Opinion

A game changer for US-Pakistan relations

As officials from both countries meet for a high-level strategic dialogue this week, both Washington and Islamabad are frustrated. But a commitment to a long-term alliance is essential. And it can work, if both sides focus on three priorities.

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President Barack Obama has characterized Pakistan as the “cancer” inhibiting US progress in Afghanistan. Pakistani leaders openly wonder whether America is an ally or an enemy. US taxpayers ask why Washington is giving billions to a country they see as a breeder of terrorism. Pakistanis, having been burned by America’s fair-weather friendship before, expect their fragile trust in the US to be shattered again.

That is the grim context for this week’s high-level meetings between Pakistani and US leaders in Washington. It will be tempting to push for a diplomatic divorce. Yet the strategic alliance between Pakistan and the United States remains too vital to global security interests to fail. The modernization of Pakistan’s government, economic infrastructure, and social fabric is a crucial bulwark to keep Muslim radicalism from taking root, or being exported, so easily.

Pakistan’s fundamental problem is lack of good governance. Politicians remain self-serving and greedy, unable to deliver even the most basic of government services when tragedy strikes, as it did with this summer’s historic floods. Nobody seems able to account for the billions in aid that the government has received. Donor fatigue is at all-time highs. The Taliban and Al Qaeda stand ever ready to fill the void left by government to provide safe, structured ways of life to millions of Pakistan’s poor and needy.

An Army that can't decide

The Army, Pakistan’s only viable institution of governance, can’t decide whether it wants to nurture the Taliban so it can maintain strategic depth in Afghanistan or kill them so the money spigot continues to flow from Washington.

Pakistan's vaunted intelligence services stand accused of harboring America's No. 1 enemy, Osama bin Laden, in northwest frontier border areas in the relative luxury of homes, not caves, by the very NATO officials they are supposed to be assisting in tracking down the terror master and his key aides. Current policy therefore, it seems, is hypocritically a little of both.

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The one thing the Army doesn’t seem to want to do anymore is take over the reigns of government – perhaps the clearest sign yet of how deeply ill Pakistan is.

To top it off, Pakistan’s revolving door politics will soon see Asif Ali Zardari, the president, at fisticuffs with a Supreme Court that is threatening to reopen corruption cases against him at the behest of another former premier, Nawaz Sharif. The chief justice, sadly, owes his return to power to Mr. Sharif.

What a mess....

And still, Pakistan’s resilience is its saving grace. That is why the world, and particularly America, needs to come to its side and help fix what ails it. While Pakistani leaders are meeting with their American counterparts in Washington this week, relations should be put back on a strategic long-term path developed around three main action points:

Helping Pakistan after the flood

1) Flood reconstruction. America needs to win back Pakistanis on the streets by assisting in reconstruction of flood-ravaged areas more visibly and widely. Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief, who travels to Washington this week, should meet with the US Army Corps of Engineers to agree on terms for an elite team of American road, bridge, water, and electric grid systems experts to be integrated into reconstruction efforts.

General Kayani should then ask Mr. Zardari to create the Pakistan Reconstruction Board, a blue-ribbon panel of experts whose mandate and power to execute redevelopment plans is sanctioned by an act of Parliament.

The panel should be comprised of US, European, and Chinese experts. Pakistani engineers can offer local expertise and some global heavyweights (like Muhammad Yunus of microcredit fame and former President Bill Clinton, the fundraiser-in-chief) should join to get the private sector involved. Even the Taliban should be allowed to contribute so they have a stake in the most important non-partisan project the country will ever undertake.

The commission should be funded in part by American taxpayers and a Chinese government grant. But the largest share of funding should come from the Pakistani military’s bloated budget. Its primary task should be to coordinate foreign donor aid that will help reconstruct roads, bridges, and rail lines. It should also ensure that foreign companies can bring needed manpower, equipment, expertise, and money in without being ensnared by Pakistan’s legendary bureaucracy and commission merchants.

Drone strikes

2) US actions on Pakistani soil. The US military needs to be smarter about its stealth operations in Pakistan. Killing bad guys may give the White House a sense of achievement and excitement, but every misfire sets relations with Pakistan’s people back years.

The underground culture that pervades Pakistan’s streets can disseminate inaccurate information about each botched attack faster than a Google search. No amount of American political fence-mending or money can compete with that. Drone attacks should be fewer and farther between. Coordination with Pakistani ground intelligence needs to be infused with a new commitment of trust so Drone operators don’t attack unless Pakistan’s Army command gives the green light. If it goes wrong then, everyone shares the blame.

Most of all, America needs to engage Pakistan’s people at the human level by allocating the bulk of its 5-year, $7.5 billion aid package to building lots of local health-care facilities, schools (particularly ones that educate girls), and nourishment centers. Microcredit finance, to which the US should contribute significant amounts, can become a centerpiece of US policy to rehabilitate Pakistan. Pakistanis are industrious and want to work – the world should help them do so.

Peace talks with India

3) External relations. When Mr. Obama visits India in November, he must urge Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to rekindle peace talks with Pakistan. He should explain that while Pakistan may have given birth to and nurtured South Asia’s extremist groups, they are now everyone’s problem.

India must take the lead in managing the metastasis of South Asian extremism. Mr. Singh should invite Zardari to New Delhi for a summit. Trade is the easiest subject to tackle. Kashmir and nuclear arms are the most difficult. Kayani, who would be charged with implementing any peace accord concluded by Zardari, would get support from his Army hawks if the tangible benefits to Pakistan’s national security and economic revitalization outweigh lingering perceptions of threats from New Delhi.

Singh should also assure Obama that India has no nefarious designs against Pakistan by assisting in Afghanistan’s rehabilitation. Fears of this East-West squeeze have driven hawkish sentiment inside Pakistan’s Army command structure since 2001; these must be alleviated if Kayani is to succeed in co-opting his hawks.

Pakistan can also play a constructive role in calming unrest in Muslim Kashmir, where separatists were once bankrolled by Pakistan’s intelligence services. Instructing their former proteges to engage in peace dialogue with New Delhi would reap great dividends for Pakistan in the larger regional peace equation.

The Obama administration’s bet on a good outcome in Afghanistan has no meaning if America loses substance in its relationship with Pakistan. The problems that beset this nuclear-armed nation are overwhelming on any scale. But that’s no reason to replace smart policymaking with fear and cynicism. It takes a president with skill, strategic vision, and some guts to eradicate the cancer without killing the patient. It is time for Obama to demonstrate just how good a surgeon he is.


Mansoor Ijaz, an American of Pakistani origin, is a venture capitalist who jointly authored the blueprint for a cease-fire of hostilities between Indian security forces and militant Islamists in Kashmir in July and August 2000.

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