The Obama administration is treating the situation in Pakistan with a growing sense of urgency that is entirely appropriate. Pakistan today is an unstable nuclear-armed state threatened by Islamic militancy, a combination that could make it the most dangerous country in the world. As head of an American Jewish organization, I have observed this gathering danger firsthand during several visits to the country and through meetings with its top leaders over a number of years.
I have watched with dismay as Pakistan’s crisis has escalated over the past 18 months, when the very efforts the United States has made to induce reform of the political system have instead followed the law of unintended consequences. In November 2007, the Bush administration pressured Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to step down as army chief of staff, a step to move the country out from under military rule. Washington sent a subtle but clear message that it was time for Musharraf to go, to make room for a popular opposition figure heading a secular party, Benazir Bhutto.
But weeks after Musharraf took off his uniform, Bhutto was assassinated by Islamic militants in a suicide attack at an election rally. We brought down Musharraf — an authoritarian but strong figure able to command the loyalty of the armed forces and exercise influence over the intelligence services — and got chaos instead of the charismatic and democratic leader we had regarded as the alternative.
Two months later, in February 2008, after an election with mixed results, we encouraged Bhutto’s successor as head of her party, her husband Asif Ali Zardari, to enter a democratic coalition government with his principal rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Washington pressured Musharraf to yield some of his remaining powers as president to let the new democratic coalition government succeed. Seven months later, Zardari replaced Musharraf as president of Pakistan.
But these changes also did not have the desired effect. The power-sharing arrangements with Sharif that America had favored soon broke down. Six months after Zardari assumed the presidency, in February 2009, he moved to destroy his rival Sharif altogether, in a legal maneuver to ban Sharif from elected office and nullify the election of his brother Shahbaz Sharif as chief minister of the provincial government in Punjab. This led to enormous political upheaval and street protests. Washington encouraged Zardari to cancel the anti-Sharif measures, which he did a month later, on March 15. Zardari is now under increasing challenge from Nawaz Sharif, who has a broad base of popular support but little allegiance from the armed forces. Sharif also has a history of troubled relations with the United States, although he may be ready to turn a new leaf.
Zardari, for his part, is an able and intelligent leader. But he does not have either the strong base of support in the security services that Musharraf enjoyed, nor the broad popular enthusiasm that his late wife was able to inspire. The democratic reforms the United States encouraged have not had the desired effect. Pakistan is slipping into disorder, as the leading political parties are increasingly absorbed in intrigues against each other in the capital, while the central government’s control over other areas of the country is eroding.
So that’s where we are today, in a mess. Where should American policy-makers go from here? I think we need to follow three guidelines to stabilize the situation.
First, we need to recognize that, while we have many objectives in Pakistan, our overarching interest is a strong, stable and effective central government able to suppress extremists and maintain control over the nuclear arsenal in a close relationship with the United States.
Second, this cannot be achieved unless Pakistan’s leader has the strong support of the country’s military, a force with 500,000 soldiers and a similar number of reservists. Pakistan’s leader must also be able to exert influence over the country’s troubled intelligence agencies. Popular appeal in the provinces is not enough; the allegiance of the military and intelligence services is indispensable to socio-political stability in Pakistan.
Third, America needs to be prepared to put financial resources behind our efforts in Pakistan. The large aid package that President Obama seeks is eminently justified. But we need to consider carefully what approach we take with respect to its oversight: Should we impose strict conditions on this aid, as sought by Rep. Howard Berman, the admirable chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee? Or should we use a more flexible formula, as recommended by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry and his Republican colleague Richard Lugar, to avoid antagonizing Pakistan? We need to decide whether we want to nail clear conditions to the wall and enforce them strictly or work privately behind the scenes to secure improved Pakistani performance.
Whatever we do in Pakistan, we need to have our eyes wide open. We cannot afford a policy based on the wishful thinking that we can achieve all the good things to which our ideals lead us to aspire. We need to remember the difference between the desirable and the truly essential goals of our foreign policy in Pakistan. This is a moment of reckoning: We cannot afford more unintended consequences, or we could lose Pakistan.
Jack Rosen is chairman of the American Jewish Congress and the Council for World Jewry.