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Asia

Opinion: US policy towards Pakistan needs a makeover

Recent tension between the two countries is highlighting the problems of US policy towards Pakistan. Thomas Baerthlein argues that it is time to look for more political solutions.

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We don't know whether the May meeting between Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari and US President Barack Obama's security advisor James Jones happened exactly as Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward tells it in his new book "Obama's Wars". But his description is certainly plausible. Jones' visit to Pakistan with CIA head Leon Panetta followed the arrest of Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old American born in Pakistan whose planned attack on Times Square was thwarted, but only just. Apparently, he had been trained in Pakistan.

Jones, Woodward reports, made it clear to Zardari that Obama would have to react if an attack on the United States were to take place that could be traced back to Pakistan. (He did not say this but apparently there exist plans in Washington to bomb 150 militant training camps in Pakistan.)

"'If something like that happens,' Zardari said defensively, 'it doesn't mean that somehow we're suddenly bad people or something. We're still partners.'", Woodward writes. "No" was the clear answer given by the Americans.

This meeting seems symptomatic of two of the US' problems in its dealings with Pakistan, and in its larger conduct of the "war on terror". First, the American government treats its counterparts in Islamabad as if they were under its orders, as dependents to whom conditions can be dictated if it comes down to it because after all it is generous with its financial and military aid… Secondly, in Washington military logic always seems to prevail even if Barack Obama knows better and employs a different rhetoric. In moments of doubt, he too believes there is no other option but to "strike".

This has not worked in the past nine years. President Pervez Musharraf was won over by the Americans after 9/11 with pressure and threats but he played a double game the whole time, allowing the al Qaeda heads to take refuge in the tribal areas, and the Taliban leadership to set up camp in Quetta and plan their attacks on NATO troops from Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Not much has changed since then even if Islamabad periodically launches a new offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, who are conducting their own "jihad" against the Pakistani state. The US and Pakistan have conflicting interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan considers Karzai a friend of India and the Afghan Taliban are a kind of guarantee that they will not be short-changed.

At the moment, it makes little sense to talk of an integrated "AfPak" strategy. The more troops the US sends to Afghanistan to weaken the Taliban, the more Pakistan will try to strengthen them, especially if it knows the US army is not in for the long haul.

The only way of solving this conundrum is to use political means, not to launch military attacks on Pakistani territory. This will only serve to exacerbate anti-American sentiment, which is already great. A survey carried out in the tribal areas by the New America Foundation in the summer found that nine out of 10 people opposed the US' military operations in the region and (even worse) six out of 10 thought suicide attacks against US troops in the region were justified. What would it be like if US troops entered Waziristan?

To stabilize Pakistan and relieve the country's powerful security apparatus from its devastating alliance with militant Islamism is a massive task which calls for long-term commitment. It needs the sustainable reinforcement of democratic institutions. But this will not be attained by giving orders to Islamabad and pumping millions into the Pakistani army. Pakistan urgently needs economic development and social justice. It also needs peace with India and an appropriate regional role so that the army cannot always justify its special status by pointing to external threats.

The Obama administration has recognized much of this but still comes across as half-hearted when it comes to implementing the necessary changes.

Author: Thomas Baerthlein, deputy head of DW's South Asia department
Editor: Anne Thomas

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