Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Quick Thoughts On The Kerry-Lugar Bill

I had a journalist contact me with a few questions on the Kerry-Lugar bill. Since I haven't been posting properly lately, I thought I'd simply copy and paste my email responses to him as a post. I have more detailed thoughts than the ones presented here, but obviously time considerations are a serious impediment here.

On whether or not the bill means a transformation in U.S-Pakistan relations from a transactional relationship to a broader strategic partnership:

Let me make a couple quick points about this. The idea that there is a stark dividing line between a transactional relationship and a strategic partnership is valid only to an extent, and is overblown in the debate on this issue. All strategic partnerships that we today take for granted were based, at some point, on a tactical or transactional alliance. The French and Germans put their differences aside because of the common Soviet threat. Pakistan and China's relationship was formed in part as a response to Indian policy in the region. There are many other examples I can cite on this, but you get the picture. The basic point is that a strategic partnership in the future is not precluded by the fact that it is a tactical relationship in the present, and has been in the past.

To be clear, no one can deny that the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan in the last fifty years has been based entirely on tactical and short-term considerations, from both sides. To answer your question directly, I would say that the bill makes small but substantive shifts toward a more deeply embedded relationship. For one thing, while focused mainly on security considerations and the war against militant organizations, it does signal -- albeit weakly -- that the U.S. is interested in Pakistan's civil society, its institutions of governance, and its socio-economic development. Do these concerns manifest themselves as the ones the U.S. is most interested in? No. But they are there.

It has also been heartening to see the Richard Holbrooke's of the world talk directly to opposition parties, even religious ones, and other stakeholders in Pakistani political society. The most common complaint of U.S. interaction with Pakistan in the past has been that they deal exclusively with dictators and the military (often the same thing), and in doing so, cement the power-status of those institutions. The Obama administration is behaving differently in that respect, but I'm not sure how much it will matter at the end of the day.

On Pakistani concerns (in the media and political circles) on the U.S. aid being an excuse for a larger footprint in the country with respect to bigger embassies, more personnel and Blackwater types:

Most of the brouhaha accompanying the bill in Pakistan is based on nonsensical conspiracy theorizing and misinformation. But it pays to peddle nonsense, especially when your audience is thirsty for it.

It is instructive to note that the specific type of conspiracy theories and misinformation that is spread is based upon a deep distrust of the U.S. and its intentions in the region. Put differently, it's not just any conspiracy theory that find a receptive audience, but ones which tap into the existing views of the population (the right-wing American rumors on Obama's place of birth, the health-care rumors on "Death panels" and so on are similar, in that you will believe nonsense if you are ideologically predisposed to believing nonsense). So people who blame some mainstream media figures for this are missing the point. Even if the Zaid Hamids and Ahmad Quraishis and Shireen Mazaris of the world did not exist, their ideas would -- simply because there exists a vast reservoir of people whose worldviews are very similar.

That said, there are certainly some issue areas where the U.S. needs to tread carefully. Private security contractors is perhaps the biggest. When there has been a demonstrable history of abuses and dereliction of duty -- and I am being kind in my phrasing -- by such contractors, Pakistanis are right to worry. Bigger embassies in and of themselves are not terribly important; what is important is what those embassies are doing. Are they giving student and business visas, or are they forming a physical presence for activities outside protocol?

I wouldn't categorize the aid as "an excuse" to increase the U.S. footprint in Pakistan, if anything, it is part and parcel of the increased footprint. The U.S. is taking a greater interest in Pakistani affairs, for better or worse. The aid is one leg of that, and the increase physical presence the other. They are two sides of the same coin.

On whether or not the aid actually amounts to anything significant, on what the aid will actually achieve, and more specifically, if it will accomplish its objectives in strengthening civilian institutions:

I am not really an expert on this, but my view is that foreign aid very rarely actually accomplishes what it is meant to. But $1.5 billion annually is a lot of money, depending on how it is spent. If -- and it is a massive if -- it can be effectively utilized toward public goods, such as power generators -- perhaps the single most important issue facing everyday Pakistanis today is the electricity crisis in the country -- and roads and schools, then it will have been worth it.

