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Rand Report And Historical Context

Rand Corporation released a new report on Pakistan yesterday that includes a mixed bag of observations and recommendations. While the report does recognize the complicated situation that is religious extremism in Pakistan, it is imperative to a successful American-Pakistan partnership that we consider policy in the proper historical context.

Steve Coll, President of the New America Foundation, spoke with Judy Woodruff on the PBS News Hour last night and his conversation provides a good starting point for discussing key elements of the report.

Mr. Coll rightly notes that Pakistan has suffered immensely from extremist violence. The New York Times reported at the beginning of this year that,

The number of Pakistani civilians killed in militant attacks rose by a third in 2009 over the previous year, according to a new research report, a toll that exceeded even the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan.

Those numbers don’t include the over 7,000 injuries sustained by Pakistani civilians, nor the thousands of Pakistani military and police personnel killed by religious militants.

This is important to keep in mind when discussing Pakistan’s complicity with Taliban and other religious extremist groups. The Rand report recognizes this, noting that “[s]ome of these groups pose a grave threat to the Pakistani state…”

The fact is, the Pakistani state has a self-interest in defeating the Taliban and other groups that engage in religious violence. That’s not to say that there are not elements within Pakistan’s civilian, military, and intelligence services that don’t provide either indirect or direct support for militant groups. But it does mean that claims of an ‘official policy’ of state support for these groups are far fetched at best.

In fact, the present government, has taken unprecedented steps in eliminating the threat of religious militancy. But eliminating the terrorist threat will not happen overnight, and this government has only been in power for less than two years. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes in the new book, The Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater: Militant Islam, Security & Stability

…these problems come not just from continuing official support for religious militancy, but also from an institutional culture and outlook that grew over decades. The road to reversing this course will not be easy, but clearly understanding the problem – and acting upon it – is necessary.

It’s going to take time to root out lingering ties between Pakistani officials and militants. We must also keep in mind that these residual ties to militant groups are firmly rooted in longstanding tensions between Pakistan and India – tensions that past American policies have historically complicated.

Shuja Nawaz, Director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, describes the “roller coaster relationship” between the US and Pakistan as a key reason for lingering relationships between some elements within Pakistan’s security agencies and militant groups.

Though the United States sees itself as standing for democracy and freedom, it has acted in Pakistan over the decades in a shortsighted manner, making alliances largely with the military to advance its own strategic interests. First, it strengthened the hands of the army by increasing its size and heft in the 1950s via the Baghdad Pact against the Soviets. The U.S. looked the other way as martial law was declared by President Iskander Mirza in October 1958, and then as he was overthrown by Ayub Khan later that month. The U.S. decamped from the scene after the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, when Pakistan expected the U.S. to assist it. Pakistan then turned to China as its new best friend.

Being abandoned by the US is fresh in Pakistan’s memory, even if too many Americans may have forgotten. Without the confidence that the US will be a neutral arbiter between Pakistan and India and ensure Pakistan’s security and sovereignty, the temptation to resort to the old self-defeating use of militant groups as proxy fighters will continue.

To this end, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi deserves praise for his continued work to bridge the trust gap between the two nuclear powers. But the US must do more to ease Pakistani concerns that the we are not partners for the long-term.

During a panel discussion last week, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross observed that short-sighted American policies during the 1980s resulted in a trust deficit with Pakistan. Discussions of foreign policy related to Pakistan should be framed within the context of a long-term view of political engagement in the region with an eye to future dividends from continuing to support democratic reform. Otherwise, policies that attempt to maximize short-term security gains at the expense of long-term democratic reform in Pakistan will only continue the cycle of mistrust and violence, significantly threatening both Pakistani and American security in the future.