Top 5 Questions Voters Should Ask Presidential Candidates about Pakistan

U.S.-Pakistani relations have reached a boiling point. Any presidential candidate must have a plan for Islamabad.

Americans summarized the killing of bin Laden in two words: mission accomplished. Pakistanis saw it differently. They felt that the attack placed them in an untenable position. Either they did not know that bin Laden was there, rendering them ignorant or incompetent; or else they were willing conspirators. The emotional Pakistani response is an outgrowth of a long-standing political culture that has bred conspiracy theories and a sense of betrayal. Americans may find that absurd. Still, Pakistan is a nuclear power with 180 million people and a hundred nuclear warheads. It plays a key role in its region, and it actively influences what happens next door in Afghanistan. We have to engage with it effectively. Doing so requires a clear-sighted grasp of Pakistani politics and attitudes.

Here are five key questions voters should pose to the candidates about Pakistan, along with some suggested answers:

1. How can we persuade Pakistan to see that our two nations have a common interest in defeating violent Islamists?

We must recognize where our interests are common and where they diverge. Many Pakistanis feel they pay for America’s war. They feel the United States gives Pakistan little or no credit for losing 30,000 civilians, 5,000 military and police, and billions to its economy in a conflict increasingly perceived as a U.S. war. Recognizing the price they’ve paid matters to Pakistanis.

Ask candidates what interests between our two nations they see as convergent and divergent and what limits they see on our power to influence events in Pakistan and the region.

2. How can we assist Pakistan in making civilian government stronger?

In Pakistan, the army holds the real power. Historically, government responds to the army and to Washington, not voters. Ask candidates how they would encourage Pakistan to redress the current imbalance between civilian and military authority.

3. How can we prevent Pakistani intelligence from aiding the Taliban?

The knee-jerk reaction is to withhold aid. That won’t work. It will turn to countries like China for help and can raise money through taxes, which currently few Pakistanis pay. Declaring it a state sponsor of terrorism could cause the Pakistani state to collapse. Ask candidates what steps they favor to stop aid to the Taliban. Do they think a stronger U.S. military presence is needed? Do they favor reducing our forces or any other options?

4. How can we recognize and support Pakistani sovereignty?

Pakistan will become stronger as it increases its sense of national identity and sovereignty. The nation lacks a solid sense of nationhood. Loyalty goes where it has historically gone: family, tribes and clan. National insecurity and insularity breeds a culture of conspiracy and betrayal. It causes Pakistanis to see the world through a parochial lens and to blame external forces for their problems. A stronger sense of their own sovereignty and national identity is vital in resisting forces such as tribalism, ethnicity and fear of India that tear apart the fabric of society. What steps would they take to help Pakistan face this challenge?

5. How do you define the U.S. vital interests in Pakistan?

Nobody has done this adequately. The answers are not easy. Do they see our interests as preventing a Taliban takeover of Pakistan? Keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of extremists? Improving India-Pakistan relations? Persuading Pakistan to better support our efforts in Afghanistan and the region? Given that many Pakistanis would like us to just go home and let them control their own destiny without U.S. interference, what parameters do they place on the relationship?

James Farwell is a political consultant with experience in Presidential campaigns and with the Pentagon. He is the author of The Pakistan Cauldron: Conspiracy, Assassination and Instability (Potomac Books, October 2011).