Washington's Pakistan Strategy: Sumit Ganguly

President Obama is on the verge of signing legislation that would grant $7.5 billion in new aid to Pakistan over the next five years, most of it in the form of economic assistance designed to strengthen the alliance and induce Pakistan to move more aggressively against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Embedded in the legislation is a clear-cut goal: to reduce the overweening influence of the Pakistani Army on the nation's politics and to bolster the longer-term prospects of a moderate, democratic civilian regime. The principal sponsors of this legislation, Sens. John Kerry and Richard Lugar, believe that supporting the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari—who replaced the latest of many Pakistani military regimes only 20 months ago—can help solidify the emergence of a stable democracy and a prosperous economy. In effect, this law seeks to break with a past that in the eyes of many Pakistanis proves that the U.S. has been a fickle friend, willing to back dictators in Islamabad when they served American interests.

In this view, throughout the Cold War and beyond, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was transactional. The U.S. signed a military pact with Pakistan in 1954 because the Pakistani political elite had managed to convince Washington that their country constituted a bulwark against communist expansion in Asia. After Pakistan's first military coup in 1958, the security relationship remained intact because the U.S. needed Pakistani support in Soviet Central Asia. But President Johnson terminated much of the security nexus, and for years after, U.S. policy in the region was characterized by what Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the brilliant American ambassador to India during the late Nixon years, referred to in a different context as "benign neglect." Washington refocused on Pakistan in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The U.S. granted Pakistan's military regime substantial aid in return for its help with the CIA's covert war in Afghanistan. Yet almost immediately after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the U.S. hit Pakistan with massive sanctions over its feckless and clandestine pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Pakistan's geostrategic utility to the United States came to the fore a third time after September 11. Once again, a squalid dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, became the instrument for the prosecution of Washington's goals. Though -Musharraf had little use for Al Qaeda, his willingness to help topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was limited at best. Unfortunately, the Bush administration failed to hold Musharraf's government to account for the nearly $11 billion it received in U.S. aid between 2001 and 2008. The military diverted funds intended for counter-terrorism to obtain arms for use against India, and redirected money earmarked for social development to the military. It failed to meet U.S. benchmarks on counterterrorism, including targets for denying the Taliban sanctuary and aggressively pursuing Al Qaeda. Over time, many Pakistanis who had initially hailed -Musharraf's coup turned against him and his principal benefactor, the United States. Their disaffection has only grown in recent months, as the internal battle with the Taliban has become more violent.

The Kerry-Lugar legislation is ambitious—to say the least—in its attempt to transform the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. This is especially the case given the fragility of the present civilian regime, the inefficacy of Pakistan's institutions of governance, and the cupidity of its military establishment. Not surprisingly, the military establishment can be counted on to marshal every possible argument against any diminution of its long-held prerogatives. It has already started to stoke nationalist fervor by insinuating that the U.S. is behaving like a neocolonial power. The Obama administration cannot allow the Pakistani military to derail this new course of action, its objections and hypernationalist posturing notwithstanding.

Without a steady abandonment of support for homegrown Islamist radicals, and a gradual strengthening of civilian institutions, the prospect of endemic political instability and violence in Pakistan and the region looms large. Such an outlook would bode ill for restoring even a semblance of political order in Afghanistan and would herald a return to the untold horrors of a Taliban-dominated country.