The unremitting spate of bad news from Pakistan continues; rains are still drenching the highlands and the devastation continues to spread down the river valleys. This year’s harvest has been ruined; increasingly, it seems unlikely that farmers will be able to plant fall crops. While visiting Pakistan earlier this month, I posted on the roots of Pakistan’s rage, doing my best to explain why so many Pakistanis are so angry with the United States. That is one side of the story; but equally mysterious to many people and especially in Pakistan is another side of the equation: why so many American policy makers and opinion leaders are fed up with Pakistan.
Listening to Pakistanis, I hear several theories about why the US (and the west more generally) are suspicious or unsupportive of Pakistan. Many of these have to do with religion: that Americans and their western associates dislike and fear Islam, and therefore dislike and fear Pakistan. Worse, some Pakistanis fear that America’s leaders see themselves engaged in a contest with resurgent Islam, and their policy toward Pakistan represents an attempt to keep the west on top and to suppress Islam as a global force.
That’s not the way most American policy makers and opinion leaders understand the relationship. The American foreign policy elite is not particularly religious or interested in religion by and large; it assesses countries on a more pragmatic basis: how well are they doing, and how do their policies and prospects affect American interests. And the problem is that most of the American foreign policy world thinks that Pakistan is doing a bad job, and that its mistakes, failures and vulnerabilities not only threaten its own interests and well being, but threaten to drag down the whole region as well.
Many of the Pakistanis I’ve met think this is horribly unfair; they argue, for example, that without the US abandonment of Afghanistan after 1989 and its strategically shortsighted policies there since 2001, Pakistan would be much better off. Perhaps, but even Pakistanis who think the United States is entirely to blame for everything wrong in South Asia would do well to understand the relationship as Americans see it. It always helps to understand the other side’s point of view.
There is no single, monolithic American view of Pakistan anymore than there is a single Pakistani view of the United States, but in general American observers have a pretty bleak view of the predominant trends among Pakistani elites. Large numbers of influential Americans believe that Pakistan’s leadership (military as well as civilian) is dragging the country down. American observers tend to believe that while there are many outstanding military officers and civilian business and intellectual leaders, as a whole the Pakistani elite has failed to understand the country’s situation, failed to respond in a sensible and strategic way to the challenges around it — and that its continuing failures have reached a point where the Pakistani ruling elite is a danger to itself and to everybody in its reach. For different reasons, both the political and the military leaders of Pakistan seem to American eyes to be hellbent on a ruinous course that is wrecking the country, destabilizing the neighborhood, and stoking the fires of radicalism and terror in ways that endanger Pakistanis most of all but also create serious dangers for people all over the world.
Americans are divided over whether the military or the civilian leadership of Pakistan has done the worst job, but most think that both wings of the establishment have contributed substantially to the country’s distress. The military has systematically sacrificed the country’s development to a hopeless and losing struggle against India that blocks the country’s economic and social development and leaves Pakistan weaker, less stable and further behind its giant neighbor every year. Civilian elites are dominated by viciously unprincipled feudal landlords and corrupt dynasties who would rather exploit the population than develop the country. The two wings of the elite create an interlocking deadlock; civilian politicians won’t take on the military’s suicidally blind strategic fixations and the military won’t push through the kind of modernization (serious land reform, education of the peasants, reform of a rent seeking and corrupt bureaucracy) that could break the dark grip of the landlords and give the country some hope. Each wing of the elite would rather collaborate in the country’s destruction by indulging the worst tendencies of the other than take the risks (and exercise the self restraint) that could set the country on a better path.
The military’s fixation on India is not just about focusing on conventional war on the Indian frontier at the expense of counterinsurgency operations in the northwest. It is a much bigger and much more destructive problem. Ever since the Partition of British India left a smaller, divided Pakistan facing a larger (and, frankly, a sometimes hostile and aggressive) neighbor, the Pakistani military has defined its mission and the nation’s identity by the need to hold up its end of the military contest. Realizing from the beginning that the smaller Pakistani economy could not support a strong enough military for the task, the Pakistani military turned to outside powers and especially the United States for help. Pakistan took the American side in the Cold War while ostensibly ‘non-aligned’ India tilted toward the USSR. Pakistan hoped that US aid would allow it to maintain the unequal contest; this is often the reason Pakistanis today give for Pakistan’s staunch support of the US during the 1950s and 1960s.
