The problem of Pakistan, the promise of India

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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We’ve seen this movie a thousand times before. A guy and a gal are meant for each other. They don’t realize it yet, but everyone in the audience does. Circumstances conspire to keep them apart — a misunderstanding here, an unfortunate coincidence there. They’re both in denial about their obvious romantic chemistry. To make matters worse, she has a jerk boyfriend. Deep down, she must know that she has nothing in common with the jerk boyfriend, but she stays with him for all the wrong reasons. Finally, our hero and heroine wake up and realize that they should have been together all along. Our heroine musters the gumption to dump her jerk boyfriend, and rides off into the sunset with our hero.

That’s the plot of countless movies from Hollywood to Bollywood, and it aptly describes the relationship over the past several decades among the U.S., India and Pakistan. For those of you who are not good with analogies, the jerk boyfriend in this film is portrayed by Pakistan. We appear to be well into the final act of this movie, after the hero and heroine have woken up to each other’s charms, but before our heroine has figured out how to dump her boyfriend.

How the world’s oldest democracy (the U.S.) and the world’s largest democracy (India) were kept apart by Cold War politics is a story best left for another column, but suffice it to say that it takes two not to tango. Although U.S.-India relations have warmed dramatically in recent years, U.S. ties to Pakistan — forged by the Cold War and reinvigorated by the War on Terror — remain a complicating factor.

This U.S. has given Pakistan over $20 billion in aid, both military and economic, over the last decade. Foreign aid is supposed to engender good will. The Pew Research Center released a poll this week showing that 73 percent of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of the U.S., compared to only 12 percent favorable. (In contrast, 66 percent of Indians view the U.S. favorably.) Pakistanis view the U.S. as more of an enemy than a partner by a margin of 69 percent to 6 percent. One shudders to think what the Pakistanis would have thought of us had we not sent them billions in aid. Clearly, good will in Pakistan does not come cheap.

And consider this: Pew’s survey was unable to include certain parts of Pakistan, covering 15 percent of the population, because of security concerns. Unless you believe that these most radicalized parts of Pakistan are hidden reservoirs of love for America, it’s likely that the poll significantly understates the degree to which the Pakistanis hate us.

In those cases over the years where substantial U.S. foreign aid has failed to win the hearts and minds of the people, it has usually been where the U.S. was supporting unpopular dictatorships. But while we may have incurred the resentment of the people in those countries, we at least had some degree of loyalty from the dictatorships, bought and paid for, to show for our money (at least until they were overthrown). Recent events have called into question how much loyalty we’ve bought from Pakistan’s military, the primary beneficiary of U.S. largesse to the country and the true power behind Pakistan’s government.

There was of course the recent discovery that Osama bin Laden, whom Pakistan’s military was supposedly helping us find, had been living comfortably right under their nose. The notorious Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), the terror-stained intelligence wing of the Pakistani military, is widely suspected of having sheltered bin Laden — and of leaking the supposed name of the CIA station chief in Islamabad to the media shortly after the bin Laden raid.

Last week came the news that Pakistan had arrested five people for providing information to the CIA in the hunt for bin Laden. Pakistan’s recent actions are causing many Americans to ask, “Whose side are they on?” It’s starting to seem like a stupid question.

The case of Asia Bibi illustrates the absence of shared values between the U.S. and Pakistan. Bibi was a Christian farm hand who was asked to fetch water for her fellow farm workers. Some of the workers refused to accept water from her because she was a Christian, and an argument ensued. Some of her co-workers later complained that she made some derogatory remarks about Muhammad in the heat of the argument.

Bibi was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy law and awaits execution. Two prominent politicians who dared speak out in her defense were assassinated earlier this year. The murderous bigotry that permeates Pakistani society makes it almost impossible for religious minorities to live there; non-Muslims make up only three percent of the population.

Allies who lack shared values should at least have shared interests. Pakistan’s double-dealing in the War on Terror makes us wonder what interests we really share with that country. Our relationship with Pakistan is based not upon our shared hope for the positive future we can build by working together, but rather upon our fear of the dangers of splitting apart.

We’re afraid of losing Pakistan’s half-hearted cooperation in fighting terror; of losing the use of their territory to supply our troops in Afghanistan; and of losing whatever influence we have to prevent religious fanatics from gaining control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. There is no upside to our relationship with Pakistan; there is only the avoidance of downside. The billions we pay to Pakistan’s kleptocratic ruling elite suggest not so much a marriage of convenience as an extortion racket.

Our relationship with Pakistan is a betrayal of our principles for the sake of expediency. Even if it is a necessary evil, it is an evil nonetheless. Of course, it’s not as if we’ve never done this type of thing before.

Our relationship with India, on the other hand, celebrates our shared democratic values. India’s democracy has many flaws, but considering the poverty and ethnic divisions that were exacerbated by centuries of exploitative, divide-and-rule colonialism, India has proven that democracy can endure in the most difficult of circumstances.

In addition to our shared values, we have shared interests with India. Both countries (especially India) are threatened by terrorism from Pakistan. India, unlike Pakistan, is an emerging economic power; our bilateral trade with India dwarfs that with Pakistan. Our strengthening relationship with India can also serve as an effective counterweight to China’s influence in the region.

Alas, geopolitics isn’t the movies, and we will have to continue to handle our relationship with Pakistan with the care one uses to handle a ticking time bomb. Still, we must navigate through the complexities of South Asia with the knowledge that we were ultimately meant to be not with Pakistan, but with Pakistan’s mortal enemy. May we all live happily ever after.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He hosts the debate show “Beer Summit” for PBS Guam.