Courting Pakistan: Forging a Strategic Partnership

Courting Pakistan: Forging a Strategic Partnership

The United States and Pakistan is the world’s oddest couple, with an on-again, off-again friendship that has survived since the 1950s. Last week both sides completed a "strategic dialogue" in Washington amid fears that they were headed for another break-up. Those fears can only be countered if both the U.S. and Pakistan keep the larger goal in mind: the development of a stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan.

Last week’s dialogue reiterated common goals on some key issues, including energy, infrastructure, agriculture and trade. But the hard issues — the Afghan Taliban operating inside Pakistani space, the Pakistan-India conflict over Kashmir, and Islamabad’s wish for a civil nuclear deal similar to the one given to India — were politely avoided in public commentary.

Part of the problem is Pakistan’s wariness of U.S. intentions. As the late Pakistani dictator General Zial ul Haq once explained to his ambassador in Washington, Jamsheed Marker, "Being friends with the United States is like living on the banks of a great river. Every four years it changes course, and leaves you either flooded, or high and dry!" The U.S. showers aid and attention on Pakistan when it suits its strategic interests in the region and then leaves. Pakistan meanwhile seeks security against a larger and potentially hostile neighbor to the east: India. Each pretends to meet the other’s needs while papering over differences.

The U.S., on its part, sees a deceptive ally in Pakistan; one which seeks aid to use it for defense against India while pretending to meet U.S. regional aims. The Obama administration is attempting to craft a new, longer-term relationship with Pakistan, and American officials travel frequently to the country and return praising the relationship effusively. But it is hard to distinguish their attempts to proclaim success for their individual missions from the reality on the ground.

The passage of the Kerry-Lugar Bill that promises at least $7 billion of aid to Pakistan over five years should have been a good omen, but Pakistani military and public opposition to the bill has put a crimp in the relationship, adding to the public perception of the U.S. as an intrusive and overbearing friend. The army high command, confident after its recent successes against its internal militancy and buoyed by public approval of its actions, recently revived the dialogue with the U.S. on its terms. Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani chose to focus on high visibility, high impact projects that would meet the country’s urgent energy and infrastructure needs, rather than dissipating its effect on a wide range of softer social sector projects with longer gestation periods.

To a large extent, Kayani’s actions appeared to be in accord with some of the targets set by Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. However, the real test will be in Pakistan’s ability to set up an effective governance framework to implement the projects rapidly and without leakage of benefits to the traditional elites that suck up assistance for their own benefit. If most of the aid begins to reach average Pakistanis, then the U.S. and Pakistan could build on this new structure. If not, then the U.S. Congress likely will call in its auditors and cut off the flow.

One piece of good news has been the rapid provision of aid for key road-building projects in South Waziristan that have been undertaken via the FATA Development Authority by the Pakistan army’s Frontier Works Organization. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reported to have helped push this aid through after her exchanges with Kayani, who came up with this idea. If this project model succeeds, much more could be done in the frontier areas by bringing the locals on board to help identify and implement necessary projects.

Kayani is clearly trying to build bridges with the U.S. as a necessary ally. But the officer corps still harbors residual mistrust. To remove it, Pakistan must improve its civil governance by taking ownership of its project plans, setting targets and achieving them. The U.S. must deliver what Pakistan needs rapidly, and without too much intrusive monitoring that many Pakistanis fear is secretly designed to identify the location of Pakistan’s strategic nuclear assets. The U.S. must also give the Pakistan military more usable weapons to fight its militancy. And it must use its influence on India to give Pakistan breathing room, so it can concentrate on the war within rather than stay ready for action on two fronts, one against India and the other on the Afghan border. Opening U.S. markets to Pakistani textiles and other goods will also help in the near term.

In the longer run, Pakistan needs help to move up the economic value chain and into manufacturing goods. With its growing population, it needs GDP growth of 6% or more each year to keep improving the lives of its 175 million inhabitants, half of whom are below 18 years of age. That growth depends on foreign investment, which is critically dependent on security and good governance, both of which have been in short supply in recent years. But Pakistan must also avoid becoming dependent on aid or ceding its sovereignty in the process of acquiring aid. As its first military dictator, Mohammad Ayub Khan, put it bluntly: Pakistan needs "friends not masters." What happens after the strategic dialogue in Washington will help prove the truth of that statement.

Shuja Nawaz is director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. This essay first appeared in The Wall Street Journal as "Courting Pakistan."  Photo credit: Reuters.