Obama's Lifeline to Pakistan

There are lots of reasons to worry that the president’s plan may not be able to save Pakistan from itself.

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The Obama administration’s new policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan plans to hurl a lifeline to the government of Pakistan. It outlines increased counterterrorism and counterinsurgency assistance to Pakistan’s security forces to “disrupt, dismantle and destroy” al Qaeda and its allies operating in safe havens in Pakistan. Further, the policy recognizes an urgent need to balance a military strategy with substantially more development assistance and diplomacy to bolster the Pakistani government’s capacity to address the economic needs of the Pakistani people.

It is an ambitious plan, but what are the chances of its success? Has anything changed in Pakistan’s strategic security calculations that would allow us to believe that this new strategy can be effective?

From the U.S. perspective, the new plan of more targeted military support, increased economic aid and greater attention to governance are uncontroversial tactical steps to help shore up an insecure ally.

The stakes are high. Pakistan is a weak state, described by one expert as a “hot house” for terrorists. It has approximately 60 nuclear weapons, when just one is more than enough to wreak havoc.

But the new U.S. policy precariously assumes that Pakistan shares the same priorities. The daunting complexity of the situation obscures Pakistan’s true interests and motives. The main problem is trying to decipher the tensions and the alliances between and among the various stakeholders—the party in power, the party out of power, the Inter-Services Intelligence, the military, the militants and the Pakistani people.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, head of the ruling People’s Pakistan Party, is fortunate to have survived his first six months in office. Predictions of a short-lived presidency are prominent in much of what one reads about President Zardari, who is consumed by the power politics of the moment. Zardari spends much of his time in political maneuvers around his main opponent, Nawaz Sharif. This leaves little time to address the country’s increasing vulnerability to militancy or the degraded economic and social conditions for most Pakistanis.

For the military and Inter-Services Intelligence, India remains the security priority. Among those who know well the historic enmity between Pakistan and India, one would be hard pressed to find an optimist who thinks diplomacy or international pressure could lead to Indian concessions on Kashmir or force Delhi to ratchet down its engagement in Afghanistan. Getting parts of the Pakistan military to switch gears from conventional warfare to counterinsurgency strategies will be less complicated than getting Inter-Services Intelligence to end its support of militants at whom such a counterinsurgency effort would be aimed.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani people face the exigencies of a worsening daily life. This is not lost on the Obama administration. One notable objective in the new policy is to "[assist] efforts to enhance civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan and a vibrant economy that provides opportunity for the people of Pakistan." Obama supports a tripling of economic and development aid to Pakistan to $7.5 billion over the next five years, as proposed in legislation to be introduced soon by Sens. John Kerry and Richard Lugar.

This huge increase in assistance is intended for investments in infrastructure—roads, schools and hospitals—and creating "opportunity zones" focused on alleviating economic hardships in border regions. This would be, in effect, an economic stimulus plan for Pakistan. Given the tenuous security environment, questions around the Pakistani government’s capacity and ongoing political machinations, the most pressing issue is how to most effectively deliver the assistance. The provision of U.S. development assistance over the past few years in Pakistan illustrates that achieving this, even in measured terms, will be immensely challenging.

The Obama policy is grounded in realism; it concedes that the “danger of failure is real.” And though the difficult security calculations remain, perhaps the best we can hope for is that Pakistan and the U.S. clearly share one common interest: to avoid a failed Pakistani state at all costs.

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