Obama Team Ponders New Approach to Pakistan
Richard Weitz

According to diverse media reports, South Asian experts associated with incoming U.S. President Barack Obama are advocating that the next administration adopt a comprehensive, integrated, and fundamentally “new” approach towards Pakistan. The policies reportedly under consideration include increasing U.S. economic assistance, augmenting the transparency and accountability of U.S. aid flows, and working with a wider range of foreign countries and institutions seeking to promote Pakistan’s peace and security. Pakistani leaders have endorsed many of these policies in principle, but challenges remain.

BACKGROUND: An influential Obama adviser on South Asia, former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, has characterized Pakistan as “the most dangerous country in today`s world.” Obama’s team worry that continued chaos in Pakistan could threaten a range of U.S. goals, including resolving the conflicts in Afghanistan and Kashmir, curbing nuclear nonproliferation, and promoting liberal, secular democracy in a Muslim country that has experienced long periods of military rule. Most seriously, it could allow al-Qaeda to develop further its incipient safe haven in northwest Pakistan, from which it could threaten new terrorist strikes against the United States and its allies.

American policies towards Pakistan became an important issue during the recent American presidential campaign. For example, Senator Obama said he would order unilateral military actions in Pakistan if U.S. policy makers had “actionable intelligence” about the location of senior al-Qaeda leaders and the Pakistani government proved unable or unwilling to move against the terrorists directly. Although Obama’s statement produced some controversy when issued, subsequent developments have made clear that the Bush administration has adopted this position and already expanded the range of U.S. military operations conducted across the Afghan-Pakistan border. The most controversial element of the new Bush strategy has been the use of U.S. Special Operations Forces in ground missions inside Pakistan.

Obama and his advisers have endorsed congressional efforts to provide a more equal balance between military and non-military aid to Pakistan. The Bush administration has provided approximately 11 billion USD in assistance to Pakistan since September 2001, including about 6 billion USD in “coalition support funds” that reimburse the Pakistani military for its contributions to Operation Enduring Freedom. Obama’s team fears too much of this assistance has gone to the Pakistani Army and that the provision of aid has often proved insufficiently transparent. They want to make future American assistance more accountable by increasing U.S. oversight

As a Senator, Joe Biden co-sponsored a bill that would provide for a major increase in U.S. non-military assistance for Pakistan. The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2008 would allocate 7.5 billion USD in social and economic aid to Pakistan over a 5-year period. Such assistance could help Pakistan establish an effective political and economic infrastructure—such as the transportation and electricity networks needed for the envisaged reconstruction opportunity zones—in areas recently liberated of Islamist extremists. It could also enhance the resources and authority of the civilian government and therefore bolster its currently tenuous control over the Pakistani military and intelligence services.

Obama has also expressed support for mediating the dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. Some of his advisers have argued that the conflict has adversely affected Islamabad’s cooperation with Washington and Kabul because Pakistani policies often seem to be directed primarily at countering Indian influence in Afghanistan, including through the use of independent armed groups, rather than countering the Muslim extremists that have conducted terrorist operations in both India and Pakistan.

Similarly, the Obama team is seeking to expand the range of U.S. government, foreign countries, and international institutions that are engaged in promoting peace and prosperity in Pakistan. Within Washington, the incoming administration seeks to increase the involvement of the U.S. State Department and other non-military agencies in Pakistan in order to apply a wider range of foreign policy tools in an integrated manner. At the international level, Obama’s advisers hope to work with China, Iran, and other foreign governments and international institutions that have perhaps differed with the Bush administration regarding Pakistan in the pursuit of common objectives such as enhancing Pakistan’s economic and political stability.

IMPLICATIONS: Pakistan’s civilian leaders, including President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, have said they are open to expanding cooperation with Washington. The current government feels threatened by both the expanding Muslim militancy in Pakistan and the devastating effect of the world economic crisis on Pakistan.

The recent deterioration of Pakistan’s economy is driving Islamabad to cooperate with foreign governments and international institutions regarding terrorism and other issues. Pakistani officials lobbied hard for increased economic assistance from China, the United States, and the International Monetary Fund. The IMF eventually negotiated a $7.5 billion rescue package with Pakistan.

Pakistani leaders have shared the interest of the Obama team in seeking to secure long-term international support for the Pakistani economy through increased investment and trade concessions rather than short-term infusions of aid. While in New York earlier this month, President Zardari said that his government is “not asking for fish,” but “for the equipment and want to do our own fishing” from the Friends of Pakistan, a group of countries that seek to assist Pakistan meet its economic, political, and security goals.

Yet, the unilateral American air strikes on suspected high-value terrorist targets living in northwest Pakistan territory continue to cause problems. Pakistani officials vehemently challenged a recent Washington Post article in which unidentified U.S. officials claim that the Pakistani and American governments had negotiated a “tacit agreement” in September regarding the issue. The deal supposedly permitted U.S. missile strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles against anti-American targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Pakistani officials agreed to limit their response to public criticisms, without pursuing stronger forms of retaliation. In return, American officials would neither confirm the strikes nor comment on Pakistani protests and related declarations.

The United States also supposedly agreed to suspend raids of U.S. Special Forces on Pakistani territory. One of these strikes - on September 3, when U.S. helicopters attacked a suspected terrorist base in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region, killing over a dozen people - evoked widespread condemnation in Pakistan. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani subsequently threatened to shoot down any helicopters transporting American soldiers through Pakistani airspace without permission.

Pakistani officials have challenged CIA chief Michael Hayden to provide proof to substantiate his recent statement that Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan. A Pakistani government spokesperson stated that, “We have no intelligence and if there is any actionable intelligence the United States should share it with us, and we will act on it.” Despite their efforts to depreciate the bin Laden threat, Pakistani officials have requested that the United States supply high-tech equipment that will enhance Washington’s ability to counter infiltration across the Afghan-Pakistan border as well as to fight terrorists active in Pakistan.

CONCLUSIONS: The policies advocated by Obama’s advisers do not represent as sharp a break with the Bush administration as its supporters imply. The Bush administration has sought to address Pakistan within a regional context, provided both economic and military assistance, and used multilateral as well as unilateral tools. For example, the current U.S. government has authorized 750 million USD in aid for the FATA under its Sustainable Development Plan and has sought to promote initiatives under the Friends of Pakistan Group and other multilateral bodies, many of which also involve Afghanistan. The strategy under consideration would represent a change of emphasis but not a fundamentally new approach to Pakistan.

In addition, how the Obama administration might respond to conflicts among these goals is unclear. For example, an urgent task is stabilizing the military situation in the FATA as well as along the Afghan-Pakistan border. However, conducting unilateral American strikes in the area threatens to weaken support for the new Pakistani government, which the Obama team views as the best partner for American counterinsurgency operations in the region. On October 22, the Pakistani legislature adopted a joint statement endorsing an “independent” foreign policy for Pakistan and supporting the government’s opposition to encroachments against Pakistani territory by foreign militaries. Zardari reportedly pleaded with Obama to curtail the unilateral U.S. air strikes when he first spoke with Obama after the Senator’s election.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director for Project Management at the Hudson Institute. This article first appeard in the 11/26/2008 issue of the CACI Analyst: http://www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/4988.