Will Democrats rescue Pakistan?

By Shahid Javed Burki

THE US Democratic Party now has its ticket for the elections of Nov 2008. If the ticket succeeds and Barack Obama and Joe Biden are elected to become the next pair of leaders of the United States, what will it mean for Pakistan?

Pakistan still remains dependent on American largesse. In spite of the significant structural change that has occurred in global finance, Pakistan will remain tied to Washington in order to receive the resources it needs desperately to prevent its economy from collapsing. Will the Obama-Biden administration rescue Pakistan? Will the Democratic administration be better for Pakistan than one headed by Senator John McCain?

Let me get the McCain-Pakistan question out of the way before discussing the likely Pakistan policy of the Obama-Biden administration. The McCain administration will remain obsessed with the issue of terrorism and its impact on the security of the United States. In this respect, John McCain will basically follow the approach of the Bush-Cheney era, putting aside all other concerns. For McCain the ‘war on terror’ remains the central concern in relations between America and its allies in both the developed and developing parts of the world. He will also follow a muscular foreign policy as indicated by his response to the Russian involvement in Georgia.

If pronouncements by the leaders are to be treated as providing some guidance to their conduct in office, it can be said with some certainty that the Obama-Biden administration will follow a different approach. This will have enormous consequences for Pakistan. What will be the approach, what will be its consequences, and how should Pakistani policymakers position themselves are some of the questions that deserve serious reflection in Islamabad.

Senators Obama and Biden have approached Pakistan from two different angles. The former has looked at it from the perspective of the American war in Afghanistan. Obama believes, and for good reason, that Washington should not have gotten involved in Iraq. When it did it diverted its attention away from Afghanistan and allowed the situation there to deteriorate. He wants to pull the Americans out of Iraq as soon as such a withdrawal is practical and get more fully engaged in Afghanistan.

He does not seem to be happy with the way Islamabad has conducted military operations against Al Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban on its side of the border. At one point he declared that he would not hesitate to send American troops into Pakistani territory if such a move was warranted by developments on the ground. His approach, in other words, focused on the military aspects of the solution to the Al Qaeda-Taliban problem.

It was after this declaration, which was understandably not well received in Pakistan, that he travelled to Afghanistan and met President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. He has not spoken in any kind of detail on that subject since his visit but it can be assumed that the Afghan president must have encouraged him to pursue that line of thinking. For Karzai blaming Pakistan for his troubles has been a convenient way of camouflaging his failure to stabilise his country.

Senator Joe Biden has approached the Pakistan problem from an entirely different angle. He has focused on the need to economically stabilise the second largest Muslim country in the world. Working with Senator Richard Lugar, the senior-most Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee that Biden heads, he has tabled a resolution that aims to provide Pakistan with $1.5bn a year of economic assistance for at least five years, perhaps even 10 years.

This amount will be spent on Pakistan’s social and economic development in a way that the rewards of economic growth reach the poorer segments of the population and poorer regions of the country. The Biden-Lugar approach is premised on three assumptions: that economic deprivation is a major reason for growing extremism in the Muslim world, that Pakistan is central to the problem of Islamic extremism, and that Pakistan does not have resources of its own to get the country’s economy moving in the right direction.

I have no doubt that once the Obama-Biden administration is in place there will be much greater emphasis on economic and social development as a way of fighting Islamic extremism than on the use of force. The Biden approach will prevail. This should be welcome to Islamabad. However, in the discussions I have had with various people involved in developing positions for the Democratic administration, there is some scepticism about Pakistan’s ability to proceed on that course.

The neglect of the economy by the new set of leaders in Islamabad has not increased the confidence of the policy and opinion-makers in Washington. They are not convinced that Pakistan fully understands the real nature of the problem it faces on the economic and social fronts. With some Pakistani leaders scurrying around the globe trying to raise funds for bailing out the country from its current predicament, it can be suggested that the emphasis is on applying the band-aid once again rather than on finding a lasting solution to the country’s economic problems.

What is it that Islamabad must do to restore confidence among the people in the world of finance and in the political arena in Washington that it has the ability and the expertise to strategise for developing its economy and its society in a way that would bring its young people into the economic mainstream rather than let them drift into extremism?

This is not a hard question to answer. The answer has three components. First, there must be a demonstrated ability to plan for the future. Second, there is the need to focus the state’s attention on building institutions in the areas of both economics and politics that would help to secure a better future for all citizens. Third, there also the need to give a clear signal to the world that Pakistan wishes to join the community of nations as a partner rather than continue to operate from the margin as a force for disruption.

With the change in its own leadership and with change about to occur in Washington in the next few months, Pakistan may have the opportunity to correct the course on which it has been moving for many months. This opportunity must not be lost. This has been a constant refrain in many contributions I have made to this space. Sometimes the message needs to be repeated.

Source: Daily Dawn, 2/9/2008

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