Pakistan has quickly risen in geopolitical importance over the past few years, arguably becoming the most important country in the world when it comes to international security. It has been moving towards major instability, however, and threatens to explode into violence at any given moment considering the domestic, regional, and international dynamics at play.
Domestically, Pakistan has problems with hyper-inflation, food and electricity shortages, disappeared persons, and unpopular political leadership. Increased regional political tension, primarily with Afghanistan and India, flared up following the Mumbai attacks in November. Internationally, Pakistan has been a trusted ally and untrustworthy friend to the United States in the War on Terror, a tension that seems likely to continue.
These trends combine to make the climate in Pakistan particularly dangerous. President Barack Obama will have move both quickly and carefully to help stabilize the situation. However, with a few policy shifts, he can begin undoing years of damage and create a legitimate and strong alliance between Pakistan and the United States.
Obama must first of all shift away from a purely military solution in Pakistan. The United States has employed unilateral airstrikes at an alarmingly high rate since the summer in Pakistan. Rarely does a week go by without mention of a drone aircraft hitting “targets” in the northwest region of Pakistan. It’s unclear if these attacks are completely “unilateral.” The Pakistani government — led by President Asif Zardari, a man with a criminal record that would make most politicians blush — may well be assisting the United States while decrying its actions in public.
The attacks have led to three outcomes. First, some extremists may or may not have been killed — the United States seems to regard anyone killed in its strikes as extremists, so it’s difficult to verify administration claims. Second, many civilians have died in these attacks. Third, the attacks have helped bolster the impression that the United States, not extremists, is the most dangerous threat to ordinary Pakistanis.
The strikes have also fueled public outrage at the Pakistani government, which the populace believes is either secretly helping the United States launch the strikes or is incapable of forcing its supposed ally to stop them. The Pakistani military, a major opponent of the strikes, even fired on Western aircraft in Pakistani airspace in the fall, thereby reaping a side benefit of increased public support. These strikes also make it more difficult for the government to persuade villagers and tribes in the border regions to ally with it instead of the Taliban. Continued airstrikes threaten to turn the population completely against the federal and provincial governments. Internal discontent could turn — via regional nationalism, perhaps with an Islamic flavor — into political violence against the government and civilians. Some parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the northwest region of the country are essentially self-governed and Pakistani in name only, making the strikes less problematic. But the Pakistani public’s outcry against U.S. airstrikes in this region and the level of public support for the FATA population suggest just how damaging the U.S. strikes have been.
The second and third outcomes of these strikes are far more dangerous than any marginal benefit the United States might gain from killing supposed threats. Instead of pursuing this predominately military policy, the United States needs to show Pakistan it’s serious about stabilizing the country through humanitarian aid and funding, to help build up civilian institutions and technical assistance to upgrade water and energy capabilities. These strategies will provide Pakistanis with much-needed relief and personal security. More importantly, it will legitimately lower the perceived threat the United States poses to Pakistanis. While a shift in perception won’t happen overnight, Pakistanis are willing to support the United States if it turns itself into a real ally and doesn’t treat Pakistan simply as a target or a puppet. If the United States changes its alliance policy, Pakistanis themselves will be far more likely to help in the fight against extremism since militants are not their friends either.
The Obama administration should also address major problems with Pakistan’s neighbors. For starters, there is Afghanistan. Pakistan has borne the brunt of the criticism for the rapid deterioration of the Afghan state, some of it rightfully so. The Taliban and other extremist elements certainly have a safe haven in parts of the FATA. Of course, the complete Western neglect of Afghanistan after the Soviets left in 1989 has a lot to do with the rampant radicalism in the FATA. Many mujahedeen, trained in guerrilla warfare and armed with religious extremism, courtesy of the CIA, the ISI, and the Saudi monarchy, opted to settle in the FATA instead of settling back in war-torn postwar Afghanistan. The region was — and is — largely secular and independent-minded; while radicalism exists in the FATA, it hasn’t spread throughout the area. In the 2008 elections there, for instance, the liberal secular Awami National Party defeated the religious coalition.
Still, certain radical elements in the FATA are undoubtedly helping the Taliban and destabilizing Afghanistan. There are only two ways to limit this activity: bomb them all or negotiate deals with Pakistani villagers to cut off support. The former is not a winning strategy, and the unilateral U.S. airstrikes are making the latter more complicated. Additionally, while elements in Pakistan are destabilizing Afghanistan, the causal arrow points the other way, too. Indeed, the U.S.-backed puppet regime in Afghanistan headed by Hamid Karzai bears a great deal of responsibility for the rising popular support for the Taliban. Karzai’s regime is widely recognized as weak and corrupt. Instead of using foreign aid to increase security and undertake badly needed reconstruction and development policies, the Afghan political elite has pocketed much of the money. In addition, the United States hasn’t put serious time, effort, or resources into reconstructing the country, opting instead to remake Afghanistan on the cheap by providing minimal aid, relying on a puppet government, and pursuing a heavily militarized solution. As a result, a somewhat more “moderate” Taliban have gained popular support by providing Afghans more security than the government, as well as from a trigger-happy NATO high command that consistently disregards the heavy civilian casualty toll from its continued bombing raids. Considering the ethnic connection between Pashtuns in the FATA in Pakistan and Afghanistan, this chaos has had serious repercussions for Pakistan. As such, Afghanistan is destabilizing Pakistan at least as much as Pakistan is destabilizing Afghanistan.
