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.