National Security Network

The Progressive Approach: Pakistan

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Policy Paper 13 May 2008

Pakistan Pakistan

Focus on the Greatest Danger

Al Qaeda’s strength in remote areas of Pakistan forms the greatest threat to America’s security today.  But the Bush Administration has put its priority on Iraq, taking its eye off the ball, and allowing Al Qaeda to regroup and plot against the U.S. Instead of finding Bin Laden, or building a reliable ally in a volatile region, the U.S. pursued a one-dimensional policy focused on General Musharraf and poured billions of unaccountable, unmonitored military assistance dollars into the country.  We must shift our strategy to support Pakistan’s people, not just its military ruler, and help show that democracy and development can go together with effective counter-terrorism.
Pakistan main image


It is hard to overstate the importance of Pakistan in the struggle against terrorism. Today, a regenerated Al Qaeda network, a resurgent Taliban, and almost certainly Osama Bin Laden are all inside Pakistan’s borders.  America’s 16 intelligence agencies concluded that the terrorist haven in northwest Pakistan poses the greatest direct terrorist threat to the American homeland.   The country presents complex challenges without easy solutions.  The U.S. will have to pay thoughtful attention and manage the crisis without ideology or illusions for years to come.

Pakistan is the world’s second-largest Muslim-majority country and the only Islamic nuclear power; its soundness is critical to regional stability, the fight against Al Qaeda, and the hope that authentic Islamic democracies can emerge to meet the needs of their people and defeat Islamic extremists on the battlefield of ideas.

Pakistan’s mountainous northwest border region serves as a safe haven for Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban.  While Pakistan officially signed on to U.S. counterterrorism efforts post 9-11, its military and intelligence services have achieved little in the border region, often ignored the Taliban political and military command centers in Pakistan, and prompted America’s 16 intelligence agencies to conclude that the terrorist haven in this region poses the greatest direct threat to the American homeland.  The Taliban, once defeated in Afghanistan, has been able to reconstitute itself, and presents a growing threat.  The deadliest year for American and NATO forces in Afghanistan and for Afghan civilians was 2007, and many fear that security may deteriorate further.  The instability in Pakistan’s border region is also spreading to the rest of Pakistan, as indicated by a flurry of suicide bombings throughout the country in recent months.  

The presence of extremists, the government’s instability, and the past role of rogue Pakistani elements in spreading nuclear technology, make the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal a great concern for the U.S.

Pakistan and its nuclear neighbor and historic enemy India were on the brink of all-out war in 1999.  Since then, Musharraf and his Indian counterpart have worked to stabilize relations and reduce tensions over the disputed region of Kashmir.  It is essential for the security of the region that these two countries continue to work to improve their relations.

Pakistani politics have always been difficult and corruption in both the major political parties has always undermined Pakistan’s economic development.  Now the situation has become dangerously volatile.  President Musharraf’s decision to temporarily impose emergency rule in late 2007 – cracking down on judges and lawyers, and suppressing the Pakistani press – raised tensions and greatly contributed to national uncertainty.  The assassination of former President Benazir Bhutto pushed the state into political chaos.  Recent elections demonstrate that the vast majority of Pakistanis are moderates who reject Islamic extremism and strongly support a return to elected democratic government.  How this will play out is far from clear, and too many Pakistanis believe that the U.S. is playing an unhelpful role by siding with Musharraf and against democracy.

Pakistan presents one of the toughest and most complex policy challenges that the U.S. faces in the world.  Yet the Bush Administration adopted a simplistic policy approach, dependent entirely upon President Musharraf, that has left the U.S. dangerously exposed. This policy has not produced results.  Since 2001 the U.S. has given nearly $11 billion to the Pakistani government, excluding covert funds, while requiring little transparency or accountability on how it would be spent.  Much of these funds have been wasted, funneled into military purchases intended for use against India.  Counterterrorism efforts have had few successes and many failures.  Development assistance to win hearts and minds – through building schools and providing employment opportunities – has been almost completely neglected.

