With parliamentary elections scheduled for early next month, a state of emergency due to end tomorrow and a battle against militants in the frontier provinces ongoing, Pakistan has some pivotal events slated for the near future. But perhaps more important than the outcome of those events are Pakistan's seemingly intractable realities. Regardless of how the leadership in the country may molt over the next few weeks, persistent perceptions in Pakistan-regarding India and Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda-will continue to undercut vital U.S. interests in the area.
And equally intractable has been U.S. policy towards Pakistan, also with few signs of meaningful change on the horizon. During a hearing last week held by a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the administration took a page from its critics, devoting substantial portions of testimony to its description of U.S. economic development support of Pakistan-particularly in the frontier provinces. But so much verbiage on support of development belies the numbers on U.S. aid, the preponderant portion of which is devoted to military, not development, purposes. And the majority of that military aid is used to fund conventional weaponry and know-how (with an eye towards India), rather than the hardware and training needed to mount a counterinsurgency against Taliban remnants and Al-Qaeda.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has had some victories in the past few weeks. Military forces have seized a key cleric's compound in the North-West Frontier Province, the country's two top political opposition figures have announced their intention to run in the upcoming elections (although one may be barred from doing so), and Washington appears to have withdrawn its pressure for signs of democratic progress-satisfied with Musharraf's decision to give up his leadership of the military and the elections to come.
But while those events may bolster Musharraf's legitimacy in the short term, they may not help the president sustain his hold on power over time. And regardless of Musharraf's own prospects, Pakistan's future will be decided by some unchanging dynamics. The military elite's dogged perceptions of Pakistan's national interests will preclude any meaningful progress against the militants along the frontier for the foreseeable future.
Despite the attempts on Musharraf's life and other problems caused by Islamic militants, the top brass does not see the fighters allied with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as a problem for Pakistan, said Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. The brass remains singularly focused on India, and continues to see Islamic militants as a vehicle for installing a pro-Pakistani government in Kabul-thereby giving Pakistan a friendly government on its western flank. "They have allowed Al-Qaeda to rebuild itself on the border", he said. Pakistan's military campaign has been waged purely to oblige the United States, rather than out of a conviction that countering militants can benefit Pakistani security.
The United States has paid a high price for Pakistan's obliging, by helping to fund big-ticket items in exchange for some cooperation and the ability to move supplies into Afghanistan, said Korb. And given Pakistan's lack of counterinsurgency funding, when the country's troops do mobilize along the border at America's behest, they apply a blunt force that is hardly effective. The United States should prescribe its aid to Pakistan more comprehensively, requiring that aid dollars get spent in counterinsurgency and development, rather than for conventional armaments, he added.
But part of the problem in allocating more aid for development, said Korb, has been President Bush's own intractability. "The president is guided by his personal relationship" with Musharraf, he said. Bush has therefore been reticent to attach stricter guidelines on aid to Pakistan.
Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said at the subcommittee hearing last Thursday (in which Korb gave testimony) that this year the administration is directing $200 million of its aid to Pakistan on projects that it defines and supervises. It is taking that measure so that the aid "does reach the children and others of Pakistan who need education-the mothers and children and others who need the health care, and the people who need jobs and job training", Boucher said. But although that represents a step in the right direction, that amount is too small to make a difference, said Korb. Since September 11, the United States has given Pakistan about $10 billion in aid.
Spending on development in Pakistan is broadly seen as a sustainable strategy of bolstering law and order over the long term, especially in remote corners. When asked in November during an interview with National Interest online what the single greatest contribution the United States could make to Pakistani security was, Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao pointed to development aid to tribal areas.
Indeed, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda's appeal for many Pakistanis is economic and class-based, as much as it is religious, said Ahmed Akbar, chair of Islamic Studies at American University. For that reason, the recent storming of the compound of Maulana Fazlullah, a popular cleric in the North-West Frontier Province, could cause some blowback for Musharraf. That cleric, said Akbar, was widely popular for his help with the poor.
Meanwhile, the main political aspirants that seek to share power with Musharraf-former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto-will be similarly challenged in dealing with the growing power of those aligned with the Taliban. They will also face a bill coming due from Washington-which will want to see some killed or captured Al-Qaeda in return for aid dollars-and a Pakistani military elite that remains intent on projecting power toward Afghanistan to temper the perceived threat from India. And both candidates face legitimacy issues of their own, having already had untidy turns ruling Pakistan. Those candidates should, therefore, encourage and produce new, younger leadership for the post, he added.
And despite any dividend that the upcoming election may yield for Musharraf, particularly in Washington, the president will have to be especially wary of the attacks it may provoke, said David Isby, a national-security expert who has written a number of books on the region. The greatest threat to Musharraf's perceived legitimacy, said Isby, is the outbreak of violence.
An eventual toppling of Musharraf would have broad symbolic significance in Washington, since the general has been depicted as an indispensable ally in the war on terror. But regardless of who may or may not succeed Musharraf, Pakistan will continue to regard India as its main rival and Afghanistan as a territory to penetrate by proxy, via the Taliban or some incarnation of it.
Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.