Going forward with U.S.-Pakistan relations

While most Pakistanis are well aware of the military aid to Pakistan in the tens of billions, the hundreds of devastating drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and the undercover CIA and intelligence and defense contractors roaming their country, the veneer of Pakistan sovereignty has, for the most part, been supported by the U.S.  The recent incidents involving CIA covert operative Raymond Davis and the killing of Osama bin Laden, however, illuminate well the increasing tension over sovereignty issues.  

What is disconcerting, however, is that the U.S. is considering doing more of what’s not working to stem violence and less of what is working. Members of Congress are keen to kill previous commitments to development aid, while the Pentagon ponders a ramp-up in covert and overt operations. In sum, they are telling Pakistanis to expect more guns, less butter and fewer books.
 
If we want to prevent extremism, the fix will not be found in more drone strikes, CIA operatives or military aid (most of which, incidentally, remains unaccounted for). Simply look at who is being recruited. Recruits are found among the unemployed, illiterate and disenfranchised in the poorer provinces of Pakistan, from Baluchistan to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. If we do not want these vulnerable populations joining extremist movements, then we have to offer viable alternatives, something we haven’t helped Pakistan do effectively.

In order to change this tide, first we must focus on building healthy political systems in Pakistan. Of the nearly $20 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan since President Musharraf's military coup in 2001, most has been military aid, leaving very little spent on establishing the necessary institutions – election commissions, ballot machines, monitoring systems, legal observers – for democratic elections.  Stifling democratic potential further, we turned a blind eye to the previous president’s handpicking of the election commission chair and the judiciary and his suspension of the constitution. This precluded the opportunity for free and fair elections long before Pakistan's populace ever proceeded to the voting booth.

Second, we must focus on building a robust civil society.  For much of the past decade, investments in Pakistan's educational system have been negligible. Annually, only 2 percent of Pakistan's GDP is spent on education, resulting in some of the developing world’s worst enrollment rates: roughly one-third of eligible youth are enrolled in secondary school and 5 percent in tertiary institutions. Despite the fact that nearly 50 percent of the adult population are illiterate, we have hardly helped past presidents in Pakistan reduce that number. Pakistan’s commitment to the social sector is so weak that in the UN's 2010 Human Development Index, Pakistan ranked 125th. Previous arrests of educators, human rights activists, and lawyers, again under our watch, attest to past precedent in undermining civil society.

Third, we must ensure economic prosperity in Pakistan’s provinces abutting Afghanistan, including the Federal Administrated Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Pakistan’s presidents have failed to commit dollars to improve the impoverished realities of many living here. Left vulnerable to Taliban and Al-Qaeda recruitment, many of the frontier tribesmen and women are left with few viable alternatives, or incentives, to say no to extremism, including a job, an education and political opportunity. 

Conservative madrassahs, or religious schools, often fill that vacuum, providing food, education and sometimes housing. U.S. non-military aid commitments of late have attempted to address these needs, but most fail in the implementation phase due to lack of local credibility, reliance on American contractors, and failure to focus on long-term sustainability. 

There are, of course, exceptions. Humpty Dumpty Institute, for example, is planning a project with a local non-governmental organization that will improve the educational opportunities and nutritional needs of 20,000 Pakistani children over a period of three years – the timing of which improves the likelihood of sustainability given most aid projects span six months. HDI’s goals in Pakistan are to ultimately witness greater enrollment and attendance in school, healthier children and families, improved literacy and educational achievement, and increased community capacity.

We need more of this. We must avoid the temptation of a heavy-handed U.S. military approach in Pakistan, which will only further alienate sovereign-minded Pakistanis. Drone strikes may kill a key insurgent, but they inevitable kill scores of civilians, simultaneously enraging the entire surrounding community.

Democracy will only flourish in Pakistan if the necessary social, economic and political structures are steadfastly in place – and for the last decade, the U.S. has largely neglected these frontiers. The time to reverse past precedent is now. Let’s turn a prickly relationship into a positive one.

Rep. Honda is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s Peace and Security Taskforce.