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Atlantic Council: Pakistan in the Danger Zone: a Tenuous U.S.-Pakistan Relationship

Author: Shuja Nawaz, Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council
June 28, 2010


The Afghanistan war may be lost on the battlefields of Pakistan, where a vicious conflict is now being fought by Pakistan against a homegrown insurgency spawned by the war across its Western frontier. A year after we at the Atlantic Council raised a warning flag about the effects of failure in Afghanistan and the need to meet Pakistan's urgent needs in its existential war against militancy and terrorism, the situation in Pakistan remains on edge. Domestic politics remain in a constant state of flux, with some progress toward a democratic polity overshadowed by periodic upheavals and conflicts between the ruling coalition and the emerging judiciary. The military's actions against the Taliban insurgency appear to have succeeded in dislocating the homegrown terrorists but the necessary civilian effort to complement military action is still not evident.  The government does not appear to have the will or the ability to muster support for longer-term reform or sustainable policies. The economy appears to have stabilized somewhat; but security, governance, and energy shortages are major challenges that require strong, consistent, incorruptible leadership rather than political brinkmanship, cronyism, and corruption that remains endemic nationwide. Recent constitutional developments offer a glimmer of hope that may allow the civilian government to restore confidence in its ability to deliver both on the domestic and external front. But the government needs to stop relying on external actors to bail it out and take matters into its own hands.

Unless some game-changing steps are taken by both sides, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship may also be heading into another serious downturn, marked by continuing mistrust and a disconnect between the public posturing and private dialogues. The United States and Pakistan appear to have different objectives while speaking about common goals: while both are fighting terrorism and militancy, the U.S. is looking for a safe military exit out of a stabilized Afghanistan while ensuring that Al Qaeda does not re-emerge. Pakistan seeks to secure its own territory against an active homegrown insurgency, while keeping a wary eye on India to its east.   Increasingly, domestic political imperatives seem to be coloring the rhetoric and pushing policy between these two allies. The 2010 mid-term elections and a sputtering economy at home feed the U.S. desire to end the Afghan war. An unfinished transition from autocratic presidential rule to a parliamentary system in Pakistan that pitted the civilian president against the military and other political parties in Pakistan has hamstrung Pakistani politics.  The European allies in Afghanistan have been missing in action in Pakistan. They have not been able to establish their own relationship with Pakistan in a manner that would engender mutual trust and confidence. They have a minimal presence on the economic development scene in this key country bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistan can begin to turn things around if given the resources and the support it needs from the United States, the international financial institutions, and other friends. But it will also have to take on some major tasks itself, to reorder the political system, rearrange its economic priorities, and truly return power to the people and their representatives. But without tackling these daunting tasks, Pakistan risks political and economic slide. The nexus between security and governance remains critical. Pakistan's civilian government must begin to govern and to prosecute the war against militancy on a war footing, not as a part-time activity or a purely military venture outsourced to its army. It must take control of strategy and work with the military to prepare to take over territory that the military wrests back from the insurgency. Now that it has removed some of the constitutional vestiges of the regime of President General Pervez Musharraf, it must also complete the transition from the presidential to a parliamentary system and build on the recently concluded concord between the provinces and between the center and the provinces, under the aegis of the National Finance Commission Award. It must re-order its priorities to revive domestic investment and attract foreign investment. And it must be prepared to plan for effective use of foreign aid. President Asif Ali Zardari has an opportunity to show statesmanship as the constitutional head of state but without the extraordinary powers that he inherited from his military predecessor. In order to do this he will need to build viable longer-term coalitions and change the negative perceptions about himself among the general population.

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