Dealing with Pakistan is risky business

By Lee Hamilton
Nov 18 2008

 Why do U.S. security experts say Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world? For starters, there is not one crisis in Pakistan; there are several interconnected crises, each with the potential to undermine the stability of Pakistan and South Asia. The danger of a failed state, replete with nuclear weapons, ethnic tensions, Taliban sympathizers and Osama bin Laden in residence, is chilling.

Pakistan's underlying economic weaknesses and the global financial crisis have devastated the country. Between July and October, the rupee lost a quarter of its value. Foreign-exchange reserves have dwindled to dangerously low levels. Pakistan has sought assistance from the International Monetary Fund in the $5 billion to $13 billion range to avoid defaulting on its debts.

President Asif Ali Zardari has yet to demonstrate the capacity to tackle Pakistan's toughest challenges. He lacks popular support to wage a campaign against the Taliban. He must carefully balance his country's strategic alliance with the United States and widespread public hostility to the U.S.

The dispute over Kashmir, a flash point since the partition of India in 1947, lingers.

The reach of the Taliban increasingly extends from the tribal areas into Pakistan and its cities. Two months ago a massive truck bomb at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad killed 55 people and wounded more than 200. In Lahore, bombings and death threats targeting those perceived as purveyors of Western culture are increasingly common. Last Wednesday in Peshawar, gunmen killed an American contractor working for USAID.

In Pakistan's tribal areas, the Taliban and al-Qaida are a powerful force. From its base there, the Taliban has launched deadly raids on U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, where its presence is growing.

The U.S. response thus far has been increased cross-border military action into the tribal areas. The results: the elimination of some leading Taliban and al-Qaida figures, an unknown but significant number of civilian casualties, the unification of disparate insurgent forces whose common bond is antipathy toward the United States, and growing anti-Americanism within Pakistani civil society.

The U.S. needs a comprehensive plan to promote stability in the region with integrated security, political and economic components. Even then, the U.S. cannot achieve success and eliminate terrorist sanctuaries in the tribal areas without Pakistani help.

In recent months, tribal militias, or lashkars, have fought back against the Taliban. But the Taliban has killed hundreds of tribal elders in the last four years. The United States needs to discreetly help Pakistan defend traditional forms of tribal governance and the elders who could form the backbone of indigenous resistance to the Taliban.

In dealing with the tribal areas, the United States must differentiate its enemies. Some factions want to recreate the hellish Taliban rule of the 1990s. Others may be amenable to a political settlement.

Kabul has opened low-level negotiations with pragmatic elements within the Taliban under Saudi Arabian auspices.

The U.S. should sharply expand and improve its commitment to Pakistan's economic development.

Finally, India remains Pakistan's national security obsession. To Islamabad, Afghanistan represents an opportunity to achieve "strategic depth" vis-à-vis India. The United States should support rapprochement and a settlement over Kashmir, while encouraging Pakistan to view its regional security challenges more broadly.

But, even with the right military, economic and political resources, the U.S. faces an enormous challenge, nation-building in a country of 170 million people. The United States needs a unity of effort in support of the Pakistani government, the Pakistani people and our own national security interests.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)