Obama’s Big Bet on Pakistan

By Doyle McManus

The United States has just acquired a new client state – one with 170 million people, nuclear weapons, an Islamist insurgency and Osama bin Laden. And that’s the good news.

The country is Pakistan, and last week it officially became the Obama administration’s biggest and most daunting rescue mission. For months, the administration has been inching toward a deeper commitment of American dollars, military trainers and civilian advisers to strengthen Pakistan’s government and security forces – not for humanitarian reasons but to stop the country from drifting into the arms of Al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Last week, at a three-way summit meeting of US President Barack Obama, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a relationship that had been tentative and prickly began to look more like a long-term commitment.

“I’m not going to say we turned a corner, but I am going to say we opened a new chapter,” said special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, briefing reporters at the White House. “It exceeded our hopes.”

Holbrooke and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the US military commander in the region, said they now expect to see more Pakistani cooperation with the US-led campaign against Taliban forces in Afghanistan and a “substantial” Pakistani military campaign against the Islamist insurgents who have taken over the Swat Valley and other parts of northern Pakistan. In return, the United States will dramatically increase aid to Pakistan, both military and civilian.

But Holbrooke, a veteran of nation-building since the Vietnam War, was careful to add a caveat: “The real question is, will it produce results?”

The United States and Pakistan have a long history. During the Cold War, the United States supported military-dominated regimes in Islamabad, seeing Pakistan as essential to containing the spread of communism. But that alliance fell into a decade-long freeze over Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush made an alliance of inconvenience with Pakistan’s military leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to seek his help fighting Al-Qaida and the Taliban. Under the arrangement, Pakistan’s armed forces bill the Pentagon for counterinsurgency operations (and pad the expense account, US auditors say).

Pakistanis were annoyed that they received little American help for their shaky democratic institutions or their economy and feared that the United States loved India, their traditional enemy, more. Americans didn’t see much evidence that the Pakistanis were looking for bin Laden or breaking off their intelligence service’s long, deep relationship with the Afghan Taliban.

Now both sides say they are serious about building a deeper, broader relationship. What’s changed? Fear. Until last month, many Pakistanis dismissed the Islamist insurgencies in their western badlands as peripheral. But after a faction of Pakistani Taliban took control of the Swat Valley (as close to Islamabad as East Hampton is to Manhattan, Holbrooke likes to say) and began moving into adjoining regions, they finally became alarmed.

The Obama administration also reacted sharply. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Pakistan’s instability “a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world.” After initially making a deal to pacify the militants, Pakistan’s armed forces agreed that they could not allow the Swat insurgency to stand.

Even before Swat, Petraeus said, Pakistan’s armed forces had begun putting more resources into their gritty struggle against insurgents in the west (as opposed to the traditional, large-scale conflict with India to the east). “The Frontier Corps used to be underpaid, underfed, underclothed and underequipped,” he said. “They are much more comparable now” to Pakistan’s regular army.

Another key change: The intelligence chiefs of Pakistan and Afghanistan have decided to work together, even if they don’t completely trust each other, in a three-way collaboration with the CIA. American intelligence and military officers have long worried that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence would tip off terrorists about planned US operations; now the United States intends to let the Pakistanis know in advance of military sweeps on the Afghan side of the border, to give them a chance to intercept Taliban fighters, should they choose to.

The Obama administration wants the Afghans and Pakistanis, long wary of each other, to cooperate. Last week, the evidence of progress on that front was limited mostly to mundane issues such as cross-border truck transport and water resources. The two governments have been so distant that their interior ministers, responsible for their police forces, had never met until they came to Washington.

Obama’s main message to Pakistanis last week was that he’s making “a lasting commitment,” not just another brief military arrangement. “And that is why I’ve asked Congress for sustained funding, to build schools and roads and hospitals,” Obama said. “I want the Pakistani people to understand that America is not simply against terrorism; we are on the side of their hopes and their aspirations.”

That message was also meant, of course, for the president’s other audience: Congress. The administration is proposing $7.5 billion in economic aid and at least $3 billion in military aid for Pakistan over the next five years, a major increase on both counts. The proposal is likely to succeed, at least at the outset; the events of the past year have built a bipartisan consensus behind a major effort to stabilize Pakistan. But Congress is full of sceptics – not only Republicans but liberal Democrats with long memories.

Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was blunt enough to say that Pakistan reminded him of Vietnam. “The problem is not the administration’s policy or its goals,” he said. “The problem is that I doubt that we have the tools there that we need to implement virtually any policy in that region.”

There are plenty of reasons for scepticism. The problems are huge; the Pakistani government’s track record is abysmal; and the US government’s tools are few. That $7.5 billion in economic aid would come to about $9 per Pakistani per year.

But this round could be different. Until now, Pakistan was on the periphery of American concerns; now it’s a central focus. Until now, Pakistani military leaders dismissed the Islamist insurgents as a minor annoyance; Swat is starting to change some minds on that. And we are a long way from the days when Bush lauded Musharraf as a great man; Zardari, the unimpressive widower of the late Benazir Bhutto, won no such endorsement. Obama has taken on the problems of Pakistan as his own, but at least he has done so with his eyes open.

McManus is a Los Angeles Times columnist.

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