assassination of Bhutto. "What you’re hearing from Pakistanis recently is that he’s starting to become a source of instability rather than stability."
Most of the members of Congress at the hearing agreed. "What is clear is that before Pakistan devolves any further into chaos and violence, US policy has to change. It is obvious that the administration’s reliance on President Musharraf to bring democracy to Pakistan while fighting against the extremists has not worked," said Representative Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York.
Only one, Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, suggested that Washington ought to stick it out with Musharraf. "President Musharraf, although there have been a lot of problems and there are concerns about the way some things have been done, has been an ally of the United States," Burton said "Down the road, things may have to change, but right now President Musharraf is the only game in town and we ought to be supporting him."
"Musharraf is a declining asset," Fair countered. "We need a real Plan B."
Joshua Kucera. EurasiaNet.org
Editor’s Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.