January 18, 2008

January 18, 2008 | Commentary on Middle East

A Strategic and Moral Imperative

Let's say the U.S. gets fed up with an undemocratic Pakistan and abandons its alliance out of principle. How would that affect the war on terrorism? Brian Katulis and Lisa Curtis continue their debate on the U.S. alliance with Pakistan.

The U.S. doesn't really have the option of abandoning Pakistan. We rely on Pakistani air, land and sea space to supply critical fuel, vehicles and aircraft to support our 26,000 (soon to be 29,500) troops fighting in Afghanistan. The U.S. would find it extremely difficult to develop alternative supply lines for the war effort in Afghanistan.

We also depend on officials there to help control the flow of militants from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Although cross-border infiltration is still a problem, the Pakistanis have been able to tighten controls over the last year. Without their cooperation, the international effort to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan would be much more complicated.

Nor would the U.S. want to abandon Pakistan. Pakistan has been an ally in fighting terrorism, losing close to a thousand of its own soldiers in battles with extremists in tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. Much of the instability wracking Pakistan stems from the war in Afghanistan and Pakistani efforts to confront the terrorist threat within its own borders. Pakistan is in the eye of the storm with regard to the battle against extremism. It would be folly for the U.S. to turn its back on the country during this crisis period.

The U.S. needs moderate, progressive Pakistanis to prevail over extremists seeking to cause chaos, overthrow the regime and establish a theocratic government in its place. Cutting ties to Pakistan because of a lack of democracy could backfire by emboldening extremists to fight harder and forcing secular-minded civilian politicians into retreat.

In fact, it's in U.S. national security interests to cultivate strong ties to Pakistan over the long term so that Washington can edge the country toward a path of moderation, development and democracy. Most U.S. policymakers now acknowledge that it was a mistake to cut off aid to Pakistan in the early 1990s; we sacrificed important leverage with the Pakistani military and the good will of the Pakistani people. We must not repeat that mistake, despite some of the difficulties in the relationship.

That said, we need to increase the pressure to promote a return to civilian-led democracy in Pakistan, especially in the run-up to next month's election. A flawed election viewed as rigged by Pervez Musharraf would lead to further instability. The U.S. needs to be clear on the specific criteria by which it will judge the fairness of the election and signal its readiness to deal with a more broad-based, civilian-led government.

There has been some discussion about forming a unity government, but such a step should be pursued only with full agreement of the mainstream political parties and with the understanding that it would help restore democratic rule. Ultimately, the Pakistanis themselves have to resolve their domestic political problems, but the U.S. has a moral and strategic obligation to stand up for the principles of democracy and freedom, especially when the Pakistani people so clearly and persistently yearn to move in this direction.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center.

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in the LA Times, "Dust Up" debate