The strategy failed then and it is failing now. US aid has helped build Pakistan’s formidable military and given it top notch equipment, but the costs of Pakistan’s military buildup remained crippling — and over the years India has consistently pulled further ahead. Today the contest is more unequal than ever. India is emerging as a global power; Pakistan looks more and more like a basket case. East Pakistan was ‘lost’ a generation ago and is now the independent state of Bangladesh; what was once the western half of Pakistan is simply not in India’s league and the social and political cohesion of what remains weakens every year. Currently, Pakistan ranks 8th in the world in military expenditure as a percentage of total government spending (23%); India spends a lower percentage of both GDP and government expenditure on the military than Pakistan.
The costs of that failed strategy have been high. While country after country in Asia embarked on export-oriented development strategies that have brought new affluence and influence to places ranging from South Korea to Malaysia and Vietnam, Pakistan remains mired in old fashioned underdevelopment. Power flickered on and off across the country even before the recent floods; illiteracy and poverty levels remain at shocking levels. Even in military terms this has its consequences; Pakistan’s failure to grow and develop fast enough means that the country is less and less able to support the kind of military that the soldiers think it needs.
But there is more. The iron necessity of competition with India as perceived by the Pakistani military led to three additional fateful choices. First, the nuclear program: once India proceeded with its bomb (and perhaps even if it didn’t), Pakistani military authorities had to get their own. To be smaller in population and economy, weaker in conventional power and also to be a non-nuclear state confronting a nuclear power was radically unacceptable. The military felt the bomb was a necessity, no matter what it cost, no matter what deals with what devils were required.
And more: a smaller power in conventional terms looks to forms of asymmetrical warfare to offset its enemy’s advantage. For Pakistan, this meant that cultivating relationships with groups willing to use violence in Kashmir and against India more generally became a perceived necessity of state. Pakistan might be smaller, weaker and poorer than India, but it was not without offsetting advantages. The discontent of so many Kashmiris under India rule and the presence of both religious and political resistance movements gave Pakistan opportunities too good to resist. The partnership of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment with unconventional, non-state violent movements began to take shape.
Finally, the need to compete with India drove Pakistan into far-reaching policies in Afghanistan. There are many reasons why Pakistan was interested in influencing events across the Durand Line (the British-drawn line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan on maps, but which neither the local tribes nor the Afghan government has ever recognized), but the need for ‘strategic depth’ against India and the need to combat Indian influence in Afghanistan have shaped Pakistan’s Afghan policy for decades. Pakistan made more deals with more devils, collaborating in the obscenity of Taliban rule for the sake of maintaining Pakistani influence.
The net effect of these strategies has been costly. Pakistan’s combination of illicit nuclear activities, terrorist links and collusion with the Taliban set it directly in opposition to core American interests — even as India’s rising power made Pakistan more dependent than ever on the US. Since 9/11 Pakistan has been impaled on a dilemma of its own construction: torn between supporting and opposing American policy on proliferation, terrorism and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, unresolved questions about Pakistan’s nuclear program, combined with US support for India, have led to the worst possible nuclear outcome for Pakistan: India now enjoys full access to advanced nuclear technology and materials while Pakistan’s access remains blocked. Nuclear weapons were supposed to be Pakistan’s equalizer in the contest with India; increasingly, they look like just another crucial area in which India is gaining the advantage.
Worse, Pakistan’s support of terror groups in India (including Kashmir) has provoked, Pakistanis fear, increased Indian support for the long-festering separatist movement in Balochistan. Ethnic Punjabis now live in fear there; the Pakistani flag and other national symbols can no longer be displayed in much of the province, and public opposition to rule from Islamabad seems to be growing. Significant voices in Sindh and Kyhber-Pakhtunkwa (formerly known as the Northwest Frontier Province) are less than enthusiastic about Pakistan, often seen by non-Punjabis as a front for Punjabi ethnic domination.
Many Pakistanis with military links and strong nationalist credentials are looking for alternatives to the US alliance, but the alternatives aren’t attractive. The three most significant alternative partners for Pakistan (China, Saudi Arabia and Iran) don’t add up. China does not seem willing to complicate its relations with both India and the United States by building the kind of strategic partnership with Pakistan that could replace the US alliance. The Saudis (widely believed to have supported the Pakistani nuclear program in order to have a ‘Sunni bomb,’ and to be major sources of funds for Pakistani politicians and the economy) would also prefer that Pakistan not detach itself entirely from the US, and would bitterly oppose a Pakistani alignment with archrival Iran. Iran is too small a power, too encumbered with its own economic and political problems to be of much help to Pakistan, and it is unlikely that Iran wants to add India to its already long enemies list.