Policy Recommendations

It’s time for a new strategy:  One that sets priorities, matches tools to ends, and takes a comprehensive approach.  One that restores our credibility, serves our interests, and respects our values.

We must develop a comprehensive policy towards Pakistan that addresses America’s security concerns and supports democratic principles.  The U.S. must continue to work with the Pakistani military, but must insist that military assistance focus on counter-terrorism, while more broadly increasing direct support for the Pakistani people. The U.S. should support the new Parliament, and thus broaden its range of partners in Pakistan beyond a single leader, institution, or party.  The U.S. should emphasize the importance of democratic practices, the struggle against corruption, and the rule of law, and should adopt a more bottom-up approach in its development assistance that focuses on education and health care, and encourages a broader engagement with civil society. 

The U.S. must craft a coherent policy toward the entire South Asian region, so that its policies toward India and Afghanistan are complementary to its approach in Pakistan.  The issues facing Pakistan are so interwoven with its neighbors that it is impossible to adequately address the challenges in Pakistan without addressing the broader region.
The U.S. must stand firm in support of democratic principles.  The U.S. needs to express strong support for an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, electoral reforms and civil society, and must also help Pakistanis fight poverty.  It is not necessary to choose between democracy and stability in Pakistan.  A stable Pakistan will emerge if the government has the support of its people.

We must develop a comprehensive and effective counterterrorism strategy that eliminates long-term support for Al Qaeda and its supporters.  The U.S. needs a new and comprehensive approach for fighting those who attacked us on 9/11.  In the short term, the U.S. should increase its troop presence in Afghanistan and work to strengthen the NATO coalition there to more effectively combat the Taliban.  The U.S. must also work closely with the new government in Pakistan to eliminate Al Qaeda in the tribal regions.  Over the long term, the U.S. must sap the appeal of extremist groups by supporting efforts to empower moderate forces within Pakistan.

The U.S. must recalibrate its aid package for Pakistan, allocating more funding to counterterrorism efforts, development, and democracy promotion, while demanding more accountability for these funds.  While the U.S. must continue to assist Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts, we must stop providing unmonitored funds to Musharraf.  Instead, we must make sure that our assistance is being used for either counter-terrorism purposes, or for poverty alleviation and democracy promotion efforts that help the Pakistani people.

The Conservative Record

Rather than pursue a comprehensive policy that uses all the tools in the toolkit to address the challenge posed by Pakistan, the Bush administration adopted a simplistic approach focused on supporting one man.  By failing to strongly condemn Musharraf’s invocation of emergency rule and his crackdown on the judiciary and the press, the U.S. has engendered the perception that it is unresponsive to the needs and aspirations of the Pakistani people.  This has made U.S. rhetoric in support of democracy look like a sham, and puts the U.S. on the side of an authoritarian leader against the democratic wishes of the people of Pakistan.

The Bush Administration’s policy toward Pakistan has achieved little. Currently, the northwest border region remains a safe haven for both Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who have used the region to destabilize the Karzai government in Afghanistan and to attack U.S. and NATO forces, to launch attacks against the Pakistani state and to plan attacks against the West. 

The U.S. became Musharraf’s ATM.  The Bush Administration has given Pakistan more than $11 billion in foreign assistance, with little to show for it.  Much of the funding has been wasted due to corruption, or has been directed toward building up Pakistan’s conventional military forces directed at India.  Meanwhile, the U.S. has failed to provide adequate aid to Pakistan’s failing social and educational sectors.

The reckless decision to go to war in Iraq, and the incompetent execution of that war, together with the failure to consolidate initial success in Afghanistan, has significantly undermined U.S. credibility in the region.  Al Qaeda is one of the big winners of the Iraq war, attracting new recruits, vilifying the U.S. in much of the Muslim world, and finding a safe haven in Pakistan.  Meanwhile, America’s standing in the region has plummeted to unprecedented levels, making it ever more difficult for us to be taken seriously or accomplish any of our goals.