Don't dump Pakistan

After the Osama bin Laden raid, the mood in Washington over Pakistan is sour. The US is right to challenge Pakistani actions and policies contrary to US interests. But giving Pakistan the cold shoulder and throwing it into the arms of China would be dangerously foolish.

What should the United States do about the strategically important nation of Pakistan?

The mood in Washington is sour.

Top officials in the White House, the State Department, and the CIA think Pakistan was either complicitous or incompetent in harboring Osama bin Laden.

Some members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, are grumbling about the very substantial US aid package flowing to a partner they deem unreliable, perhaps even untrustworthy.

The military is fed up with an intelligence and military apparatus in Pakistan that chases some terrorist groups but buys off others. Is it not time for the US to dump Pakistan?

Consider the consequences.

Shaky democracy

Pakistan is a shaky democracy that has been in and out of military dictatorships since its creation in 1947 as a homeland for Muslims. Even now, the Pakistani military calls many of the shots. Pakistan’s population of 187 million is fragmented into six main ethnic groups and is abjectly poor. Barely
1 percent of the populace pay taxes. The country’s political institutions are weak, as is its economy.

It is also a nation with a bristling nuclear arsenal of more than 100 missiles and embedded Al Qaeda, Taliban, and other terrorist factions, some of which would dearly like to acquire one of those weapons.

Thus, unless there is dramatic improvement, Pakistan – the world’s sixth-most-populous country – could be a failing Muslim state in a critical strategic region.

Does this seem like a nation the US should spurn, however prickly it may be to work with?

The China factor

A final factor to consider is that if the US disengaged from its rocky partnership with Pakistan, the Pakistanis would probably ally more closely with China, currently an economic rival to the US with strategic ambitions in areas of American dominance.

IN PICTURES: Bin Laden's compound

Pakistan has long had cordial relations with China, whose president, Hu Jintao, once described the relationship as “higher than the mountains and deeper than oceans.” In 1950, Pakistan was one of the first countries to break relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan and recognize the Beijing government.

The two countries have regularly exchanged high-level visits, and China has provided weaponry to the Pakistani military.

After the 9/11 attacks masterminded by Mr. bin Laden, President Bush called upon Pakistan to declare its stance for or against the US in the campaign against Al Qaeda. Pakistan’s then-president, Pervez Musharraf, came out forcefully in support of the US, triggering an alliance with Washington after an on-and-off relationship with the Americans over the years.

But some Pakistani politicians have consistently argued that China is a more logical and reliable partner for Pakistan than the US. Their argument gained some fervor when President George W. Bush forged a close relationship with India that included support for India’s nuclear development.

Pathological fear

Pakistan is consumed by a pathological fear of neighboring India, with which it has fought four wars. Unlike Pakistan’s economy, India’s is booming.

Clearly an American disruption of its partnership with Pakistan now would encourage the movement in Pakistan to make China its principal ally.

In 2009 the US Congress voted for a huge multibillion-dollar aid bill for Pakistan focused on democratic and social development. It included a strict annual review aimed at curbing military meddling. Pakistan’s military balked and Congress backed down.

It would be folly for Congress to cancel this aid program, which is important for the stabilization of Pakistan. But Congress has a right to ensure that in a time of fiscal hardship at home, these billions are spent productively.

The US is right to challenge Pakistani actions and policies contrary to American interests. It is right to determine friend from foe in the Pakistani government, military, and intelligence apparatus.

This is a far cry from cold-shouldering Pakistan and throwing it into the arms of China.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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