Thursday, July 24, 2008

Rethinking Pakistan

US foreign policy in Pakistan has played a large role in the heated debate regarding Muslim militancy in the Middle East over the past few years. As the US has traditionally aligned itself with Pakistan - except for a few years when it placed sanctions on the country as punishment for pursing its nuclear weapons program, which was socially and economically devastating to the nation - aid from the US is crucial to continue positive development in Pakistan, especially with volatility in the nation, where religious fundamentalists typically take advantage of socio-economic and political problems for their own gains, using religious vernacular to articulate larger issues that are not inherently based in religion.

There is much debate about what the US's role should be in Pakistan, with critics who are frustrated by the apparent loss of control by the in its northern regions to militants pursuing a more aggressive US foreign policy towards the nation, allies explaining that the country has done and is doing the best it can given the circumstances, and others who emphasize complete disengagement.

While I think the US has made many poor choices in the Middle East and South Asia, and in Pakistan in particular, I do not think disengaging with the nation is a wise option, nor is pursuing an aggressive strategy. I think it is important for us to recognize first that Pakistan is a very young nation, barely 60 years old. While it has had fair economic success over the past years, it is still a developing nation, with a majority of the population suffering from poverty. Pakistan faces social, political, environmental, and economic problems similar to many nations, especially today considering the state of international affairs and the common global issues.

As the Bush administration seeks to shift over $200 million to Pakistan in military aid, we must be wary of our apparent ease in transferring such great funds to the Pakistani military with practically no "check up," (we must be wary of this anywhere, anytime, really) and recognize the negative consequences in the way we dealt with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Those who argue for increased air strikes in the northern regions forget that there are still over 250 Afghan refugee and IDP villages in the north, with many children, that often face the brunt of religiously-inspired violence and retaliation from the international community. Those who call for sanctions and disengagement forget the dependency of Pakistan's economy to the US, and the interdependent regional and global economies that are already suffering, a backlash of globalization.

What needs to be done now is a shift in focus. The US should support largely non-security projects in Pakistan, helping develop the infrastructure: building schools, roads, access to clean water and sanitation, and hospitals. Also, the US should show support for greater judicial, political, and democratic good governance reforms. Economic, environmental, and human rights concerns need to be addressed, while aiding the large and ever-increasing refugee population. In essence, poverty reduction is key.

Religiously inspired violence is the direct result of socio-economic and political problems that marginalize a community of people, causing a rebellion that is articulated in religious terms. Instead of truly reflecting or believing in some violent religious ideology, these aggressor seeks to change the socio-economic or political status-quo that marginalized them, using religion as a tool for mobilization. A change in policy measures that focuses on the root of the problem rather than its outcome is likely to be more successful in Pakistan and around the world. Additionally, it will make facing current important threats, like Al-Qaeda, much easier, more effective, and efficient. Security aid should be based on incentives and performance, rather than serving as a blank check. More importantly, however, we must recognize that security aid is only useful in the short-run and relying only on military means will have negative consequences in the long-run, as we have historically seen.

I can only hope that the tough talk that our current Presidential candidates are espousing will be seriously reevaluated. Pakistan is on its way to be at the forefront our foreign policy focus for the next few years, and it'd be nice not to, for once, repeated out mistakes.

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