Besides halting the airstrikes and giving the Pakistani government space and time to negotiate with villagers in the FATA — a process that was moving along in the spring and early summer, before the strikes became frequent — the Obama administration needs to focus on Afghanistan itself, particularly its leadership. It needs to invest a significant amount of time and effort in that country, an investment that should have been made years ago. This investment cannot be a simple “surge” of troops, which is what Obama has proposed. Instead, the United States needs to construct a regional coalition to step in and help restore order. The United States can take a major role, particularly with financial and technical support, but it cannot call all the shots. The Obama administration will have to delegate a significant amount of authority to local Afghans and regional leaders, or else the effort will look like neo-imperialism and lack any legitimacy.
Dealing with India
After a period of relative calm, tensions between India and Pakistan are again heightened after the Mumbai terrorist attacks. The Pakistani government was largely incapable of stopping the attack. Given the aerial bombardment of the region, no tribal leader would turn over information to the Pakistani government about a group like Lashkar-e-Taiba, suspected of planning the attack. Additionally, no matter how unified the high command might be, the military is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain order over lower-level officers and intelligence operatives who also oppose U.S. strikes. These individuals are more likely to help militant groups plan attacks now than ever before.
The Western media didn’t help by framing the Mumbai attack as ideational, not political. The attack wasn’t another “clash of the civilizations,” but instead was regional in context, with a definite connection to Kashmir and India’s crackdowns there. Additionally, alliances in the region undoubtedly played a factor, as the Indian right-wing has increasingly aligned with Israel and the United States. Israel has consulted with India on military matters, including Kashmir, and India has become Israel’s top weapons purchaser.
The United States also recently agreed to a nuclear deal with India, while refusing to help Pakistan, its supposed ally, with its dire energy and economic issues. Pakistan instead got airstrikes. The new supply of nuclear energy for India caused the state to back away from the IPI pipeline deal with Pakistan to obtain oil from Iran. This deal would have created a new regional energy pact among India, Pakistan, and Iran. Instead, Pakistan sees India, Israel, and the United States becoming closer, while Washington appears increasingly interested in coercion and less interested in cooperation with Islamabad every passing day.
While Pakistan’s threat perception of India certainly factored into the attack, as did domestic Indian politics. It seems highly unlikely that a Pakistani militant group could have executed the attack without logistic or political support in India. This support is present, because of the Indian right-wing’s systematic discrimination and violence against Indian Muslims. In Mumbai, many Muslims are unable to buy or rent places due to their religion. The militant nativist group Shiv Sena, led by Hindu fundamentalist Bal Thackerray, wields much power throughout India, particularly in Mumbai. Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, has close ties to Hindu fundamentalists and is also very popular with India’s main financial companies, primarily based in Mumbai. He is widely suspected of complicity in the 2002 pogrom in Gujrat that resulted in the deaths of 2,000 Indian Muslims. That Delhi has only given Islamabad limited data from the attack, and has kept Interpol out of the loop, raises suspicion as to what India has actually uncovered.
Finally, the unresolved issue of Kashmir needs to be addressed before any real peace can occur between India and Pakistan. India has claimed rights to the territory since 1948, although the vast majority of the population was Muslim and the partition was premised on the notion that Muslim-majority states would become part of Pakistan. The UN demanded that Kashmiris be allowed to decide their own fate, but this never occurred.
What Obama Should Do
The Obama administration should begin by recognizing the heightened threat in South Asia exacerbated by the U.S. nuclear deal with India. Washington must offer Pakistan some security guarantees and otherwise walk very carefully with its alliances in the region. In particular, the United States should refrain from aligning with extremists whether Muslim or Hindu. Part of the problem is within India, and the Obama administration can use the nuclear deal as leverage on India to push for domestic reform, specifically pertaining to the treatment of Indian Muslims. That would certainly help quell some anger in Pakistan.
Most importantly, the Obama administration must actively work to resolve the Kashmir issue. This will require compromise and a political solution. While Washington should push Pakistan to clamp down on militant groups in the area, India must also agree to listen to Kashmiri demands. This will almost certainly result in some form of self-determination for the Muslim-dominated regions and/or autonomy within the Indian federation. These measures are crucial for stability in the region.
Considering the high importance of the region, the United States can ill afford continuing a predominantly military approach toward Pakistan and its neighbors, which, unfortunately, seems to be the Obama administration’s favored option. For such a muscular approach to work — and it could work, since people in the region generally don’t support militants — the populations must truly be aligned with you. Today, Pakistanis and Afghans aren’t on board with the U.S. grand strategy. To build a better alliance with the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Obama administration must provide real financial and technical support to both countries, hold their leaders accountable, and ease back military operations, at least for a little while. The United States must also demand more from India so that it can then legitimately demand more from Pakistan. The only way to defeat extremist groups is through real alliances that span societies, not just government officials.