Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hotspot: Pakistan

There has been a lot of focus lately on how the US needs to proceed on Pakistan. It is clearly one of the most important places in the world, so the attention is well-warranted. The Obama administration has essentially continued the Bush administration's military policy in Pakistan, which largely consists of bombing the northwest region of the country with drone aircrafts, something that may be happening in a wink wink nudge nudge coordinated manner with the Pakistani government. There have been hints that the administration will also increase non-military aid to the country, something Biden talked about quite a bit during the campaign. But, as of now, the main policy is air strikes. That raises the question: is this making things better or worse?

On the one hand, the drone attacks may be effective in combating militancy in the country. Some have argued this type of response puts the US in a position of power in Pakistan, something it may need to be in given the Pakistani government's record on going after militants. This approach makes one big assumption, though: that the drones are actually hitting militants and not civilians. A recent report notes the exact opposite has happened, that from the 60 predator drone strikes, 14 militants and 687 civilians have been killed. In a country where the US is perceived as a bigger threat than extremists, these numbers, if they're even remotely close to the real numbers, suggest the policy may be seriously flawed. This strengthens the counter-argument that the strikes have actually increased militancy in Pakistan. They have destabilized the state, and only helped heighten regional issues as well. Maybe the U.S. is overestimating the threat in Pakistan and reacting in far too zealous manner, making things worse?

My take is, Pakistan has a lot of problems, but most of them are not related to militant groups directly. The country is falling apart, but few are helping, or even talking about helping, Pakistan deal with its economic and energy problems, not to mention the political issues (leadership of the three main parties are very problematic - they make U.S. politicians seem competent...at times).

The populace doesn't seem to really support the ideological views of the militant groups we seem to be so preoccupied with. In that sense, we may have an opportunity to isolate the real militants from those who have joined for political or economic reasons - I suspect the hard-core belt of militants is a pretty small share of the already small share of the population. Of course, to accomplish this, the U.S. would have to change some of its policies. Targeting militants is fine...but you need Pakistanis to support you. In that sense, what we really need to do is build an alliance with the Pakistani people, who we have largely neglected for most of state's history. This means walking a more cautious line on the air strikes (maybe abandoning them for a while), increasing non-military aid and offering technical assistance on energy and water (Pakistan faces severe shortages on both), provide some security guarantees due to the U.S. nuclear deal with India, and perhaps most importantly, make a serious effort to get a fair resolution on Kashmir. Both India and Pakistan will need to make compromises, but the U.S. will have to take a leadership role in the process. An agreement on Kashmir between Delhi and Islamabad would make it exponentially easier for both countries to target more important issues.

Now, that's not to say militancy isn't a problem. It is, in fact, a threat to the country. These groups are gaining power and are implementing some pretty draconian measures in their communities. The Swat deal was a pretty good indication of the growing danger. The question, then, becomes, is this an ideologically-based, or economically/politically-based problem? The rhetoric is all about ideology, but I think the real motives are economic/political. If we work on rectifying/improving those, I think we cleave most of the support these groups have away from them, and we turn the vast majority of the population on whoever is left in these groups. This is why I am pretty adamant about the importance of acting sooner rather than later. However, given the high stakes, we need to implement the best actions. Yes, these groups need to be targeted, but if our actions to do so create more militants, the policy isn't working. Thus far, I think that is definitely the case.

If Pakistanis views America as a real ally and not a threat (a reversal from the current view), we could see real stability in the region. This might only require some subtle changes from our current policy, but it will not be easy and will certainly take some time. However, it could pay huge dividends in the future.

3 comments:

Cervantes said...

Juan Cole argues that the central problem in Pakistan is the persistence of a semi-feudal regime in which large landholders own most of the country and the bulk of the non-urban population consists of an impoverished peasantry. The essential political divide is between the landholding elite and the populace -- a situation which religious extremists can exploit.

Any thoughts on that?

Number 2 said...

Hey Cervantes...nice to see you on here. Juan's right...that is a major issue in terms of why political leadership is particularly uninspiring. On the one hand, you have a long history of military rule that is keyed on staying in power, not improving the state. On the other, you have the pseudo-feudal political system. There are good voices in all the political parties who do voice the concerns of many Pakistanis. However, they are run by the land-owning elites, who, shockingly, don't see things from the perspectives of the majority of Pakistanis, who are poor and have little to hope for in life. And, this is definitely exploited by religious extremists.

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