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Torrent of Challenges for U.S. in Pakistan

Interviewee: Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, CFR
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer, CFR.org
August 20, 2010

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Pakistan's floods have affected twenty million people and killed nearly sixteen hundred so far, according to the United Nations. The United States has been rallying international assistance for Pakistan; on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged additional aid at a UN meeting (BBC) boosting total U.S. flood aid to $150 million, and Senator John Kerry (D-MA) visited flood-ravaged areas in Pakistan to assess ongoing relief efforts. CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey says the floods have compounded Pakistan's challenges and made Washington's efforts in the fight against extremism more difficult. The floods are a huge setback to the Pakistani military's recent successes in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, and to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, he says. At the same time, Markey adds, they are an opportunity for Washington to show its commitment to Pakistan. Beyond offering humanitarian relief aid, Markey recommends that the United States open its markets to Pakistani textiles, an industry expected to suffer due to cotton crops' flood damage.

What long-term strategic impact will these floods have on Pakistan?

 

It's too early to know for sure. What we do know is that the scale of the devastation adds an enormous new challenge on top of what was a very difficult situation for Pakistan. Now the real issue is whether this takes us into an entirely new realm for a country that a lot of people have said is near failure, or whether this is just an added burden--a cause for greater popular animosity or alienation from the state. That really is still up in the air largely because a lot of that will depend on what the state manages to do to respond to the floods; what the international community manages to do; just how bad the floods end up being in terms of long-term costs; the difficulty of reconstruction; how Pakistan's own people, civil society, [and] business community are able to step up to the challenge.

Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, White House coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan said, "Every dimension of our relationship--politics, economics, security--is going to see major shifts (NYT) as a result of this historic disaster." What shifts are expected in U.S. policy toward Pakistan?

The United States has an opportunity in this disaster to do even more to demonstrate to the people and leaders of Pakistan just how helpful the United States and the American people can be to move Pakistan forward. And if the White House is willing to step up to that challenge, they can expand not just the systems programming for Pakistan, but could conceivably look for significant new ways of opening up trade opportunities, particularly in the textile sector, which is going to suffer because of the hit that the Pakistani cotton crops are taking. But at the same time, the problems that Pakistan faces, both in the immediate near term as well as the longer term, have simply been compounded. Everything that the United States already thought was going to be very difficult, in terms of shoring up Pakistan's stability [and] getting it to really tackle the challenges of terrorism and extremism, all that will be made harder.

Will the United States need to reassess how it disburses aid as part of the $7.5 billion Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation?

 

[T]he real issue is whether this takes us into an entirely new realm for a country that a lot of people have said has been near failure, or whether this is just an added burden, a cause for greater popular animosity or alienation from the state.

There's almost no question that the plans took a while to get up to speed after the announcement that money had been authorized by the U.S. Congress, so when Secretary Hillary Clinton went on her last trip to Pakistan, she was able to announce a range of projects. Many of those, while they'll still be very worthy projects, the need will be so much more immediate that they'll probably have to really shift resources. An example would be if, in the prior plan, there were ideas of trying to expand electrical production out of power plants by adding turbines to existing facilities, now many of the existing facilities have been wiped out and so U.S. assistance could go to bringing them back online. So, whereas before we were talking about increasing electrical capacity on Pakistan's grid, now we'll be talking about simply getting things back to the woeful state that they were in before the floods; there'll be that many more projects to undertake. So money will probably be shifted from some longer-term projects to the immediate-term ones and from some areas of adding capacity to areas of bringing things back to where they were before the floods.

Are there ways Washington could ensure effective disbursement of aid it has pledged for flood relief?

There are always concerns in a time of such crisis. Too often, money goes out the door and people can't or don't keep adequate records, and the aid doesn't actually get to the people who are suffering most, so this is a valid concern. One way that countries, including the United States, deal with this routinely is to channel their resources through the UN and other multilateral organizations that have some on-the-ground presence and a certain pattern of acting within humanitarian crisis situations. There are other ways of channeling money into Pakistan through regularized procedures that are already there--through the IMF and the World Bank.

