Our ally in Islamabad

Today, Center for American Progress senior fellow Brian Katulis and Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Lisa Curtis debate U.S. support of Pakistan's government. Later in the week, they'll discuss Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's coming elections and more.

Support the country, not the dictator

For decades, the United States has faced a fundamental national security dilemma: How does it address the threats posed by global terrorist networks without further entrenching dictators and antidemocratic governments? This challenge existed long before 9/11, and it remains one of the most difficult policy questions facing the United States today — one that defies partisan stripes and ideological divisions.

Dealing with global terrorist networks sometimes requires our government's close coordination with the military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies of regimes led by autocrats or dictators. Because unilateral cruise missile strikes and conventional military tactics are rarely effective in addressing terrorist threats, the United States must partner with other countries — and at times our partners are governments dominated by authoritarian rulers and lacking strong institutions.

Cooperation with these regimes often comes at a steep price — in the form of military and counter-terrorism packages and foreign-assistance programs. The problem with these assistance programs isn't necessarily the money. The support provided to other governments can do some good if channeled properly and tied to a coherent and comprehensive strategy for security cooperation and institutional reform.

But all too often, the United States, wittingly or unwittingly, ends up underwriting political repression by focusing on keeping individual leaders in power, as opposed to developing more effective institutions in these partnerships with other countries. This fixation on individual leaders creates a dynamic that is actually counterproductive to tackling the terrorist threat. Undemocratic regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that have crushed peaceful and legitimate forms of political dissent in efforts to maintain their grip on power actually have helped spawn the global terrorist threat the world faces today. Recent studies have shown that political repression, perhaps even more so than poverty and illiteracy, is an important factor in motivating global terrorists. Propping up undemocratic regimes is one of the worst things the United States can do in fighting global terrorist groups. The United States needs to break this vicious cycle, but doing so won't be easy.

Pakistan today represents perhaps the greatest challenge and opportunity for breaking this cycle. Pakistan is at the nexus of the most pressing security challenges in the world: nuclear weapons, international terrorism, religious extremism, endemic poverty and political reform. And last year's escalating violence and political unrest in Pakistan — culminating with the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto late last month — have raised the stakes.

With the 2008 elections already well underway here, U.S. leaders have found much to disagree on. But on Pakistan there is growing recognition among Democrats and Republicans that the policy of supporting Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's regime has not served U.S. interests.

Last year, the Bush administration conducted an internal policy review and found that money that was supposed to go to counter-terrorist initiatives to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban was at times diverted to pay for weapons systems aimed at Pakistan's regional rival, India. The administration decided to switch how it provides some of its financial support to Pakistan, diverting an annual $200 million cash payment to Pakistan's treasury to programs administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Congress also stepped in last month, enacting legislation that placed conditions on assistance to Pakistan, and withholding $50 million of the amount requested by the Bush administration for aid to Pakistan until Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice certifies that Pakistan's government is "making concerted efforts" against terrorist havens and is restoring a full range of democratic rights. Congress also included language that might make it difficult for Pakistan to use U.S. money to acquire military hardware that is not as essential in the fight against terrorist organizations.

These measures are positive signs that more policymakers in Washington are paying attention, but the United States must be careful how it exercises its leverage in Pakistan. Threatening to cut off all aid and publicly attaching conditions on assistance could backfire in Pakistan — where popular sentiment toward the United States is not favorable. Though Musharraf saw a dramatic drop in his popularity in 2007 — a recent poll found that two-thirds of Pakistanis want him to resign — the United States is even less popular than Musharraf.

The United States will need deft diplomacy and a more comprehensive approach aimed at boosting all of Pakistan's institutions — not just the army or intelligence services but the judiciary, the national and provincial legislatures, and police. To make a shift in policy that helps Pakistan become a better partner in the fight against terrorist groups and promote democratic governance, U.S. policymakers must move beyond their singular focus on individual leaders like Musharraf. The United States needs to work with a broader range of Pakistani leaders to develop institutions in order to help more Pakistanis feel safe and prosperous. It's the only way we are going to build broader and more sustainable support to tackle common global threats such as terrorist networks.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the coauthor of the forthcoming book, "The Prosperity Agenda."

An alliance that has saved American lives

Brian, I agree that the U.S. fixation on supporting individual undemocratic leaders in Muslim nations has contributed in some cases to strengthening Islamist extremist movements. In Pakistan, we have an opportunity to help turn the situation around and get U.S. policy right.

But the Bush administration must be willing to listen to Pakistani civilian leaders and to distance itself from Musharraf when he seeks to silence those leaders. The U.S. can help usher in a new civilian-led government while still retaining close ties to the Pakistani military, which is now led by Gen. Ashfaq Kiani, reportedly a professional soldier with little interest in politics.

A fair and transparent election in Pakistan will almost certainly make the country more stable. One of the mainstream secular parties would likely win the most seats and form a government. There is almost no chance that the religious parties, polling nationally at only about 5%, will make any substantial gains similar to Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Moreover, a popularly elected civilian government could rebuild public support for fighting terrorism. As it stands now, Musharraf's plummeting popularity and his close association with U.S. counter-terrorism policies is translating into a general lack of support for fighting terrorism, even though it is in Pakistan's own national security interest.

But the way to promote democracy is not by cutting or conditioning assistance to the military. Doing so would lead Pakistani military officials to view the U.S. as an untrustworthy, fickle partner; demoralize the Pakistani army and jeopardize our ability to cooperate closely on counter-terrorism. The U.S. lost valuable leverage with Pakistan when it abruptly cut off aid in the early 1990s because of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. Cutting or conditioning aid fuels the perception that Pakistan is taking action to fight terrorism under U.S. coercion rather than to protect its own citizens.

We should remember that the U.S. has benefited directly from the partnership it has built with Pakistan over the last six years through the provision of $10 billion in economic and military aid. Pakistan has captured and turned over to the U.S. senior Al Qaeda leaders and helped thwart several major terrorist attacks. Pakistan's cooperation in the war on terrorism may have helped save hundreds, possibly thousands, of American lives.

U.S. military-assistance programs have also helped keep Pakistan's nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. Recent media reports reveal that the U.S. and Pakistan have been cooperating over the last six years to ensure the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. If it weren't for the Bush administration's careful nurturing of the relationship and provision of military assistance to Pakistan, we would not have been able to build the trust necessary to cooperate on nuclear safety issues.

Washington should continue its economic and military assistance programs to Pakistan. But it can improve the way it monitors and leverages this aid. Brian, you rightly emphasize the recent decision by the Bush administration to direct $200 million in annual aid to USAID projects rather than provide the funds directly to the Musharraf government, which marks a significant improvement in how the U.S. delivers and administers aid in Pakistan.

The way to promote a democratic Pakistan is to back open elections (which provide the best antidote to extremism), publicly criticize the Musharraf regime when it seeks to undermine the democratic process and engage closely with civilian politicians.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation (

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