The Pakistan Problem: Candidates Get it Wrong

It does not take a leap of faith to realize that the United States is not achieving its goals in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has little reach outside of Kabul and for the most part, life has not improved since 2001. The tacit protection the Taliban receives on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line has been the chief impediment to nation-building efforts in Afghanistan. The view that Pakistan is the weak link in the chain has gained strong ground in academic circles and is now widely held by Western policymakers.
Both Democrats and Republicans have criticized the Bush administration for, among other things, giving Pakistan $10 billion with little oversight. Both Obama and McCain have questioned elements of the Bush administration’s approach. Even though both candidates agree, for the most part, that Pakistan needs to increase its effort in fighting the Taliban, neither ticket actually has a sound Pakistan policy. This gross ineptitude is likely to hamper American foreign policy in the region.
Obama has been praised for his intellectual finesse and willingness to solve disputes through diplomacy. For these same reasons, he has garnered much criticism from foreign-policy hawks. It may be to compensate for this alleged “softness” that Obama has taken a particularly strong stance where Pakistan is concerned. However, Pakistan is the absolute worst country to threaten with the American stick.
With uncharacteristic shallowness and naïveté, Obama views Pakistan and its intransigence in battling the Taliban as a purely military problem. In 2007, in what would later spark a controversy, Obama declared that as president he would – with “actionable intelligence” – send American forces into Pakistan in order to capture “high-value terrorist targets” if the Pakistani government would not. Few decisions could be more counter-productive.
The idea of “winning hearts and minds” needs to become more than rhetoric for American policymakers, and one would think that Obama would be the man to put it into action. To Obama’s credit, he does believe in expanding non-military aid to Pakistan; however, giving countries money in exchange for violating their sovereignty hardly provides the basis for a lasting relationship.
Every attack by unmanned U.S. drones in Pakistan targeting terrorists has killed civilians. If militants are killed, their numbers are substantially low in comparison to civilian casualties. In many cases, the alleged deaths of militants cannot even be corroborated by news organizations such as the BBC. The U.S. has, in addition to drones, used its Special Forces to conduct raids in Pakistan. These raids – exactly the kind that Obama advocates – are not any more successful than the missile strikes. They have accomplished little except for garnering the ire of Pakistanis of every caste and disposition—even from those who openly oppose the Taliban.
Senator Biden is more experienced in dealing with Pakistan and has a superior record when it comes to engaging that country. Biden has consistently advocated increasing civilian aid to Pakistan and recently cosponsored the “Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2008,” which proposes giving Pakistan $7.5 billion for non-military development. Biden brings to the Democratic ticket experience, reason and the kind of knowledge about Pakistan that every Congressman should have. If he uses that knowledge, and if Obama is willing to listen, he might be able to salvage Pakistan and the War on Terror along with it.
McCain has not been quite as outspoken as Obama in regard to Pakistan. In fact, the biggest problem with his Pakistan policy is his lack of one. Rather than a real plan, McCain takes a vague stance that seems like a reaction to and a critique of the cavalier manner in which Obama approaches the issue.
It was wise of McCain in one of the debates to point out that Pakistanis would feel more cooperative if their country was not the victim of American strikes. Nevertheless, McCain has walked the tightrope when it comes to explicitly opposing such attacks, focusing instead on how the U.S. cannot announce such attacks aloud. He also posited that the United States should cooperate with tribal leaders in Pakistan in order to combat the Taliban collectively. That would of course be ideal, but it won’t be accomplished if tribal leaders feel that in the process the U.S. would lord over them. A new approach must be adopted, but McCain’s “talk softly and carry a big stick” policy will lead to failure.
There is a way to succeed in Pakistan. The first step is to “win hearts and minds.” This step will take a long time, it will be difficult and it won’t work as well as anyone will want it to. Yet, the common defect in the policies of Bush, Obama and McCain is this: there is no plan to help Pakistan where it really needs it. Aid is needed on a massive scale, with a focus on education and supply of power. Another Marshall Plan is needed, but the aid mustn’t be limited to dollars. American expertise will prove just as valuable as American money. However, stringent oversight would need to accompany the aid. In fact, the best way to squander the aid is simply to throw money at the Pakistani government because regardless of the type of leadership, the country has proven to be incapable of improving the lives of its people.
Another important policy the next president must adopt is to halt American strikes inside Pakistan. Obama cannot jeopardize the mission in Afghanistan by turning Pakistan into more of a “safe haven for terrorists” than it already is, but that is precisely what attacking Pakistan will do. McCain has to be willing to ignore the foreign policy hawks and stand by the position he is taking in the presidential debates. Staying the course, or taking a more aggressive one, only aggravates the existing problems. Dealing with Pakistan is among the most complex problems the new president will face. Unfortunately, neither ticket seems to have a complete and effective idea of how to handle it.

Samier Saeed is a first-year economics major. He can be reached at