On whether or not there will be increased tensions between the military and the Zardari government owing to the fact that all the conditions tied to the aid relate to military spending only:

Maybe, and maybe not. On the one hand, it's not as if the military and Zardari enjoy the deepest respect. We can recall Zardari talking to the Indian media and referring to the possibility that Pakistan may revise its first-use doctrine on nuclear policy, before being swiftly rebuked by the army. Or the time when his government tried to put the ISI under the administrative control of the Ministry of Interior, before being told in no uncertain terms that he did not have the de facto authority to do that. Or the flip-flop on sending the DG ISI to India after the Mumbai attacks of last year. The bottom line is there is a long history of Zardari making questionable steps in relation to the military, before being put in place by what remains the most powerful institution in the country on matters of security. So there is certainly the possibility that the army reacts the way you suggest.

On the other hand, the senior leadership of the military will also be cognizant of the fact that Zardari did not write this legislation, he just signed it. An alternative possibility to the one outlined above is a souring of relations between the defense establishments in the U.S. and Pakistan, which have veered between close cooperation and wild mistrust and, sometimes, both. But the Pakistani military would have to be quite silly to have not seen this coming -- the biggest complaint about the Bush-Mush partnership in the U.S., and in some Pakistani quarters, was that the U.S. effectively handed Musharraf a blank check with no strings attached. I'm unsure of the extent to which that interpretation is accurate, but it is certainly a very widespread one. With that in mind, it was easily foreseeable that any future U.S. military aid to Pakistan would come with conditions and benchmarks. This can't possibly take them by surprise.


Mona said...

@ Ahsan 'The U.S. is taking a greater interest in Pakistani affairs, for better or worse.' Can you elaborate?I am quoting you and Aqil for my article in F.P.

greywolf said...

good write up ahsan. i agree with the overall assessment. it does seem though that the military and the political leadership are on a collision course over this. its being reported that at today's corp commander meeting the COAS will issue a strong rebuke to the kerry lugar bill as being unacceptable in its current form. general kiyani is said to have told this to general stanley mcchrystal in no uncertain terms at the GHQ as well. meanwhile, president zardari is telling his PPP members that the kerry lugar bill is the best thing this government has done. so a clear dichotomy in perception exists. i guess we'll have to wait and see how this gets resolved.

zahid said...

I sincerely hope that if and when the money comes in, it is actually spent for the public good rather than add to the fat bank accounts(abroad) of the scoundrals who have habitually sucked blood out of this poor country and its poorer masses.

Web designing Pakistan said...

So true...Ahsan nice read.

AHR said...

Pakistan is struggling. We have over 170 million people. Roughly 2/3 of this population which means 113 million Pakistani's live under 160rs day. Pakistani's like you and me do not require this aid. It is the slums in Karachi, the open sewer in Lahore, the open stove in Quetta and the required roof over the house in Peshawar that desperately need this aid money. This aid money if utilized smartly, can have a multiplier effect for our Human Development Index (HDI). The language in the Bill poses a problem. We need to rectify it it, not reject it. Read my article to get a different perspective to all the hate which is spewing out of control.

Maria said...

Considering the internal security of the country eg WFP has temporarily closed its offices throughout the country: Pakistan needs assistance to excise this internal cancer. Pakistanis
can no longer afford a nonchalant attitude, not when their own
citizens are being targeted and killed by extremists.
There has got to be an end to the media blasting aid from foreign
powers when the fact is, Pakistan needs it. Its hard-working and noble
citizens need it. Its prosperous, stable future hangs in the balance

Musaafir said...

This bill is not some form of charity that is being handed out to Pakistan. It is payment for a service that Pakistan is expected to perform to further the interests of the US in the region. Kerry and/or Lugar, even though representing uncle Sam in this endeavor, are not the mamay (uncles) of the Pakistani people, and hence do not have the best interest of Pakistanis in their caring hearts. They have devised a deal which is a payment for the blood and tears, the people of Pakistan are spilling for America's strategic interests. Nothing less and nothing more.