The Problem of Pakistan

Friday, April 18, 2008

Fifteen minutes outside Islamabad, Pakistan, surrounded by nonmechanized farms and poor villages, is a U.S.-funded police training school. It boasts a target range suitable for anything from pistols to high-powered sniper rifles; a mock-up of an apartment building to be used for training exercises; a bomb-disposal practice area; and classrooms for studying civil rights, sex-crimes response, humane and effective interrogation techniques, and other basics of law enforcement. The facility is similar to those found in almost every county in America.

In Pakistan, a country of 168 million people, it is the only training center of its caliber.

If any nation needs highly trained, superbly equipped police, it is Pakistan. Almost all the world’s arrests of important Al-Qaeda leaders have taken place there, with Pakistani police facing down exquisitely dangerous men. In Karachi, police are expected to keep the peace in a city in which gangs of political thugs are better equipped than some armies. Police protecting politicians at rallies throughout Pakistan do so without radios, sniper cover, or body armor. A typical constable, when issued his weapon, is allowed only six practice rounds at a makeshift firing range.

In the spring of 2007, Pakistan began renewing its crackdown on violent extremists in remote regions of the country. In response, militants mounted a campaign of terrorism, assassinations, and political violence. Just since last spring, hundreds of Pakistani security forces, including police officers, have died trying to keep the public safe. In the months leading up to Benazir Bhutto’s December 2007 assassination, dozens of police and paramilitary officials were injured or killed protecting Bhutto from Islamist terrorists intent on disrupting the upcoming election.

So, realizing the challenges they face, the Pakistani students at the U.S.- funded police training center are enthusiastic and grateful. The American instructors are impressed with their students. Both groups want the United States to build more schools as quickly as possible.

The tragedy is that Pakistan does not need one state-of-the-art training center. It needs fifty or a hundred.

Another small but crucial step to helping Pakistan develop a more genuine, empowered democracy are the legislative research libraries in each of Pakistan’s four provincial capitals. Although modest, each library includes several computers, a periodical area, and a variety of reference books. Provincial legislators use the facilities to research proposed legislation, to study how democracy operates in other countries, and to develop new legislative proposals. Before USAID opened these libraries in 2005–07, only the wealthiest legislators—those with computer access at home—were able to conduct such research. Now all legislators have at least some tools to help them work toward improving life for their constituents.

Nevertheless, as recent political controversies and setbacks have shown, whole swaths of Pakistan’s democracy are nascent in the extreme. Political parties lack the internal vibrancy that encourages young, talented individuals to assume challenging party roles and to develop policies and platforms that can help the country. Voters lack access to information about the legislative process. Local and district judges live and work without personal or courthouse security officers, making them susceptible to threats and manipulation by criminal and terrorist elements. Although stronger than they were a few years ago, the fundamental tools of democracy—a confident justice system, platform-based political parties, an educated electorate—still require international support if they are to develop into self-supporting pillars of the democratic process.


American taxpayers reading about the challenges facing Pakistan might understandably wonder where their post-9/11 assistance money has gone. The answer, in part, is that much of it has gone into making up for lost time. During the past forty years, the U.S. engagement with Pakistan has been sporadic and often focused on short-term goals, ultimately failing to help the country develop long-term capacities in key areas. Decades of sanctions left Pakistan without the benefit of Western expertise and assistance and, at one point, without access to capital. When the West re-engaged with Pakistan in 2002, the problems facing the country were monumental and distrust of the West was significant. The devastating October 2005 earthquake, which left millions homeless, further complicated our and our allies’ efforts to help Pakistan move beyond years of sanctions and assistance boycotts.

Whole swaths of Pakistan’s democracy are nascent in the extreme.

The United States, of course, sanctioned Pakistan through the years for important reasons. Our motivation was neither malevolent nor whimsical, and the goals of the sanctions were sound. Even as they hampered U.S. efforts to reach certain goals, many of the sanctions may actually have achieved other ends.

The United States and Pakistan were close friends and allies throughout the formative years of the Cold War, thanks to a shared antipathy for the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, however, strains emerged after Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father, authorized the establishment of a nuclear weapons program. In 1976, Congress amended the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to require suspension of economic and military assistance to countries involved in certain types of nuclear-related transactions. The legislation was designed, in part, to pressure Pakistan to cancel a contract to buy a nuclear-fuel-reprocessing plant from France (France eventually canceled the contract).

By early 1979, the United States had substantial evidence that Pakistan was constructing a uranium-enrichment plant. Pakistan at that time was led by General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who had overthrown and executed Bhutto. Zia refused to acknowledge Pakistan’s nuclear program or to discuss compromises that would have avoided sanctions. On April 6, 1979, the United States ended all military and economic aid to Pakistan.

The United States had important reasons for sanctioning Pakistan through the years. The U.S. motivation was neither malevolent nor whimsical, and the goals of the sanctions were sound.

Yet the following January, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States offered Pakistan an aid package worth $400 million. That sum was several times larger than pre-1979 aid amounts, but Pakistan refused the offer, saying it was inadequate. In June 1981, President Reagan offered Pakistan $500 million a year, which Pakistan eventually accepted. A few months later, Congress approved the aid package, along with a six-year waiver of previously applicable sanctions related to Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Throughout most of the 1980s, when Pakistan played a pivotal role in U.S. efforts to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, military and economic assistance to Pakistan flowed at substantial levels. President Reagan and Congress continued to warn Pakistan to cease its nuclear weapons program, but the imperative of success in Afghanistan argued for maintaining and strengthening Washington’s relationship with Islamabad.

