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Pakistan and the United States

At a Strategic Crossroads
  • and Mike Mazarr, National War College
September 1, 2011 |

Pakistan, and Pakistani-American relations, confront their worst crises in recent memory. A host of interlocking challenges -- grounded in a deteriorating economy -- call into question Pakistan's ability to "muddle through" as it has in the past, and the next two or three years pose a crucial test for the country's efforts to arrest continuing socioeconomic decline. Meanwhile, U.S.-Pakistan relations are also imperiled: The two nations cannot continue the patterns of the last decade, an era of transactionalism and hidden agendas cloaked in the language of a "strategic partnership" that represented neither a genuine partnership nor a strategic approach to mutual challenges.

It is true that forecasts of a "collapse" of Pakistan have repeatedly proven wrong; and while it is difficult to know why, hard-to-measure pillars of stability counteract sources of destabilization. Slowly accumulating positive trends get little notice amid generally negative analyses, but rising standards of living (at least until recently); a powerful "grey" economy, including remittances; the emergence of an independent judiciary and a free (if raucous) media; the electoral failure of radical Islamist parties; a civilian government about to complete its full term; energetic military responses to extremist movements in Swat and South Waziristan, which have involved nearly 150,000 troops and cost the Pakistani military over 3,000 combat dead; steadily growing public rejections of extremism and the Taliban -- these and other realities suggest some areas of strength on which to build.     

Yet an awareness of these same residual strengths can undermine the sense of urgency necessary to inspire real change. In the past, for example, large flows of external financing such as remittances and foreign assistance have provided a cushion and disincentive for tough economic reform. The scale and seriousness of the current crisis cannot be discounted; existing patterns of behavior, and current policy responses to major challenges, are not having the necessary results. 

The time has come to develop a new strategic concept, reflecting emerging patterns of world politics and regional developments, to guide Pakistanis in their search for priorities and both the United States and Pakistan in managing this crucial relationship. In this post-Arab Spring, post-Osama bin Laden moment, military responses to radicalism have proven their limits, large-scale aid programs are becoming untenable, and the "leverage" of bilateral aid relationships has shown itself unable to produce sustainable changes in mindset. Pakistan, and its international partners including the United States, require a fresh approach that moves beyond security issues as the touchstone for policy, that lays out a vision for a more prosperous future, and that empowers civilian, democratic governments at all levels to become more effective.

The strategic concept we propose to meet these goals is a collaborative agenda for Pakistan to take its place as a major power in a modernizing South Asia. This is a 21st century agenda for Pakistan, one based on progress, growth, trade, entrepreneurial energy, and popular involvement in democratic governance. It is a vision of an advancing, influential Pakistan standing at a vibrant crossroads of trade, diplomacy and geopolitics, at a time when the human capacities, natural resources, and mineral wealth of South Asia are destined to become increasingly important to global economic developments. The concept reflects two broad components: actions within Pakistan required to create the social, political, and economic basis for the country to achieve such a role; and a U.S. commitment to support those steps -- on trade, peacemaking, and technical support -- critical to help Pakistan fulfill that ambition. 

The concept offers Pakistan the opportunity to transcend old obsessions and focus on the future, to achieve new levels of trade, investment, and growth. It is designed to shift the focus of policymaking from military issues to economic and political priorities, to achieve multiple goals -- higher sustained growth, regional confidence building, and alleviating the root causes of extremism. It places emphasis on areas where major powers have the most interests in common, and takes advantage of the potential for regional trade routes and resource exploration.  Most of all, it is designed to furnish a compelling vision and narrative around which key reforms in Pakistan can be justified and promoted -- an idea of the future of Pakistan that makes necessary and possible the sorts of policy, political, economic, and social change so far obstructed by a host of barriers.

For a decade, both Pakistani and U.S. policy has focused on the symptoms of instability -- such as terrorist groups or leaders -- rather than its causes. In its past dealings with Pakistan, the United States has demonstrated a habit of gaining temporary traction against one or another symptom, only to walk away. Pakistan has seen this inability to sustain strategic attention as a series of betrayals. The proposed approach would reflect a U.S. commitment to remain engaged on a long-term agenda for the indefinite future, one that shifts attention from symptoms to root causes and rejects the pattern of abandonment.

