Commentary Magazine


Topic: Asif Ali Zardari

Channel U.S. Aid to Civil Society in Pakistan

Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute makes an important point in the Wall Street Journal: that, while Pakistan is increasingly in the grip of anti-Western military men and Islamists, there are large sectors of society that are more open to a liberal, pro-Western agenda. These range from the English-speaking elites to ethnic and religious minorities such as the Shi’ites, who are increasingly victimized by Sunni radicals.

I have previously suggested we should eliminate most aid to the Pakistani military, an institution that is actively sponsoring attacks on U.S. troops and our allies in Afghanistan. But that does not mean we should abandon Pakistan. Instead, we should channel our aid to civil society in Pakistan to try to build up a counterweight to the military.

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Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute makes an important point in the Wall Street Journal: that, while Pakistan is increasingly in the grip of anti-Western military men and Islamists, there are large sectors of society that are more open to a liberal, pro-Western agenda. These range from the English-speaking elites to ethnic and religious minorities such as the Shi’ites, who are increasingly victimized by Sunni radicals.

I have previously suggested we should eliminate most aid to the Pakistani military, an institution that is actively sponsoring attacks on U.S. troops and our allies in Afghanistan. But that does not mean we should abandon Pakistan. Instead, we should channel our aid to civil society in Pakistan to try to build up a counterweight to the military.

The situation is far from hopeless. As Dhume notes, “President Asif Ali Zardari’s ruling Pakistan Peoples Party broadly stands for religious tolerance and a peaceful South Asia.” The problem is that Zardari has been ineffectual; policy on major issues, especially national security issues, is set by the military, not by the civilians who ostensibly rule.

The U.S. needs to do what it can to change that rather than relying primarily on military-to-military links as we have done ever since 9/11.

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Zardari Growing Weaker

The Washington Post has two articles on its website about Pakistan that are, on the surface, about different subjects but actually are closely related. One article reports on the Pakistani Supreme Court striking down an amnesty that had allowed Asif Ali Zardari to become president without facing a raft of corruption charges going back many years. The other article reports that Zardari “has resisted a direct appeal from President Obama for a rapid expansion of Pakistani military operations in tribal areas and has called on the United States to speed up military assistance to Pakistani forces and to intervene more forcefully with India, its traditional adversary.”

What is the connection? Both are evidence of Zardari’s weakness. That he may now face criminal prosecution undermines his standing and makes it harder for him to direct Pakistan’s military and intelligence forces to move against the Taliban and other Islamist terrorist groups. Whether Zardari would move against them if given more power is a matter of conjecture, but there is little doubt that he is more personally committed to battling these groups — which killed his wife, Benazir Bhutto — than his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, was. One result of his commitment was the Pakistani army offensive this year into South Waziristan and the Swat Valley — both strongholds of the Pakistani Taliban that represent a direct threat to the Pakistani state.

The Afghan Taliban, on the other hand, have not been targeted by the Pakistani military even though their strongholds are in Pakistan, too. Although closely allied with their Pakistani cohorts, the Afghan Taliban are seen by the ruling circles in Islamabad as more of an asset than a problem. In Pakistan’s strategic calculus, the Afghan extremists represent a useful hedge for Pakistan to make sure that its interests are respected by Afghanistan, especially because it sees the U.S. involvement in that country waning. President Obama’s talk of pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan starting in July 2011 only strengthens that tendency — especially when Vice President Biden is heard promising (hat tip: Weekly Standard), as he was today, that “you’re going to see that [troop numbers] chart coming down as rapidly over the next two years.”

Bottom line: with Zardari growing weaker, there is even less chance of meaningful Pakistani action against the Quetta Shura or the Haqqani Network. If the U.S. wants to target the Afghan Taliban leaders, it will have to do so itself, thereby risking a diplomatic spat with Pakistan and possibly decreased cooperation in the fight against al Qaeda. That’s a difficult decision to make, but it’s one that, unfortunately, President Obama won’t be able to duck.

The Washington Post has two articles on its website about Pakistan that are, on the surface, about different subjects but actually are closely related. One article reports on the Pakistani Supreme Court striking down an amnesty that had allowed Asif Ali Zardari to become president without facing a raft of corruption charges going back many years. The other article reports that Zardari “has resisted a direct appeal from President Obama for a rapid expansion of Pakistani military operations in tribal areas and has called on the United States to speed up military assistance to Pakistani forces and to intervene more forcefully with India, its traditional adversary.”

What is the connection? Both are evidence of Zardari’s weakness. That he may now face criminal prosecution undermines his standing and makes it harder for him to direct Pakistan’s military and intelligence forces to move against the Taliban and other Islamist terrorist groups. Whether Zardari would move against them if given more power is a matter of conjecture, but there is little doubt that he is more personally committed to battling these groups — which killed his wife, Benazir Bhutto — than his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, was. One result of his commitment was the Pakistani army offensive this year into South Waziristan and the Swat Valley — both strongholds of the Pakistani Taliban that represent a direct threat to the Pakistani state.

The Afghan Taliban, on the other hand, have not been targeted by the Pakistani military even though their strongholds are in Pakistan, too. Although closely allied with their Pakistani cohorts, the Afghan Taliban are seen by the ruling circles in Islamabad as more of an asset than a problem. In Pakistan’s strategic calculus, the Afghan extremists represent a useful hedge for Pakistan to make sure that its interests are respected by Afghanistan, especially because it sees the U.S. involvement in that country waning. President Obama’s talk of pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan starting in July 2011 only strengthens that tendency — especially when Vice President Biden is heard promising (hat tip: Weekly Standard), as he was today, that “you’re going to see that [troop numbers] chart coming down as rapidly over the next two years.”

Bottom line: with Zardari growing weaker, there is even less chance of meaningful Pakistani action against the Quetta Shura or the Haqqani Network. If the U.S. wants to target the Afghan Taliban leaders, it will have to do so itself, thereby risking a diplomatic spat with Pakistan and possibly decreased cooperation in the fight against al Qaeda. That’s a difficult decision to make, but it’s one that, unfortunately, President Obama won’t be able to duck.

Read Less