The need to redefine our relationship with Pakistan – a nuclear-armed, frontline state in the war on terror – has never been greater. Now there is considerable opportunity to do so.
US Senate Democrats issued a letter to President George W. Bush this month urging him to embark on a new relationship with Pakistan based on cooperation with institutions rather than individuals, and to support the will of the Pakistani people as expressed in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.
Historically, ties between the United States and Pakistan have been strongest with a Republican in the White House and an army general in power in Islamabad, the political goodwill usually ending when Democrats start governing in Washington and elected representatives take power in Islamabad. This has been the story of the on-again, off-again US-Pakistan relationship since the 1950s.
US Democrats could break this cycle by supporting the new civilian government in Islamabad during this period of transition, in which democracy and nationalism are being renewed. But the Bush administration must also follow suit. The policy of relying heavily on one general (in this case, Pervez Musharraf) has proven short-sighted. What is needed now to fulfill long-term mutual interests are strong ties with the people, nation and state of Pakistan.
Failure to do so in the Bush administration s remaining months could cause irreparable harm to our relationship with Pakistan. In a democratic Pakistan, decision-making will be less centralized and more representative of public opinion. But the current US Administration is increasingly acting unilaterally in Pakistan s tribal areas and has aggressively tried to ensure a pliant government in Islamabad.
And so, amidst the opportunity for US-Pakistan ties to grow also lies the seeds for their unraveling. Sustained bilateral cooperation is in the interest of both countries and needs to be secured. This requires recasting the US-Pakistan partnership as one between sovereign democracies.
Toward this end, here are four recommendations for US policymakers:
1) Don t interfere in Pakistan s internal politics. Washington has tried to assemble a coalition government to its liking, excluding Pakistan s second largest party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Such an approach has backfired, rewarding those who are seen as standing up to the United States. If Washington continues to overplay its hand, it could find such parties in power and itself, partner-less in Islamabad.
2) Engage the Pakistani people. The United States should, however, still make its voice heard in Pakistan. US officials visit Pakistan on an almost weekly basis, but rarely speak to the local media. American generals and diplomats appear on the pan-Arab Al Jazeera with regularity, but their Pakistan outreach is scant. There s no excuse for avoiding Pakistan s news outlets, two of which are exclusively English-language (DawnNews and GEO English).
Instead of making their case to the Pakistani people, US officials deal with their Pakistani counterparts behind closed doors. As a result, Pakistanis see the United States not as a friend, but a bully. And the good that Washington does in Pakistan, such as providing Fulbright grants and funding civil society groups, goes vastly under-appreciated.
3) Provide a sizable democracy dividend. Pakistan s two previous democratic periods, in the 1970s and 1990s, were met with massive reductions in US aid, facilitating their demise in a perpetually cash-strapped Pakistan. This time around, the United States should maintain military aid and follow Senator Joseph Biden s proposal to triple non-military assistance to $1.5 billion.
Pakistan, though deeply impoverished, is an emerging market. Yet its recent economic surge has produced few jobs. Washington s help would be most effective in educational and infrastructural development. And it should actively consider a free trade agreement. Pakistan s major industries – agriculture and textiles – are in a state of crisis. Eliminating trade barriers will make Pakistani exports more competitive, spur job growth, and easily win Pakistani hearts.
4) Forge a comprehensive Pakistan-Afghanistan policy. Unilateralism and military force cannot defeat the insurgencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But a comprehensive, regional solution can. It would require wedging local militants from al Qaeda, integrating Pakistani and Afghan insurgents into their respective political systems, and repairing Pakistan-Afghanistan ties.
Ending the insurgencies might also necessitate replacing US and NATO forces with troops from non-neighboring Muslim states such as Indonesia and Turkey. No occupying power has lasted this long in Afghanistan.
Our relations with Pakistan are at a decisive juncture. The current and next US Administration and Congress have an opportunity to strike a new deal with this nascent Muslim democracy, nuclear power and pivotal country in a critical region. We cannot afford to let it pass by.
Arif Rafiqis a policy and communications consultant and editor of the Pakistan Policy Blog (www.pakistanpolicy.com). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and originally appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek s Post Global.