Friends Without Benefits

It’s time to say what we already know—America’s Pakistan policy isn’t working

It is difficult to find a country on the planet that is more anti-American than Pakistan. In a Pew survey this year, only 12% of Pakistanis expressed a favorable view of the U.S. That number has probably dipped even lower in the wake of the NATO air attack on a Pakistani army post that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan’s leaders are only slightly better disposed since they continue to support militias in Afghanistan that wage war on Americans. Populist rage and official duplicity have built up even though over the past decade, Washington has lavished Pakistan’s government with praise and aid, the latter totaling $20 billion. It is time to recognize that the U.S.’s Pakistan policy is just not working. I write this as someone who has consistently supported engaging with the Pakistani government as the best of bad options. But the evidence that this engagement is working is thin—and gets thinner with every passing month.

Supporting Islamabad has been premised on two arguments. The first is that if we don’t, the Pakistani government could collapse and the country’s nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands, perhaps even ending up with al-Qaeda. This misunderstands the problem. Pakistan is not Somalia. It has been ruled by a professional military for most of its independent existence, even when there has been a nominally civilian government in charge—as there is today. There have been no Gaddafiesque colonels’ coups in Pakistan; instead, the entire military, with its command chain intact, has moved to replace the civilian government. The military remains widely admired as a national institution that works.

The second argument is the one given by businesses when they pay off the Mafia: we need to keep these guys as allies, or else they will become enemies. The problem with this protection racket is that it isn’t working. Admiral Mike Mullen finally said publicly what insiders have said privately for years: Pakistan’s army, despite getting over a quarter of its budget from Washington, funds and arms the most deadly terrorist group in South Asia.

In a forthcoming essay in Foreign Affairs, Stephen Krasner, a Stanford professor who was a senior State Department official under George W. Bush, makes the important point that Pakistan’s behavior is not a product of weakness or irrationality. It is part of a deliberate strategy to keep Afghanistan weak and India off balance. Krasner advocates cutting off all aid to the military until it changes course and delivers on a genuine anti­terrorism strategy. That would be worth trying, but a larger shift needs to take place to get real results.

The Pakistani military holds to its worldview out of an ideological conviction that combines 19th century realpolitik with politicized Islam. But it also has a strong bureaucratic interest in regional friction. After all, with a win-win scenario in which peace with India results in prosperity for the region, why would Pakistan need a vast military that sucks up almost a quarter of the federal budget? The country’s military would end up looking like India’s— noninfluential, nonpolitical and well­contained within the larger society.

Pakistan needs a civilian conception of its national interest. It can get one only from a flourishing civilian government. That was the basic thrust of the memo that Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, is alleged to have written. Haqqani’s ouster is part of a long pattern in which the military has removed anyone who proposed a new course for the country’s foreign policy. Recall that the coup that ousted the previous civilian government took place because then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif enraged the military by attempting to make peace with India. In recent days, the military has been building opposition to the effort of President Asif Ali Zardari’s government to start trade with India.

There is a fundamental tension in U.S. policy toward Pakistan. We want a more democratic country, but we also want a government that can deliver cooperation on the ground. In practice, we always choose the latter, which means we cozy up to the military and overlook its destruction of democracy. The only way to get real cooperation is by helping Pakistan move from being a military state to being a more normal country. If Washington continues to bolster Pakistan’s de?facto regime, we will get a dysfunctional nation where the?public—fed propaganda by the military establishment—vents its anger at?Washington.

The Arab Spring holds key lessons. When Washington props up a dictatorship because it needs foreign policy support, it is building up wellsprings of poison and anti-Americanism within society that, one day, will erupt.