Pakistan’s double game

Nearly 10 years after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, it is now trite to say the conflict is attributable to Pakistan. Besides the widespread corruption in the Afghan government, the other main problem that is also widely reported is the Pakistan government’s double game of attacking the Afghan insurgency while allowing them support bases in Pakistan to which the insurgents can go to rest, rearm and train. But the reason why has not been fully explained and to better understand why requires understanding Pakistan’s economic and political system.

Just as the mainstream media often avoids describing the insurgency’s different elements in favor of grouping them all as “Taliban,” the immense strength of Pakistan’s large landholders also goes mostly unreported. The factions inside Pakistan are instead often characterized as Islamic fundamentalists versus the more moderate or more secular groups. Nevertheless, these large landholders have significant wealth and considerable influence over the political process at the national and provincial levels.

Another major source of power in Pakistan is the military, within which the intelligence services can be included. The military has regularly staged military coups and occupied the presidency intermittently starting in the 1950s and most recently from 1999 to 2008 with Pervez Musharraf’s administration.

Their main priority: trying to match the regional strength of India. For example, Pakistan tries to match per capita military spending with that of India. It is no coincidence that Pakistan obtained the nuclear bomb very soon after India.

However, the military is unable to exert much regional influence from its economy alone relative to India. Pakistan’s economy is much smaller on an aggregate and per-person basis (e.g., Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product, GDP, per person is $2,500 vs. India’s $3,500) and its economic growth is far lower (4.5 percent over the past 10 years versus India’s 8 percent). Also, Pakistan’s military is also unable to gain sufficient tax revenue because the population’s large landholders and other wealthy segments prevent taxes or find ways to avoid them (only 2 percent of the population pays tax). So, how to maintain parity in military spending and more fundamentally in regional influence?

Besides trying to have close ties with China, Pakistan relies on aid from a variety of sources — with our country being one of the main sources (e.g., $11 billion during Bush Jr.’s administration). Because of this dependence, Pakistan’s purpose is not to help us resolve the Afghan conflict. Instead, it is to continue to assure the payments continue: enough actions and results to keep us paying (occasionally arresting people wanted by our government) but nothing that decisively ends the war (removing their safe havens).

This policy is further supported by the fact that many in the Pakistan government recall how our country effectively discontinued aid to Pakistan soon after the Soviets left Afghanistan.

Pakistan could achieve the objectives of maintaining greater parity with India by instead having a stronger economy. There would be more revenue for military spending. With a bigger economy, Pakistan would be better able to project regional influence by making surrounding countries like Afghanistan more economically dependent on them.

However, while Pakistan has continued to have positive growth rates since 1951, its economic prospects are cloudy at best. The country has reached diminishing returns from its system of a managerial/landlord elite and a large unskilled labor force and also with respect to its Green Revolution technology, greater economic growth requires major changes to the country’ policies — particularly a major increase in education and health spending.

Yet, Pakistan only invests a very small percentage of GDP into health and education — around 2.5 percent and 2 percent respectively. For example, many students do not even have classrooms but must hold courses out in the open. So, why has spending not increased?

The likely answer has again to do with the large landholder elite. For example, they do not want to pay for the general population’s education. If they become sufficiently educated, these landholders might find their authority and sources of wealth increasingly reduced. So, to keep up with India, Pakistan must instead pursue other more unsavory means to assure funding is sufficient.

Undoubtedly, Pakistan’s strategy in Afghanistan is also due to preventing India gaining sufficient influence there. But the need to continue attaining money from us is also a major reason. In addition to demanding the safe havens be destroyed and suspending aid, our government’s current response to Pakistan’s double game appears to include allowing militants attacking Pakistan’s government to cross into Afghanistan to avoid attack.

However, this policy might prove ineffective as the Pakistanis bearing the cost of the cross-border attacks are not the same people making the policy nor does it provide sufficient incentive to destroy the safe havens when that is probably their only option to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan. To better assure Pakistan cooperates more fully, we need to better align the Pakistani military’s incentives with ours. Instead of stopping aid, we should tie it to the number of casualties in Afghanistan of coalition and Afghan soldiers, policemen, politicians and civilians. The fewer people who die in a given period, the higher the aid they receive. We do not ask them to destroy their “assets” but only to turn them off.

Wesley Oliphant is a junior fellow for the School of Social Sciences. He can be reached at