The strategic concept embodies a regional perspective and a multilateral approach, but at its core it represents a choice for the people of Pakistan -- a choice about what kind of country they want to be and an opportunity to transform deeply ingrained patterns of political life. In Pakistan's domestic efforts, we emphasize three broad categories to lay the foundation for this strategic concept:

  1. Undertake a limited number of priority economic reforms;
  2. Adopt a growth strategy designed to create an environment conducive to trade, investment, and innovation;
  3. Take steps to institutionalize civilian rule and effective governance, built on the enhancement of effective civilian government capacity at various levels but also including support for civil society and entrepreneurial initiatives.

Meanwhile, initiatives in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship can lend powerful support for the overall strategic concept. These include several broad categories:

  1. Shift from a relationship built around a few institutions to efforts to engage the Pakistani people and institutions of governance at all levels;
  2. Gradually replace an aid-based, transactional relationship with a trade- and investment-based relationship of mutual benefit;
  3. On security issues, replace secret agendas and concealed tools of statecraft with more transparent joint and regional frameworks for addressing common interests -- frameworks that will admittedly require hard choices, tough compromises, and willingness to accept short-term risk by all sides;
  4. Commit the United States to even more active efforts that facilitate steps necessary for bilateral progress between India and Pakistan on long-standing regional security dilemmas.

We also conceive of this strategy as an agenda directed explicitly toward the Pakistani people. Popular voice and involvement in change are playing a more vital role in public policy, in Pakistan as elsewhere, and strategies for change must increasingly meet the needs of the populace to turn back growing feelings of powerlessness, grievance, and hostility toward outside partners such as the United States.

We are aware that these broad categories, and the detailed policy recommendations we offer below, are not new to the policy debate. But the concepts have proven difficult to implement, in part because of powerful barriers to any reform agenda within Pakistan and to trust and cooperation in the Pakistani-American relationship. Long-standing mindsets and cultural and bureaucratic habits lock many actors into established patterns. The lack of mutual trust and prevalence of conspiratorial thinking on both sides undermines the hope for bold, collaborative agendas.  There is a powerful disconnect between what Pakistan's economy requires (taxes, reforms, transparency) and what political leaders see as necessary for their own electoral success -- tension that is likely to become even more pressing during the next two years, as elections approach.  Many Pakistanis are opting out of the public sector, avoiding taxes and seeking private alternatives to public services, thus creating a vicious downward spiral for effective governance. Efforts to promote more responsive governance at the provincial level confront the hesitation of federal ministries to surrender power and privilege.  Pakistan historically has had to reach crises for attention to shift, but a crisis today could lead to instability and drain energy for reform.

There is no substitute for Pakistan's undertaking its share of the hard work reflected in this strategic concept -- putting its own house in order -- if it is to break out of these patterns and move forward. Pakistani policy responses to major social challenges have reflected half-hearted engagement, backtracking, refusal to make hard choices, and poor coordination and implementation among federal agencies.  Strategies predicated on outsiders using leverage, coercion, persuasion, or bribery to "change Pakistani behavior" generally fail, because no one can force a fundamental change in mindset on the part of another.  The United States cannot, and should not, be the driving force in bringing change to Pakistan. Yet too often, as many Pakistanis as well as devoted friends of Pakistan have long recognized, major actors in Pakistan have operated as if their country's destiny lay outside their control, or did not matter.

Our core strategic concept is designed to promote reform by creating enough attractive force -- in the goal of a modernizing Pakistan joining an integrating and growing region -- to offer political leaders a clear alternative: The opportunity is for a more prosperous, globally engaged Pakistan, as against the risk of continued stagnation and instability. In this context, hard choices -- tax reform, land reform, completing the long-delayed census, devoting more resources to education and the energy infrastructure -- would take on a new and specific purpose.

A second theory of positive social change reflected in our recommendations could be described as catalytic grassroots activism. Innovative, effective, compelling answers to Pakistan's challenges are likely to emerge bit by bit, from many actors across Pakistan, at many levels, some with the assistance of outside partners. It reflects an approach that is gradual, bottom-up, Pakistani-directed and owned, and built upon hundreds of experiments and positive examples. The process is well underway, but significant bureaucratic and regulatory obstacles stand in the way of its full realization.

