National Security Network

Biden in Pakistan

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Report 12 January 2011

Pakistan Pakistan


Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Pakistan comes at an important time for the country and its relations with America.  Pakistan suffers from political turmoil that has been exacerbated by the recent assassination of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab and a leading progressive politician.  This comes at a time of increased strain on the bilateral relationship.  However, as challenging and difficult as the relationship can be, Pakistan remains an important partner for the United States and its efforts to combat violent extremism.  The administration's approach towards Pakistan has been productive.  Bipartisan experts agree that the alternatives would be worse for American interests.   Despite the difficulties and frustrations, continued engagement with Pakistan - and support for its civilian democratic institutions - is vital. 

Vice President Biden meets with top leaders in Pakistan amid turmoil. "Vice President Joe Biden was meeting Pakistani leaders Wednesday to strengthen a vital but often troubled alliance in the fight against Islamist extremism," writes the AP. "Biden's one-day trip comes amid fresh reminders of America's challenges in the unstable, nuclear-armed Islamic country." And the New York Times reports, "It was Mr. Biden's second visit to Pakistan, considered an uneasy partner in the efforts against terrorism. Relations have been strained recently over American insistence that Pakistan Army troops move into North Waziristan, a safe haven for Al Qaeda and Taliban militants who have used the rugged tribal sanctuary to stage assaults inside Afghanistan. Pakistani officials say that they want to undertake the offensive at a time of their own choice. An American Embassy spokesperson said that Mr. Biden would meet with President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to discuss bilateral relations and how both countries can work to ensure peace and stability in the region, officials said." [AP, 1/12/11. NYT, 1/12/11]

Assassination a reminder of challenges in Pakistan.  The assassination of Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, who was gunned down by one of his bodyguards for his outspoken opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy law, has brought political concerns to new levels.  Voice of America reports that, "[m]embers of Pakistan's ruling elite have condemned the assassination, while tens of thousands people took to the streets in Karachi on Sunday in support of the killing of the governor."  The New York Times paints a grim picture, regarding the public reaction to the assassination: "Cheering crowds have gathered in recent days to support the assassin who riddled the governor of Punjab with 26 bullets and to praise his attack - carried out in the name of the Prophet Muhammad - as an act of heroism. To the surprise of many, chief among them have been Pakistan's young lawyers, once seen as a force for democracy... before his court appearances, the lawyers showered rose petals over the confessed killer, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a member of an elite police group who had been assigned to guard the governor, but who instead turned his gun on him. They have now enthusiastically taken up his defense. It may seem a stark turnabout for a group that just a few years ago looked like the vanguard of a democracy movement. They waged months of protests in 2007 and 2008 to challenge Pakistan's military dictator after he unlawfully removed the chief justice. But the lawyers' stance is perhaps just the most glaring expression of what has become a deep generational divide tearing at the fabric of Pakistani society, and of the broad influence of religious conservatism - and even militancy - that now exists among the educated middle class." These developments, coupled with the stubbornly low Pakistani public opinion of the US, highlight the degree of challenge ahead.    [VOA, 1/12/11. NY Times, 1/10/11. David Sanger, 1/8/11. Pew Global Research, 7/10

Despite challenges, Pakistan remains essential and engagement remains best approach.  As the Atlantic Council put it: "Perhaps no bilateral relationship in the world matches that of the United States and Pakistan when it comes to its combustible combination of strategic importance and perilous instability." A study last year by New America Foundation Fellow Paul Cruickshank found that roughly half of the major terrorist plots against the West since 2004 were in some way connected to Pakistan.  According to Cruickshank, "In the majority of these cases (52 percent), plotters either received direction from or trained with al-Qaeda or its allies in Pakistan." 

While it can be frustrating and challenging, engagement with Pakistan remains vital for U.S. interests and is frankly better than the alternative. A recent Council on Foreign Relation "Pak-Af" task force chaired by Sandy Berger and Richard Armitage states that, "Engagement, partnership, and investment-with markers of progress-in support of common objectives are more apt to encourage desirable results."

The report outlines an alternative approach and why it is even less desirable. "There are several strategic options available to the United States if the administration concludes that the current strategy is not working. In Pakistan, Washington could turn away from its present emphasis on rewarding and encouraging long-term bilateral cooperation. Instead, it could undertake increasingly aggressive, unilateral U.S. military strikes against Pakistan-based terrorists deeper into Pakistani territory, coercive diplomacy and sanctions, or a range of financial, diplomatic, and legal restrictions to control the flow of people, money, goods, and information to and from Pakistan... These alternatives carry their own risks. In Pakistan, a shift to sticks without carrots is likely to result in a sharp backlash and is unlikely to encourage greater cooperation by Pakistan to address U.S. interests. A more hard-line approach would probably destabilize Pakistan, solidify popular anti-American sentiment, and fuel U.S.-Pakistan conflict over the long run."  [Atlantic Council, 6/10. Reuters, 1/12/11.  Paul Cruickshank, February 2010. Washington Post, 1/8/11. CFR, 11/10]

What We're Reading

Lebanon's national unity government has collapsed after 11 ministers from Hezbollah and its allies resigned.

The commander of China's nuclear rocket forces has accepted an invitation to visit the United States, in a small but significant breakthrough for U.S. efforts to improve military relations with China.

An important diplomatic hot line connecting North and South Korea went back into service after having been severed for more than seven months.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that Iran will not stop its nuclear program unless economic sanctions are backed with a "credible military option."

Efforts to rebuild Haiti after the earthquake have been dwarfed by the extent of the need and a lack of leadership - both in Haiti and internationally.

A U.S. presidential commission probing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill said that industry practices must be overhauled and a tough new safety watchdog set up to avoid a repeat of the disaster that killed 11 men and caused huge environmental damage.

South Sudan's ruling party said that the 60-percent turnout threshold required for a landmark independence vote to be declared valid has been reached after just three days of polling.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Yemenis the Obama administration wants to help Yemen do more than hunt down Islamic terrorists, as she sought to broaden a relationship almost wholly defined by American concerns that Yemen is a staging ground for plots against the United States.

Opposition leaders in Belarus and Russia are in jail, setting off a debate about what that means for Russia, the West and the American reset of relations.

Police and protesters clashed in the center of Tunis as unrest reached the Tunisian capital for the first time, even as President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali extended an olive branch to demonstrators.

Commentary of the Day

Peter Bergen, Katherine Tiedemann and Andrew Lebovich conclude that, while the numbers have risen over years, the number of released Guantanamo Bay detainees who  take up arms against the U.S. is considerably lower than claimed by the Department of Defense.

Ambassador Christopher Hill writes America must be willing to "sanction and talk" when it comes to Iran, thereby creating greater space for an eventual diplomatic strategy.

Jacob Heilbrunn suggests that when the Chinese military flew its experimental J-20 stealth fighter jet while Defense Secretary Robert Gates was visiting President Hu Jintao, the real snub wasn't directed at Gates but at Hu and his associate.


C. Christine Fair advocates abandoning the current aggressive counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan in favor of an approach targeting terrorists rather than Taliban insurgents.