U.S. pipe dream in Pakistan: Is it actually American aid that’s destabilizing the country?

Philadelphia Daily News
May 2009

A FRIEND called from Lahore, Pakistan, and asked if I could put up his family in my home in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

“Most welcome!” I said. “When are you all coming?”

“As soon as Pakistan begins to collapse!” said Abdul Wahid Qureshi, a retired college professor.

He was responding facetiously to the forecast that Pakistan would “collapse” within “one to six months” from an “extremist takeover” of its institutions made by David Kilcullen, a top adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, chief of the U.S. Central Command.

You can’t blame Pakistanis, beset with myriad problems, for having a little diversion over Americans’ curious words and deeds regarding their country.

I bet many of them were amused by the outcry in Washington calling for a military “defeat” of the Taliban, which has driven Islamabad into war against the guerrilla movement. The war has cost more than 700 lives and driven 1.3 million people from their homes.

The Pakistani army had already tried to defeat the Taliban – but couldn’t. And Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani is promising to “flush [them] out” of their Swart area stronghold, not defeat them.

Most Pakistanis know why their government, which had helped create the Taliban and been ambivalent about their recent activities, went to war against them and when it did it.

The government of President Asif Ali Zardari initiated the anti-Taliban offensive on the eve of his visit to the U.S., a trip timed to coincide with the consideration of a substantial Pakistan aid package by the Obama administration and Congress.

With Zardari at his side, President Obama announced his plans to “meet the threat of extremism” in Pakistan “with a positive program of growth and opportunity.” The House Appropriations Committee approved $1 billion in emergency aid to Pakistan, more than half of it economic. A five-year, $7.5 billion aid package was subsequently introduced in Congress, a big chunk of it to fund programs for the public good.

Since 9/11, Pakistan has gotten $12 billion in U.S. assistance. Most of it went to the military, and Obama aides say the Bush administration aid couldn’t halt the Taliban march because it was focused exclusively on the use of the stick.

They believe their use of the carrot will do the trick by winning Pakistanis’ hearts and minds, and thus alienating them from the marauding guerrillas.

This reminds me of a Pakistani student’s prognosis for Islamism that I heard when I was invited to Karachi University to talk about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

I had asked the student why Islamists had not done well in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections, despite their huge public rallies and strong organizations.

“Islam inspires Muslims on the big issues,” she said, “religious issues, social suppression, foreign invasion . . . issues over which people die and kill. Elections are about building schools, lowering prices, etc., for which people turn to practical politicians.”

I had heard the argument before and concur with it to an extent. I don’t think the administration’s goodies for Pakistan and its courtship of the notoriously corrupt Zardari (with his 19 percent approval rating) would derail the Taliban movement.

Many Pakistanis abhor the Taliban xenophobia and cruelty in their implementation of Islamic law. Yet, as I found out during my two latest trips, most Pakistanis support the Islamists’ struggle to rid Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO forces. It’s a “big issue” for them.

Islamism has long been a feature of Pakistan, which will not “collapse” from a spike in the Taliban’s Islamist ferment. If anything could destabilize it now, it would actually be the current government-Taliban war.

Yet the feckless Zardari government may want to continue the conflict as long as U.S. money keeps flowing. To spare the troubled nation further instability – and me the trouble of putting up the Qureshis! – the Obama administration should explore a new Pakistan strategy, beginning perhaps with an exit strategy from Afghanistan. *

Mustafa Malik, a Washington, D.C.-based columnist, has worked as a journalist and researcher in Pakistan.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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