From crisis to chaos

From crisis to chaos

The whispers in Washington are growing louder: Divorce is inevitable, maybe even imminent. The always difficult “strategic partnership” between the United States and Pakistan has become even more acrimonious in the wake of the Nov. 26 U.S. airstrike that killed more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers in Pakistani territory. 

Opinion polls in Pakistan reveal that support for the U.S. does not reach double digits. Pakistan’s supercharged media clamors for a full rupture in relations. In Washington, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – the nation’s most senior military officer – has called relations “a mess.” For the first time in memory, serious people are talking about “containing” Pakistan, although what that means is not at all apparent.

Yet, writing Pakistan out of the U.S. foreign policy script is not an option. Pakistan will soon have the fifth largest population in the world. It already has the seventh largest army. It’s close to overtaking the United Kingdom as the fifth largest nuclear power. 

Collapsing ties with its most powerful backer is not Pakistan’s biggest problem. The country, already a fragile state, faces a host of internal stresses: an economy approaching freefall, escalating conflict between military and civilian authorities, an education system that fails to educate, a deeply flawed judicial system, a political class that’s uncaring and unresponsive and a huge youth bulge about to engulf Pakistan’s cities. This looming tsunami of economic, political and social challenges is poised to test the assumption that the country always muddles through. 

Pakistan, not yet a failed state, is rapidly failing. Meanwhile, wearied of one foreign problem after another, faced with economic distress, a stubborn jobless rate that refuses to come down and a profusion of needs at home, many Americans understandably ask why they should care, let alone shoulder the burdens of a country whose policies seem at such odds with U.S. purposes.
U.S. differences with Pakistan are serious. The fundamental strategic imperatives of the two countries are at odds, most notably in Afghanistan. 

Recognizing the value of a productive partnership with Pakistan, Congress approved the Kerry-Lugar-Berman (KLB) Act in 2009, committing the U.S. to providing Pakistan with $1.5 billion in economic assistance in each of the next five years. 

A report recently released by the Woodrow Wilson Center concludes that a robust program of U.S. civilian assistance to Pakistan serves vital American interests. It warns that substantial mid-course corrections are required if KLB is to fulfill the hopes of its proponents. It urges Congress not to confuse security aid to the Pakistani military with economic assistance designed to shore up civilian government; address food, health and energy shortfalls in Pakistan; and lay the groundwork for a successful Pakistan and a long-term U.S.-Pakistani partnership.

But Washington must also reform the way it delivers aid by recruiting more seasoned technical experts, extending the Pakistan tours of U.S. aid officials, and bringing local civil society organizations and prospective beneficiaries more fully into the design, implementation and evaluation of aid projects. 

As tempting as it might be, the U.S. cannot simply walk away from Pakistan. The Congress and the administration should live up to their pledges to provide Pakistan with $1.5 billion a year in economic assistance through 2014. Members of Congress should not penalize Pakistan’s struggling civilian sector because of their anger at Pakistan’s military. They should resist the urge to lump new conditions pertaining either to security or economic reform on the U.S. civilian-aid program. And they should repair and re-energize the manner in which the U.S. delivers civilian aid to Pakistan. Doing so will not be inexpensive, but failing to act could be infinitely more costly. 

Robert M. Hathaway directs the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. This abridged article originally appeared on the Khaleej Times online.