In an admission that its dependence on the Pakistani military has yielded few results against the Taliban, the United States is now seeking to change its relationship with Pakistan – the world's sole Muslim nuclear power and home of Al Qaeda's leadership.
President Barack Obama's first budget, released last week, proposes significant increases in nonmilitary aid to Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. In addition, two influential senators are expected to file legislation in the coming days that would triple nonmilitary US aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year and include $5 billion to stave off an imminent economic crisis.
The shift is part of an increasing awareness within the Beltway of Pakistan's precarious position – beset by economic collapse, political weakness, and a spreading insurgency – and that more than military operations will be needed to build a stable state capable of beating back Islamic extremism in the long term.
"If we fail, we face a truly frightening prospect: terrorist sanctuary, economic meltdown, and spiraling radicalism, all in a nation with 170 million inhabitants and a full arsenal of nuclear weapons," said Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts last week, while releasing a report about Pakistan.
Along with Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, Senator Kerry is a key supporter of the expected new legislation on Pakistan. It mirrors a plan that Vice President Joe Biden proposed last year when he was still a senator. Then, as now, it is a thinly veiled criticism of the Bush administration's Pakistan policy, which focused aid and relations on ousted military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Pentagon on board
Last week, Pentagon officials emerged from a meeting in Washington with Pakistan's Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani to say they supported a more "comprehensive" strategy for US relations with Pakistan – albeit one that encompassed smarter and more effective military assistance. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded a similar note when she met with Pakistani and Afghan officials last week.
She announced that trilateral US-Afghanistan-Pakistan talks will become a regular feature of the Obama administration's plan for region. It further points to the Obama administration's desire to look beyond the military alone for solutions to the conflict spanning the Afghan-Pakistan border – an area he and others consider the epicenter of global terrorism.
Transforming the US-Pakistani relationship from a personal relationship with a military leader to a long-term relationship with an elected Pakistani government will require patience, says James Dobbins, a South Asia analyst at RAND Corp., a security consultancy in Arlington, Va.
"This transformation won't change the relationship with [Pakistan] as quickly as we'd like," he says. "But both the increase in aid and a new direction are necessary for the stability of Afghanistan and critical for Pakistan itself."
The change in direction comes as the Obama administration gets its first taste of the complexities of Pakistan. The president's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, offered unvarnished words for Pakistan's recent decision to bow to Taliban demands and cede a strategically important swatch of the nation to Islamic law. Mr. Holbrooke said the accord leaves the Swat Valley – not far from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad – in the hands of "murderers, thugs, and militants."
The Swat Valley accord has been met with deep skepticism among analysts, who note that such attempts to win over a moderate part of the militancy by working with it have only given extremists time and space to regroup.
The accord does not mean the Pakistani leadership is giving up the fight, says Mr. Nawaz. It is part of General Kayani's mission to secure better equipment like helicopters, detection devices, and night-vision goggles to take on "the hard-core militants," he adds.
But it does reflect a desire to separate moderate Islamists from the hardened jihadists, Nawaz says.
Pakistan vs. Iraq
The design mirrors counterinsurgency strategy the US employed with the Sunni population as part of the "surge" of troops in Iraq. Despite that basic similarity, however, the differences in the two cases are stark, says Mr. Dobbins, the RAND analyst.
"We never agreed to the application of sharia [Islamic] law in Sunni areas," he says, "and we insisted those areas had to remain integrated into the Iraqi state and under Iraqi law."
Nawaz warns that Pakistan could face economic collapse this year, and he says the kind of emergency financial aid Senator Kerry is proposing is needed fast. But he says that the longer-term need is for broader trade – in textiles, for example – among the US, Europe, and Pakistan. That will create jobs and stabilize Pakistani society, he says. Such a transformation in relations with Pakistan won't be easy, he adds, at a time of rising Western unemployment.