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Obama's Pakistan Challenge

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
January 2, 2009


Pakistan contains everything "that gives you an international migraine," commented former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright at a recent CFR meeting. Albright echoes popular sentiment in Washington: With its nuclear weapons, terrorism, poverty, corruption, faltering economy, weak government, and critical geostrategic location, Pakistan is a top concern for the incoming Obama administration. In particular, experts say its lawless northwest tribal region, which acts as a terrorist sanctuary for militants from around the world, has become central to winning the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, ensuring a stable South Asia, and curbing global terrorism.

President-elect Barack Obama, in a December 2008 interview with NBC's Meet the Press, said: "We can't solve Afghanistan without solving Pakistan." More broadly, he has stressed a regional solution which includes both India and Iran. The November 2008 terrorist attacks in India's financial capital, Mumbai, which the Indian government blames on Pakistan-based militants, have made this task more difficult by increasing tension between New Delhi and Islamabad (AFP). Yet experts still agree a regional approach is the best solution. In September 2008, the Bush administration formed a "Friends for Pakistan" group to work with Pakistan on issues such as stability, development, and institution building. The group includes China and Saudi Arabia, which hold considerable influence over Pakistan's military and political elite, and which some experts say the Obama administration should engage more closely as part of its strategy for dealing with Pakistan. "Winning the war for Pakistan will require an urgent, massive, and sustained effort by the United States in coordination with other international partners and allies in Pakistan," writes CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey.

Pakistan's stability also has ramifications for Washington's broader, regional interests. Roughly 80 percent of all U.S. and NATO supplies headed for the Afghan theater transit through Pakistan, but unrest and road closures have prompted the Pentagon to explore alternative supply lines (NYT) passing through Central Asia. The Mumbai attacks have also renewed suspicions that all parts of the Pakistani governmental apparatus, and particularly its strong military and notorious intelligence agency, the ISI, might not completely support Washington's fight against terrorism. Some analysts believe the army and the ISI are reluctant to sever ties with militant groups they have long used to pursue Pakistani national interests in Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir. This has led to calls for Washington to break from its narrow focus on military and intelligence cooperation with Islamabad. As this interactive timeline notes, the United States has long pursued short-term stability in Pakistan by sending aid to Pakistan's military and individual leaders. Pakistan currently ranks among the largest recipients of U.S. military aid; the Pakistani military relies on the United States for roughly a quarter of its $4 billion budget.

Many analysts suggest the United States needs a new strategy in Pakistan. A new report by the Washington-based Center for American Progress says Washington should adopt a more diverse approach that includes "strengthening governance and rule of law, creating economic opportunities, and exploring political negotiations." Some experts see a bill introduced by Vice President-elect Joseph Biden as a step in the right direction. The Enhanced Participation with Pakistan Act of 2008, if passed, would triple U.S. nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, granting $7.5 billion over five years in assistance for development projects.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who will continue in his role when Obama takes office, agrees that capacity building should be a central focus of U.S. efforts. In a July 2008 speech (PDF) he said: "What the Pentagon calls 'kinetic' operations should be subordinate to measures to promote participation in government, economic programs to spur development, and efforts to address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies and among the discontented from which the terrorists recruit." At present, however, the United States lacks the institutional capacity to implement sophisticated, targeted development programs in Pakistan, says CFR's Markey. He says any increased levels of assistance programming will require a significant expansion of U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. State Department.

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