This concept accepts, indeed recommends, a growing role for government agencies in such social change. Charities and NGOs are not yet numerous enough, do not have the absorptive capacity for assistance, and in some cases are not immune to issues of corruption or transparency. Many of our recommendations are designed precisely to enhance the capacity of government at various levels. As helpful as it may be, however, an incremental, grassroots engagement is not, in itself, enough: Pakistan's decline has been holistic and systemic, and a grassroots strategy for change must be matched with a number of national-level policy reforms.

Yet Pakistan is not the only actor in this drama who must confront hard choices and unpleasant truths. The United States has spent years viewing the process of forcing its own interests on Pakistan as a strategy, and seeing Pakistan's self-defense paradigm as "double-dealing" rather than a means of safeguarding its security in a dangerous neighborhood and in a historical context where friends do not always prove reliable. Meanwhile India, a rising power of growing influence, is not always willing to take seriously the ways in which its postures exacerbate Pakistan's threat perceptions.

We recognize that our proposed agenda represents only part of what must occur for Pakistan to surmount its many challenges. But we believe as well that, amid dozens of actions that "must" be taken, the agenda of policymakers will only allow for a few to be taken up at one time. This study therefore emphasized the importance of priorities: We gave great attention to identifying, among the many proposals on the menu of policymakers, the issues we believe to be of greatest importance, and the policy steps whose accomplishment would have the most impact.

In order to achieve the broad goals laid out above, we propose a discrete number of recommendations for both Pakistan and U.S.-Pakistani relations. These include:

Policies for Pakistan (and Outside Partners) to Respond to Domestic Challenges

  • Implement a broad-based tax reform initiative to achieve higher revenues and rationalized tax collection.
  • Complete the long-delayed national census, now underway.
  • Create mechanisms to improve policy coordination in the areas of national security, economy, and energy; empower the energy agency to implement an emergency plan.
  • Take a series of steps (involving visas, border controls, and especially reduction of tariffs and non-tariff barriers) to enhance regional trade, including a multinational trade corridor.
  • Promote effective governance at the provincial level through technical assistance and a strategy of developing repeatable models of success; also increase technical assistance to Pakistani institutions of governance, specifically the parliament and political parties.
  • Create a task force or expert commission to make recommendations on improving the investment climate in Pakistan.

On U.S.-Pakistan Relations

  • Promote greater U.S.-Pakistani trade and investment through a "tariff holiday" on Pakistani imports to the United States and an Enterprise Fund for investment.
  • Create a special investigator on visa issues to ease travel problems.
  • Undertake quasi-governmental mechanisms to develop shared interests and goals.
  • Develop a new model for a joint, publicly articulated counterterrorism (CT) program using the foundation of the Joint CT Task Force.

We understand that, in the present environment, little appetite for grand agendas exists in either capital. An agenda for change must be built step by step, lest an effort to do too much too quickly doom it to failure. Therefore at the conclusion of the report we offer a sub-set of these recommendations as an initial phase to build momentum toward the strategic concept and set the stage for more fundamental progress over time. This near-term agenda includes a mutual embrace of the long-term vision, a number of key rhetorical commitments, and several initial, concrete actions.

A critical step to make all of these initiatives possible will be efforts to reduce regional threat perceptions -- and especially Pakistan's intense fears of the Indian threat. Beginning to alter Pakistani threat perceptions will help unlock many other necessary policy changes -- enhanced regional trade, compromise on Afghan outcomes, and changed spending priorities. 

The time has come to break out of unsustainable models, both in domestic Pakistani responses to urgent challenges and in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. This principle is reflected in the recommendations outlined below -- a bold new vision for attacking Pakistan's challenges and building a new foundation for U.S.-Pakistan ties.

For the full text of this 22-page policy paper, please click here.

This report represents solely the views of the New America Foundation-National War College study group members. It does not reflect the views of the National War College or the U.S. Department of Defense.

A host of interlocking challenges—grounded in a deteriorating economy—call into question Pakistan’s ability to “muddle through” as it has in the past, and the next two or three years pose a crucial test for the country’s efforts to arrest continuing socioeconomic decline. Meanwhile, U.S.-Pakistan relations are also imperiled.