The Lesson from Pakistan: Less is More
August 24, 2009
News reports from Pakistan indicate that refugees from the Swat Valley, scene of recent fighting between government troops and Taliban insurgents, have started returning to their homes.
Some 2 million people are thought to have fled the fighting, which began this spring when the Pakistani army launched an offensive to drive the Taliban out of the region.
While it’s too soon to gauge the long-term effects of the campaign, it’s not too early to learn from the experience. The most important lesson here for the U.S. may be the following: that countries such as Pakistan are capable of solving their own problems without our meddling.
During the presidential campaign, then-Senator Joe Biden predicted it would “not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama.” An international crisis, Biden warned, would quickly “test the mettle of this guy.”
Just four months after taking office, Obama was confronted with Taliban militants advancing within 60 miles of the capital of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The government of President Asif Ali Zardari had attempted to negotiate with the Taliban, allowing them to impose harsh Islamic law in portions of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province—adjacent to the Swat Valley. In exchange, the Taliban offered a cease fire, but the arrangement was unacceptable to the United States, since the Taliban had made it clear that any area they controlled would provide refuge for Osama bin Laden.
That’s when Pakistan’s military decided to significantly step up its operations in the Swat Valley, which the Taliban had controlled since 2005.
Previous military operations against militants in the region had lukewarm support from the public—largely because they were viewed as proxy operations for the United States, and anti-American resentment runs high.
The United States did not help the situation with reports that the Obama administration was wooing Zardari’s main political adversary, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Senior administration officials strongly denied this, saying—on the eve of Zardari’s visit to Washington earlier this year—that the United States continues to fully support the Zardari government.
Yet the view from Islamabad was that the United States was trying to meddle. As one senior Pakistani official put it, “What are the Americans trying to do, micromanage our politics? This is not South Vietnam.”
Understandably, the United States’ primary concern was to prevent the Taliban from gaining control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Regardless, full-scale U.S. military operations to avert such a situation were out of the question. The last thing the United States needed to do was invade another Muslim country and lend credence to the claim that we are waging a wider war against Islam.
Even the kinds of military operations that U.S. forces have been conducting are unhelpful. As has been demonstrated in Afghanistan, air strikes—even if they are carefully targeted—too often produce civilian casualties. The result is increased anti-Americanism and more sympathy and support for al-Qaeda and its ilk.
Giving the Pakistani government more money and arms also has solved little. Since 9/11, Pakistan has received some $12 billion in mostly military aid from the United States, ostensibly to reimburse the government for the cost of operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban. The trouble is that most of that money has been used to buy heavy arms, such as F-16 fighter jets, and other equipment ill-suited for counterinsurgency operations, but more appropriate for a conventional war with India.
In many ways, the United States managed to maneuver itself into a corner. The best option remaining to the administration was to do as little as possible.
U.S. meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs helped create Pakistan’s problems. Doing less has now enabled the Zardari government to more clearly define where U.S. and Pakistani interests coincide and where they diverge, and move forward accordingly. The lesson to be learned from Pakistan’s apparent success is that in international affairs, as in other matters, the less the U.S. government does the better.
Charles V. Peña is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute as well as a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project.
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