But if the military has been backing Pakistan into a strategic dead end, the country’s civilian leadership has been deeply destructive in its own way. Almost everyone in Pakistan I met denounced the ‘feudals’, the landlord families who keep much of the country landless, illiterate and poor. Since independence the feudals have blocked real land reform of the kind that kicked off economic development in places like South Korea and Taiwan. Pakistan’s systematic educational failure is an overwhelming national disgrace. A few statistics tell the story: 55% of primary school age girls are not in school; the average Pakistani adult has 3.9 years of schooling; at 1.8% of GDP, Pakistan ranks 127 out of 132 countries worldwide in educational expenditure (spending 4.1% of GDP, India ranks 82nd); there are only 5 years of compulsory education — and many children get less; less than half the total population can meet a minimal literacy test (compared to 59% in India). Newspaper accounts in the Pakistani press while I was in country reported that only about one third of school-age children in Karachi were in class. Other Islamic countries like Malaysia, Turkey and Iran do much, much better.
To most informed American observers, this is a country committing national suicide and these statistics show an elite concerned to pillage and loot rather than to teach and to serve. Americans look at this astonishing situation as a failure of political and social culture so profound, so immense, that it is hard to see how anybody or anything can help unless Pakistan can summon up the will to make some wrenching changes.
But the damage of weak and corrupt civil leadership goes deeper. It is hard to find a country whose political class is more widely despised at home and abroad. President Zadari’s farcical European tour during the current floods, the prime minister’s stop at a bogus refugee camp, the infamous corruption associated with virtually every political leader and party in the country: I did not meet a single Pakistani journalist, businessperson, professor or civil society worker who had any respect for the political class. Officials in other countries with access to classified information often know deeply damning and even humiliating facts about the financial shenanigans of Pakistan’s political class: even Saudis roll their eyes at Pakistani corruption. Many Pakistanis asked me why the US didn’t give more economic aid to the country; when I asked them whether additional aid would get to the people or go into Swiss bank accounts, there was general agreement that the chief beneficiary of more aid would be the Swiss banking system — unless the US insists on the type of strict controls that the Pakistani bureaucracy traditionally fights tooth and nail.
The corruption at the top extends throughout the state and into civil society. Business often depends on government for licenses or special treatment. Tax collection is laughably inefficient and compliance with poorly-drafted and poorly-enforced tax laws makes countries like Greece and Italy look sober and puritanical. Politics and connections affect the ability of NGO groups to raise money and take a toll on the integrity of universities and other institutions.
This is the view of Pakistani politics and government that seems most widespread among Americans who deal with Pakistan on a regular basis. It is qualified by the strongly positive relationship that many Americans have for particular Pakistanis with whom they deal. Both the American military and diplomatic establishments have people who admire and trust the particular Pakistanis with whom they interact. (And I can personally testify on the basis of my limited contacts to the high intellectual and personal qualities of many Pakistani diplomats, current and retired service personnel and civil servants.) But overall, American political and opinion leaders think that Pakistan’s leaders have made a series of strategic errors that leave the country dangerously vulnerable to continued decline. Many Americans accept Pakistani criticisms that American policy mistakes have made things worse, but by and large Americans are convinced that Pakistan’s most crippling problems are homemade.
Like many of the Americans who work closely with Pakistan, I see some positive features as well. The Pakistani media has become much freer and more lively in recent years. Incompetent and corrupt politicians can be savagely ridiculed in the press (though the military seemed largely exempt from harsh criticism on my last trip). A recent study by Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency suggests that parts of the national security state are beginning to rethink basic elements of Pakistan’s strategy: the report states that the biggest threats to Pakistan’s security now come from internal terrorists rather than India. If the country proceeds with a serious rethink along these lines, much could change.
More to the point, while Pakistan’s political institutions are deeply dysfunctional, the country continues to produce amazing people who are doing their best to set things right. Over and over again I was impressed by the intelligence and dedication of teachers, journalists and students who want to make Pakistan work. That dedication has only been deepened by the gradual awakening of the country’s elite to the threat that religious radicalism and terror pose. The longing I witnessed among people of all socio-economic levels for honest and competent government was extraordinary.
Yet as the floods continue to thunder through this unhappy country and troubles at home and abroad continue to mount, it is hard not to worry. There are Americans who are ready to write Pakistan off, and to work around the country rather than trying to work with it. But that is still a minority view. For both humanitarian and political reasons, American foreign policy is unwilling to cast Pakistan adrift. The patience, though not infinite, has not yet been exhausted.
The next few years are likely to be critical both for Pakistan’s development overall and for its relationship with the United States. Before ending my spate of Pakistan posts, I’ll conclude with some thoughts on what, given the frayed relations, bad history and urgent political and humanitarian problems before us, we can and should do.