 

U.S. efforts are hampered by the simple fact that there are relatively few U.S. officials on the ground and that these programs end up being difficult to monitor, particularly if the funds go directly into the Pakistani budget. But the need is so great, the urgency is so real, that we would be foolish to allow these concerns to paralyze us. Action needs to be taken. If there are ways that the United States can directly assist, for instance, the Pakistani military, to provide it with helicopter lifts, to provide it with tools for distributing assistance and getting to stranded populations, then all of that should be on offer and we should deal with the accounting on some of those issues later. There's really not any time to waste.

The Pakistani army has been at the forefront of relief efforts and is clearly overstretched. How does this impact the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and the army's ability to hold on to areas in the tribal belt and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa that it had cleared from militants in the past year?

[I]t's the divisive nature of Pakistani politics that often gets in the way of a constructive national response to major crises, like this one, and so, if anything, it's more of the same.

This is a huge setback for the Pakistani military's efforts. It's a setback in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in South Waziristan in particular. Outside FATA, it's a setback in Swat, where the army had been engaged in some reconstruction efforts and apparently much of that has been washed away. It will also be more difficult for the Pakistani military in any reasonable amount of time to take the fight up again. The United States was really pushing to see action in North Waziristan, which was especially important for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan. We're unlikely to see movement there anytime soon; there's just simply too much else on the table for the Pakistanis to do. This will cause significant trouble for U.S. operations because in particular, the Haqqani network--which is based in North Waziristan--will be able to continue to operate as it has without feeling significant military pressure on the Pakistani side of the border.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

One question is whether some of these militant groups will also be, at least for a time, distracted from their militancy and forced to deal with their own internal issues. Certainly, they can cause more trouble and they can make recovery efforts from a natural disaster even harder. But then there's the question about whether they will lose more sympathy from local populations, which ultimately hurts their purposes as well, so it's not clear how they're going to respond. Some Pakistani extremist groups are [working at humanitarian assistance] and have done that in the past. And by doing so, they win local sympathy. And if the widespread Pakistani population perspective is that the military and the civilian government are not dealing with this disaster effectively and that these other organizations are doing more, that will certainly undercut support for operations against them in the future.

There are also reports on how the floods have further exposed regional, political, and ethnic divisions (RFE/RL) in the country; provinces such as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab are fighting for aid from the central government. Do you fear for further instability in the country?

Of course. Pakistan has always had cleavages between ethnic communities, and there have been conflicts between the provinces. And the division of resources in a time of intense need will be highly debated and a nasty process. Some of the national debate in Pakistan, in particular over the question of whether President Asif Ali Zardari should have done more immediately [or] should have [returned to] the country--a lot of that is partisan wrangling that has to do with efforts by opposition parties to essentially shift responsibility for a failure by the state, away from them, and toward him. It's important to understand that in Punjab province, which is also heavily hit by these floods, the opposition party PML-N is in charge of the provincial government and the last thing they would want is responsibility for this to be placed squarely on them. Rather, they would prefer that it be shifted to the national government. And it's important to recognize that President Zardari, after the eighteenth amendment [constitutional amendment signed into law in April], has been relatively stripped of his power. Therefore, a lot of this looks like political gaming. And it's the divisive nature of Pakistani politics that often gets in the way of a constructive national response to major crises, like this one, and so, if anything, it's more of the same.

How will the response to the floods affect the civil-military balance in the country and its fragile democracy?

Over the past year, we saw the Pakistani military very clearly reasserting itself after [former president General Pervez] Musharraf 's departure from office and the return of a civilian government to Islamabad. The civilians were testing the waters, trying to reassert themselves and the military pushed back. The military will continue to operate with near autonomy on many of these efforts. The civilians won't get in the way, though. It doesn't necessarily have to be a conflictual relationship and the military doesn't need to assert itself in any more dramatic way, that is, it doesn't need to take over, launch a coup, or anything like that to get the civilians out of the way to do what it's doing. But the underlying problem of an imbalance of a military that essentially calls the shots is there and will continue.

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