James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Guest Post: More Pessimism on Pakistan

by James M. Lindsay
May 17, 2011

Workers load bags of flour for flood victim relief onto a U.S. Marine helipcopter in northwest Pakistan on August 16, 2010.

Workers load bags of flour for flood victim relief onto a U.S. Marines helicopter in northwest Pakistan on August 16, 2010. (Tim Wimborne/courtesy Reuters)

My colleague, Steve Biddle, who is as smart as they come and who has spent much of the past several years thinking about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, saw Dan Markey’s comments on Lawrence Wright’s recent article in the New Yorker and wanted to weigh in. No, Steve doesn’t provide any reason to be optimistic that Washington has much of a chance to influence events in Pakistan for the better, even with a bit of “tough love.” Sometimes being a superpower is not all it is cracked up to be.

I agree with Dan. We differ a bit on the prospects for bilateral U.S. policy improving the prognosis in Pakistan–whereas Dan is somewhat pessimistic on that score I’m very pessimistic. I doubt that reconfiguring our aid, for example, offers much traction, and I doubt that a trade deal on textiles would be transformative either (even if this were politically realistic here, which it isn’t).

To make things much better in Pakistan will require the Pakistanis themselves to change their own threat assessment and interest calculus. They may yet do this in response to an increasingly lethal internal insurgency aimed at them. Or they may not: their internal divisions don’t bode well for nimble strategic adjustment. But I doubt the United States can engineer such a shift. We can derail it via error or bad policy. But I don’t think we can accelerate it much via cleverness on our end. It’s easier for us to make things worse than better.

This is partly why I’ve supported the Afghan war–if we can’t make a bad situation in Pakistan much better we should at least avoid making it any worse than it needs to be. And I fear that a Karzai collapse would confront Pakistan with a pace of security decay that would overwhelm their (limited) ability to adapt.

But either way, Wright’s article implies that if U.S. aid created the problem then U.S. aid should be withdrawn. This strikes me as too simple on both ends. I accept much of his critique of our aid policies, but there was more to the problem than just that, and the effects of starting aid and stopping it aren’t symmetrical. (It’s also interesting that Wright’s own account shows at least as much evidence that trouble came from withdrawing aid than the opposite–the distrust he sees as central was created, in his account, by our aid cutoffs in response to their nuclear program.)

I’m open minded at this point on U.S. policy in the region depending on the emerging post-Osama bin Laden trajectory of al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba et al. If the militant threat in Pakistan shifts away from al-Qaeda’s trademark emphasis on the distant enemy and refocuses on more normal, local, concerns then I’m prepared to re-evaluate our role, especially in Afghanistan. For now, though, my primary reaction to Wright is that he has part of it right but overemphasizes one variable (U.S. aid) and implies thereby a remedy that might end up making things worse rather than better.

Does Steve have it right, or do you have a suggestion for how U.S. policy could influence Pakistan in a positive direction?

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Chris

    I’ve never understood what these extremists hope to achieve by slaughtering innocent Pakistani civilians.

  • Posted by Sharma

    Terrorism emanating from Pakistan and support for the Taliban have already cost a trillion dollars during the last 10 years in AfPak, mainly due to Pakistan. Nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism are a threat that leaders must be concerned about the most. In terms of US policy towards Pakistan, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity or, at least, irresponsibility amongst foreign policy analysts.

    It is very important for American policy advisors to understand that the options are NOT only to continue aid or to stop aid to Pakistan.

    A third option exists which is a more difficult path, but it is the more rational choice.

    The only course of action that will be considered rational by future generations looking back will be one that undermines state sponsored terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Everything else will be called cowardice and a failure of leadership.

    For Pakistan, this will require America to weaken and ultimately destroy the source of these problems. The source is the support of terrorism and the Islamist belief system prevalent in the Pakistani military and ISI. These two institutions must be diminished and destroyed. This is the responsibility of our generation. All the discussion about continuing or ceasing financial aid are futile.

  • Posted by marty martel

    All American pundits of foreign policy start with the assumption that Pakistan really did join U. S. fight against terrorism in 2001 when nothing can be further from the truth.

    These Pakistan-apologists deliberately ignore all the evidence pointing to Pakistan’s duplicitous game of running with the hares while hunting with the hounds.

    They deliberately forget that nobody forced Pakistani government to facilitate relocation of Osama bin laden from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996. Pakistan’s democratic government chose to do so of its own free will at the time.

    It does NOT matter to these Pakistan-apologists that Islamabad has been caught with their pants down umpteen times.

    Pakistani government has U. S. by the throat – US can NOT use its aid leverage to force Pakistan to stop supporting terrorist groups who kill US/NATO troops in Afghanistan day in and day out because US needs Pakistan’s help in ferrying supplies to those very US/NATO troops.

    Coming back to possible Army-ISI-Osama connections, current Army chief Kayani was in charge of ISI when Osama’s abode was built in Abottabad and so Kayani is as much guilty as current ISI chief Pasha. That is why Kayani was present when Pasha recently testified at parliamentary hearing after Osama’s death. Army is as much in cahoot with ISI to shelter Osama so close to Pakistani Army base.

    Pakistani ISI Director General Mahmud Ahmad had asked Omar Sheikh (the kidnapper of Daniel Pearl) to send $100,000 from a Dubai bank account to Mohammed Atta (the lead 9/11 hijacker) one year before those attacks. Mohammad Atta used that $100,000 for flight training, living expenses and to purchase flight tickets on the day of 9/11 attacks in US and returned unspent $25,000 back to same Dubai account. Musharraf was forced to retire ISI director General Mahmud Ahmad after Wall Street Journal exposed General Ahmad as the chief financier of 9/11 attacks. Pakistani ISI was heavily involved in planning and execution of 9/11 attacks as corroborated by former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham but whitewashed by Bush administration.

    Furthermore Pakistan has spread a biggest malarkey with U. S. connivance that ’nuclear weapons are in danger of falling in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists if Pakistani government collapses’.

    How can Pakistan be in danger of falling to the Islamic fundamentalists if Pakistani Army and ISI are SPONSORING those very Islamic fundamentalists led by Osama bin Laden, Haqqani, Mullah Omar and Hafiz Saeed as reported by ambassador Patterson?

    Previous US ambassador Anne Patterson to Pakistan, wrote in a secret review in 2009 that ‘Pakistan’s Army and ISI are covertly SPONSORING four militant groups – Haqqani‘s HQN, Mullah Omar‘s QST, Al Qaeda and LeT – and will not abandon them for any amount of US money‘, as diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show.

    No matter how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John Kerry spin it, ambassador Patterson had NO reason to mislead her own State Department and U. S. government.

    For deliberately ignoring Pakistan’s terrorist connections, US indeed deserves to be duped by Pakistan

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