More US military aid to Pakistan: It can only do so much

President Obama offered $2 billion in military aid to Pakistan this week. It's an incentive for it to more aggressively fight Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda. But bigger factors -- such as India -- make Pakistan hesitate.

President Obama has just offered $2 billion in additional military aid to Pakistan as an incentive for it to forcefully rid its country of terrorists that threaten Afghanistan and the United States.

What should be clear by now – nearly a decade since 9/11 – is that aid sweeteners don’t have a great record in changing behavior in what is arguably the most pivotal country in the global antiterrorism fight.

After all, Pakistan has already received nearly $11 billion in direct US aid (between 2001 and 2008). And this week’s five-year package of military aid comes on top of a five-year, $7.5 billion package of civilian aid.

The US has long pushed for a more serious Pakistani antiterrorism effort, and yet key Islamic terrorist organizations continue to find refuge in the country’s western border area.

This does not mean, however, that American aid is misguided. Historic flooding in Pakistan has indeed distracted its military resources, spreading them thin. And America’s civilian aid, approved by Congress last year, tries to cut off the roots of terrorism by improving the lives of poor Pakistanis – by building schools, infrastructure, and democratic institutions.

Both of these aid tools, combined with stepped-up, high-level diplomacy across a whole range of issues – from women’s rights to agriculture – show America’s strategic commitment to Pakistan.

That’s important considering Islamabad’s possession of nuclear weapons. The interconnected network of terrorists that operate from Pakistan would love to get their hands on such weapons.

US aid to Pakistan serves a useful purpose, especially over the longer term. But it shouldn’t be seen as a way to switch on Pakistani intensity in the antiterrorism effort. Too many other factors are at play for that to happen.

Pakistani reluctance “is as much a political choice as it is a reflection of an under-resourced military,” the White House said in a report to Congress on Afghanistan and Pakistan last month.

It is difficult indeed for America to influence this political choice. The two countries may share a general interest in countering Islamic terrorists, but there are terrorists, and then there are terrorists.

Pakistan cares more about the ones that cause internal turmoil – the Pakistani Taliban. It has not been shy about going after those. The US cares more about the ones that export terrorism – Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network. Pakistan could do much more to combat those groups.

Why doesn’t it? Because groups such as the Afghan Taliban are antagonistic to India, and Pakistan sees almost everything through the prism of its historic rivalry with its giant, nuclear-armed South Asian neighbor. While the US and NATO forces view the Afghan Taliban as the enemy, Pakistan sees them as a way to keep a lid on Indian influence in the region in a policy known as “strategic depth.”

These two interests clash. When they do, you get huge diplomatic upsets such as the US incursion into Pakistan that mistakenly killed Pakistani border guards and the subsequent closing of a NATO supply route and sabotaging of supply trucks.

No amount of US aid to Pakistan will solve the India problem, though Mr. Obama should push for a return to India-Pakistan peace talks on his trip to India next month – and a trip to Pakistan next year.

A rapprochement there, as much as an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, would be Nobel Prize-worthy. But it is a long-term endeavor, as is restoring Pakistan from the flood and building its fragile democracy and economy.

Patience is the watchword when it comes to Pakistan, and that does not square with a world weary of the terrorist threat.

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