By October 1990, 18 months after the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan, Pakistan’s ongoing nuclear program was impossible to ignore. President Bush reported to Congress that he could not certify that Pakistan did not possess nuclear weapons. As required by the sanctions-related Pressler Amendment, the United States terminated all economic and military assistance to Pakistan. In addition to a freeze of all new aid, Pakistan was refused delivery of military equipment for which it had already paid, including 28 F-16 fighters. (The F-16 imbroglio still rankles Pakistani leaders, in part because it was nearly a decade before Pakistan’s money was refunded.)

The decision to end all foreign assistance to Pakistan came just as the country was readjusting to democratic rule, Benazir Bhutto having become prime minister just two years earlier. The suspension of aid also coincided with extraordinary instability and civil war in Afghanistan and with Pakistan’s realization that its millions of Afghan refugees would not be returning home any time soon. (Indeed, millions of Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan to this day.) As the 1990s progressed, Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif passed the baton of democratic power back and forth, but U.S. sanctions severely limited or barred engagement that might have encouraged economic transformation, law-enforcement training, and political party and civil society development.

By 1995, some Pakistani parliamentarians were calling on the government to speed up its nuclear weapons program to counteract the damage sanctions had caused to Pakistan’s conventional forces. A few months later, the U.S. Congress voted to allow Pakistan to receive most of the military equipment for which it had already paid (though not the F-16s). It also allowed for a resumption of limited types of economic assistance. In July 1997, Congress allowed limited democracy-building and trade and development assistance to restart.

After the September 11 attacks, the United States waived all nuclear and coup-related sanctions and restrictions against Pakistan.

Just a few months later, India tested five nuclear devices and Pakistan countered with its own series of tests. The May 1998 announcements triggered international sanctions on almost all types of aid and lending. Without access to multilateral lending institutions, Pakistan turned to the Islamic Development Bank and to the National Bank of Pakistan to help with its June debt payments. By July, Standard and Poor’s was warning that Pakistan could be bankrupt within two months. The international community responded by easing some lending-related sanctions on Pakistan; as the next 17 months progressed, Pakistan regained access to more sources of multilateral financing and Washington began a few small assistance programs. Nevertheless, the financial trauma of the summer of 1998 was never far from the minds of many Pakistanis.

In October 1999, General Pervez Musharraf overthrew Sharif. In response, the United States again suspended all existing aid programs. For the next two years, U.S. military and economic engagement with Pakistan was minimal.

Then came September 11. In response to the 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush waived all nuclear and coup-related sanctions and restrictions against Pakistan. In October, Congress put the president’s decision into force. The same month, Japan and other nations lifted various sanctions regimes imposed on Pakistan, paving the way for huge inflows of development support and increased trade.


As in the 1980s (during the Afghan-Soviet war) and during other significant periods of the Cold War, military and economic assistance to Pakistan has become a significant part of Pakistan’s GDP since the September 11 attacks. The assistance, coupled with the Pakistan government’s forwardlooking fiscal and economic policies, has encouraged one of the highest economic growth rates in the world. Fewer Pakistanis live in absolute poverty than at any time in the country’s history, and health and education indicators are moving upward after decades of stagnation. Although polling indicates that the United States is widely unpopular throughout the country, the same polls report broad and deep appreciation for the U.S. relief effort after the October 2005 earthquake.

Reinvigorated military exchange programs, in which Pakistani military officers take courses in U.S. war colleges, are building relationships and core understanding of U.S. values that should benefit the United States for years. Pakistani military officers still complain bitterly about the Pressler sanctions and, in particular, the F-16 case, but younger officers at least are receiving what many of their superiors were denied during the sanctions years: exposure to the U.S. military-education system.

Given the significant economic and military assistance flowing to Islamabad and Pakistan’s pre-eminence in achieving our goals in Afghanistan, U.S. scrutiny of Pakistan is intense and some U.S. officials express impatience for results. Unhappiness with the speed of change in Pakistan occasionally leads members of Congress to threaten sanctions against Pakistan. Those threats—often barely acknowledged by the American media—are broadcast widely in Pakistan, where they rekindle memories of the painful 1990s and fuel insecurity over long-term U.S. intentions.

By its own admission, Pakistan has trod an occasionally uneven path since 2002. Islamabad has scored significant victories in the war on terror, but it perhaps could do more. And, for all the notable improvements, Pakistan’s journey toward democracy is still young.

So is American money really making a difference? As with many of our most important foreign policy decisions, we may not know for decades.

Unhappiness with the pace of change in Pakistan occasionally leads members of Congress to threaten sanctions—thus reminding Pakistan of the painful 1990s and fueling insecurity over long-term U.S. intentions.

Had we owned a crystal ball in the 1990s, we might have seen how central Pakistan’s military and law enforcement would be to our own national security in 2008. We might have found a way to balance the imperative of pressuring Pakistan to halt its nuclear program with that of helping the country develop highly trained and professional police forces. We might have redoubled our efforts to provide educational opportunities to Pakistan’s poor, and probably would have remained engaged with Pakistan’s political parties and civil society. The corruption that ravaged the country during the 1990s would have complicated our efforts, but we could have worked around it and maybe even helped oppose it.

We will never know whether a different U.S. approach toward Pakistan would have been more fruitful; moreover, we would be foolish to suppose that tomorrow’s challenges will look like today’s. The only thing we can predict with certainty is that the United States will continue to need stable, prosperous allies whose populations look favorably on America.

We need Pakistan to be one of those allies, now and 20 years from now.