The “Smart Power” Approach toward Pakistan Needs Work

Winning over Pakistani hearts and minds is proving difficult

Two new reports provide further insight into the breakdown of U.S.-Pakistan relations.  The first, put out by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, charts the growing hostility of Pakistani public opinion toward the United States.  The second, issued by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a respected non-governmental organization, argues that the record level of military and civilian assistance the U.S. provides Pakistan has failed to deliver much in the way of counter-terrorism dividends or help advance the country’s fragile democratic transition.  Taken together, both call into question the implementation of the Obama administration’s “smart power” approach toward Pakistan, which was suppose to balance the use of military force with the tools of diplomacy and development.

The Pew report, compiled from personal interviews conducted three months ago with 1,200 Pakistani respondents, illustrates how mounting American distrust of Pakistan is mirrored within that country.  Among the survey’s key findings:

  • Three-quarters (74 percent) of Pakistanis regard the United States as an enemy, up from 64 percent in 2009
  • 80 percent hold unfavorable views of the United States in general, an increase from 68 percent three years ago
  • President Obama’s efforts to reach out to the Muslim world have had little impact on the second largest Muslim country.  He is held in the same low regard among the Pakistani people as George W. Bush was during his last year in office.  Overall, only seven percent repose confidence in the U.S. president.

The Obama administration entered office rejecting the go-it-alone attitude by which its predecessor waged the global war on terrorism.  One consequence was an offer to Islamabad of a broad strategic partnership.  Yet boiling frustrations with Pakistan have caused Washington to slip back into a unilateralist mode.  This stance found its ultimate expression in last year’s commando mission that killed Osama bin Laden, in which Washington took pains to keep Pakistani officials in the dark – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta even recently joked that keeping Islamabad out of the loop was essential to the operation’s success.  But it is also manifested in the expanded campaign of drone warfare that arouses so much anger in Pakistan; a higher number of covert operations on Pakistani soil (highlighted by last year’s Raymond Davis incident); increased talk of launching ground raids into Pakistan’s tribal areas; and efforts to sideline Islamabad while making direct diplomatic overtures to the Afghan Taliban.

These feelings of strategic divergence also exists among Pakistanis, who overwhelmingly blame the extremist violence racking their county (leaving some 35,000 dead over the past decade) on U.S. policy in Afghanistan rather than Islamabad’s practice of abetting jihadi groups.  In line with this view, the Pew survey finds:

  • Not even half (45 percent) of Pakistanis now believe it is important to repair the deterioration in bilateral relations, a figure that is down from 60 percent just a year ago
  • Although little support for extremist groups exists, there also is waning public support for using the Pakistani army to root out jihadi organizations taking shelter along the Afghan frontier.  Only 32 percent currently favor doing this; as opposed to 53 percent in 2009
  • Seventy percent of people hold a favorable view of Imran Khan, the cricket hero turned political leader who has made much hay blaming America as the source of Pakistan’s problems.  This figure is up from 52 percent in 2010.

The Pew survey also points to Washington’s failure to translate high levels of military and economic assistance into cooperation from Pakistani elites or goodwill among the general public.  The United States is by far the country’s largest international donor, sending nearly $16 billion in security-related funds and nearly $8 billion in economic assistance over the last decade.  (An overview of U.S. assistance is provided in this new Congressional Research Service report.)  Prominent among this effort is the 2009 Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act (better known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill) that tripled civilian assistance to $7.5 billion over five years, as well as the generous relief extended in 2005 after the mammoth earthquake that killed some 80,000 people and in 2010 following devastating monsoon floods that resulted in over 2,000 deaths.

According to the Pew survey, however, this largesse is not having much of an effect on Pakistani hearts and minds.  Pluralities believe that U.S. military aid (40 percent) and economic assistance (38 percent) are having a largely negative impact on the country.

The ICG report picks up this last theme.  It commends the Obama administration’s desire to broaden engagement with civilian institutions and civil society groups, but argues that the continued emphasis on security assistance, along with a reluctance to call out the military establishment’s interference in the political and judicial processes, has had the effect of entrenching military dominance as well as reinforcing public perceptions that Washington is only interested in a bilateral relationship focused on counter-terrorism goals.

As U.S.-Pakistan relations spiral downward, Congressional criticism is growing over the level of assistance.  Six weeks ago, the administration’s new request for $2.4 billion ran into a scathing bipartisan reception.  A senior Democratic member of the House of Representatives termed Pakistan a “black hole” in which U.S. resources are poured with no positive result:

Our tax dollars go in, our diplomats go in – sometimes our aid professionals go in – sometimes our hopes go in, our prayers go in.  Nothing good ever comes out.

His Republican colleague concurred, noting that “We should cut Pakistan off of every cent because it has been used for evil purposes,” including funding Taliban attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  Meanwhile, a Senate panel voted to slash the president’s request by more than half, with a leading Democrat proclaiming that “we are not going to invest in a country that won’t help us in a reasonable way to deal with threats to our forces in Afghanistan.’

The ICG report urges Congress not to allow frustrations with the Pakistani military to affect the high level of economic assistance.  But it also criticizes the administration’s focus on using civilian aid to build large, complex infrastructure projects as a way of winning over Pakistani public opinion.  This approach, the report argues, does not directly address critical development priorities and is dependent for success upon corrupt, opaque and dysfunctional government institutions.  It suggests that a better approach would be to re-orient funding toward strengthening the capacity of these institutions (including civilian law enforcement) to deliver higher-quality services to the public.

As an earlier post argued, U.S. officials need to come to terms with the new complexity of domestic politics engendered by Pakistan’s democratization process, including public opinion that, as the Pew survey substantiates, is incensed with perceived U.S. affronts to the country’s sovereignty and honor.  This is a daunting task, to be sure, filled with numerous pitfalls that would sharply tax any set of Washington policymakers.  But as the ICG report makes clear, there is much room for improvement in the Obama administration’s current approach to bringing around the Pakistani public.

Cross-posted on Chanakya’s NotebookI invite you to follow me on Twitter.


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