January 15, 2008

January 15, 2008 | Commentary on Middle East

An alliance that has saved American lives

Has it been worth billions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid to support Pervez Musharraf? Does fighting terrorism justify propping up an undemocratic regime? All week, Brian Katulis and Lisa Curtis debate the U.S. alliance with Pakistan.

Brian, I agree that the U.S. fixation on supporting individual undemocratic leaders in Muslim nations has contributed in some cases to strengthening Islamist extremist movements. In Pakistan, we have an opportunity to help turn the situation around and get U.S. policy right.

But the Bush administration must be willing to listen to Pakistani civilian leaders and to distance itself from Musharraf when he seeks to silence those leaders. The U.S. can help usher in a new civilian-led government while still retaining close ties to the Pakistani military, which is now led by Gen. Ashfaq Kiani, reportedly a professional soldier with little interest in politics.

A fair and transparent election in Pakistan will almost certainly make the country more stable. One of the mainstream secular parties would likely win the most seats and form a government. There is almost no chance that the religious parties, polling nationally at only about 5%, will make any substantial gains similar to Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Moreover, a popularly elected civilian government could rebuild public support for fighting terrorism. As it stands now, Musharraf's plummeting popularity and his close association with U.S. counter-terrorism policies is translating into a general lack of support for fighting terrorism, even though it is in Pakistan's own national security interest.

But the way to promote democracy is not by cutting or conditioning assistance to the military. Doing so would lead Pakistani military officials to view the U.S. as an untrustworthy, fickle partner; demoralize the Pakistani army and jeopardize our ability to cooperate closely on counter-terrorism. The U.S. lost valuable leverage with Pakistan when it abruptly cut off aid in the early 1990s because of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. Cutting or conditioning aid fuels the perception that Pakistan is taking action to fight terrorism under U.S. coercion rather than to protect its own citizens.

We should remember that the U.S. has benefited directly from the partnership it has built with Pakistan over the last six years through the provision of $10 billion in economic and military aid. Pakistan has captured and turned over to the U.S. senior Al Qaeda leaders and helped thwart several major terrorist attacks. Pakistan's cooperation in the war on terrorism may have helped save hundreds, possibly thousands, of American lives.

U.S. military-assistance programs have also helped keep Pakistan's nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. Recent media reports reveal that the U.S. and Pakistan have been cooperating over the last six years to ensure the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. If it weren't for the Bush administration's careful nurturing of the relationship and provision of military assistance to Pakistan, we would not have been able to build the trust necessary to cooperate on nuclear safety issues.

Washington should continue its economic and military assistance programs to Pakistan. But it can improve the way it monitors and leverages this aid. Brian, you rightly emphasize the recent decision by the Bush administration to direct $200 million in annual aid to USAID projects rather than provide the funds directly to the Musharraf government, which marks a significant improvement in how the U.S. delivers and administers aid in Pakistan.

The way to promote a democratic Pakistan is to back open elections (which provide the best antidote to extremism), publicly criticize the Musharraf regime when it seeks to undermine the democratic process and engage closely with civilian politicians.

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

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Middle East

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