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Pakistan's Enduring Illusions

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, July 20, 2008

The exposure of illusions does not automatically cause them to be abandoned. They become even more necessary when other alternatives look riskier.

That is true in the financial crisis swirling around Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which expanded to their current perilous condition through the illusion that they had pockets as deep as those of the U.S. government. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson works to keep the force of that pretense alive rather than abandon or seize the mortgage underwriters.

And it is the case with the campaign promises of John McCain and Barack Obama to unleash ever-larger flows of U.S. taxpayer dollars to Pakistan as a way of bringing stability there and to win the global war on terrorism. They, too, would drop cash from helicopters to calm fears.

That same approach to Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf failed the Bush presidency, and it will fail new leaders in Washington and Islamabad as well. What is needed is a daring reformulation of U.S. policy toward South Asia.

The sharp exchanges between Obama and McCain last week over Iraq and Afghanistan served one purpose: They helped the candidates avoid being pressed for details on how they would respond in real time to the national financial crisis.

They instead waged rhetorical war along the Hindu Kush. "We can't succeed in Afghanistan or secure our homeland unless we change our Pakistan policy," Obama said -- before proposing to triple the kind of economic aid the Bush administration has provided to Pakistan for six years. Otherwise, we will "face mounting popular opposition in a nuclear-armed nation at the nexus of terror and radical Islam."

McCain presented this alternative: "We must strengthen local tribes in the border areas who are willing to fight the foreign terrorists there -- the strategy used successfully in Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq. . . . And we must empower the new civilian government of Pakistan to defeat radicalism with greater support for development, health and education."

Polls show that U.S. policy already faces "mounting popular opposition" in Pakistan, which has not been significantly influenced by the election of a new civilian government in February. Pakistani politicians, civil servants and military men have told me in recent months that open "collaboration" with the United States is so "dangerous" that they cannot afford to be seen working with the Americans.

So I was not encouraged by hearing Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi utter the bromide that his coalition government "enjoys the support of the people." The coalition will be hard put to maintain that support while it deals with the dilemma posed by the unpopularity of its partners -- Washington and President Musharraf, who remains in office though not in power.

During a meeting at The Post, Qureshi solicited the kind of new aid that Obama and McCain both dangled: "The U.S. should support the people who are in office today. . . . If we fail, the alternative is the happy-go-lucky mullahs." But the foreign minister would not accept the candidates' calls for increased joint military efforts to eliminate safe havens in Pakistan for the Taliban, which Qureshi termed "a fringe element." And he flatly opposes any unilateral U.S. military action.

Instead, he said, the new government has to be given a chance to strengthen tribal structures in rural areas: "We have come with a reconciliatory approach. It is time to let bygones be bygones in a new era." As he talked, I couldn't help but recall a 2002 conversation with Musharraf that was equally unsatisfying about how increased aid would be used, and accounted for, in tribal areas. Except Musharraf's evasions were much more succinct.

Pakistan has created the world's toughest foreign policy challenge. Its military and civilian governments have for decades profited from stirring tribal warfare in Afghanistan, then been too frightened of or complicit with their own fundamentalists to push for significant social change at home.

But Qureshi was persuasive when he outlined his determination to improve relations with India. His recent trips there convince him that the two nations must put aside hostility and help make each other rich: "We must capitalize on this opportunity."

India's growing economic power will leave its neighbor in the dust unless Pakistan becomes part of that prosperity. Pakistan's future will be determined by its relations with India, not by increased U.S. aid or maintaining its support for tribal war in Afghanistan.

Recognizing and acting on that Indo-Pak reality -- rather than perpetuating the illusion that the United States controls Pakistan's fate -- are the urgent tasks for new governments in Washington and Islamabad.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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