A Populace-Centric Policy for Pakistan

by Joshua Foust on 3/3/2009

In the subscription-only portion of World Politics Review (this is actually worth paying for, and I’m not just saying that because they bought an ad) Robert Jones explains what a “populace-centric” foreign policy would mean. Smartly, he explains what it is not:

The populace-centric approach proposed here is not to be confused with “population-centric” tactics at the heart of the Surge in Iraq. Those tactics are based on the premise that once one controls the populace, all else will follow. Such tactics can indeed produce successful results in a counterinsurgency effort. However, a post-WWII U.S. foreign policy that has often given primacy to the control of foreign populations has contributed significantly to creating the conditions of conflict that challenge the United States today.

A populace-centric foreign policy should be premised not on controlling foreign populations, but on understanding them and giving their will and concerns primacy. This concept recognizes that governments come and go, as do threats. Populations, however, though also dynamic, are enduring. Therefore, as populaces become more empowered, the policies, institutions, and practices of foreign engagement must evolve…

In the Cold War, the U.S. often became so entwined with, or opposed to, specific governments, that when those bodies lost their support, the United States could not seem to adjust to the new circumstances, often with tragic results. U.S. support for the Diem government in Vietnam or Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran are examples. This phenomenon continues today, as in the United States’ continued unwavering support of the Saudi monarchy, and its equally strong opposition to the current government of Iran. Considering that the populace of Iran is arguably the most pro-American populace in the Middle East and, conversely, that three-quarters of the 9/11 attackers and nearly half of the foreign fighters in Iraq come from Saudi Arabia, these policies are difficult to rationalize.

This is wonderful thinking, especially coming from a man with Jones’ background and reputation. People should listen to him. In fact, this essay sounds remarkably like the criticisms and policies I’ve been making and discussing here for many years. A year ago, I noted that U.S. support for Pervez Musharraf was showing the traditional blind American support to supposedly-friendly dictators to be hollow and counterproductive:

While it is unlikely any civilian coalition, especially one run by the same two dynasties that screwed up Pakistan in the first place, will be able to stand up to the ISI or even the Army should it assert itself, a democratically elected government will at least be somewhat responsive to its people.

And the people of Pakistan have decisively rejected extremism—far more strongly than Musharraf’s policies ever did. Supporting Pervez Musharraf was the wrong decision all along, and the blind faith in “devil you know” realism from otherwise brilliant men like Allison is why we’re left in the situation we now have. Contrary to Allison’s ending quip: democracy in Pakistan is neither “instant” (it’s was quite vigorous before Musharraf canceled it), nor is it the policy of wishful thinking. A democratic, civilian government in Islamabad won’t be nearly the false puppet Musharraf was; but both Pakistan and the U.S. will be far better off as a result.

That has I think born itself out—the Zardari government does not do as much against the Pakistani Taliban as the U.S. would like, but it remains a better choice than Musharraf. Much of my writing on Pakistan was describing a populace-centric approach without actually using the term. But it makes intuitive sense, at least to me. I see it as arguing the U.S. must argue her case, instead of assuming the goodness of her intentions will be obvious to the bystanders; that we must make deals with the people we affect and not just the governments we ask for permission; and so on. Back in October, in a paper I still do not have permission to post publicly, I discussed this very idea, which I will excerpt a bit below.

Especially given the recent rise of tribal militias, or lashkars, to combat militants, undertaking a policy that turns those fighting the Taliban against American interests is a baffling decision. But the social fabric of the FATA is not unitary. There is an enormous number of Afghan refugees living in the area—tens of thousands of people, who are now under danger of deportation. This represents not only a massive population transfer (which comes with an accompanying sea-change in general sentiment that will be difficult to predict), it might also represent further danger: thousands of jobless, homeless repatriated people will be searching for income any way they can find it—which is an enormous opportunity for militant recruitment and drug gangs along the borderlands.

If direct American action against Pakistani militants is wrong, should the Pakistani government be pressured and funded to do it instead? Recent history would indicate this is also a bad idea. Pervez Musharraf had a long history of using tribal militants to prosecute his many proxy wars against India in the disputed Kashmir territories. While Musharraf was able to round up some al-Qaeda agents for U.S. arrest, he was wholly unsuccessful in countering militias in the tribal areas. This is partly the U.S.’s fault—early pressure on Musharraf to “do something” resulted in an ahistoric and disproportionate push by the Pakistani Army into the FATA—violating the traditional violence-accommodation cycle that normally governs FATA relations. Violating this cycle—which included mistimed U.S. “decapitation strikes” against militant leaders even while they were negotiating cease-fires—has unquestionably made the situation in the FATA worse. The Pakistani government has seen a great deal more success in supporting local institutions to resist the militants, and limiting its military activity to large strongholds and identifiable militant holdouts (though this success has been rather stilting). Despite that, according to Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the Chief Minister of NWFP, “it is negotiations and dialogue that have been the dominant tool of conflict resolution [in the tribal areas], not force.” …

This would entail a bottom-up construction campaign similar to that in Afghanistan: building schools, mosques, clinics and hospitals, setting up a police force, and so on. It is simply enormous, but doable, especially if completed in stages. Keeping goals modest is important: one of the main reasons for Afghan disillusionment in U.S. capabilities is that the U.S. promised these enormous, grandiose plans—including President Bush promising “a new Marshall Plan”—and almost none of it ever materialized. Simplifying plans to, say, building a co-ed school in one cluster of villages in each of the FATA’s districts, would make for a good start; following this up with a systematic improvement of health services and access to an institutionalized legal system would put into place the basics of a functioning state, even if it wouldn’t immediately catapult the FATA into second-world status.

The U.S. can help this along by funding the effort. Rather than the current plan of blanketing the region with $750 million, that money should go instead toward helping the Pakistani government pay for citizen participation in both administration and construction supervision (Pakistan’s population as a whole is surprisingly well-educated, and capable of this sort of work). Construction should be performed by locals working for competitive wages—again, provided by the U.S. if necessary—that would then go toward kick-starting a legitimate, and taxable, local economy.

In this way, the U.S. can spearhead a sort of ink blot strategy of development—creating pockets of development, with roads connecting them to mainstream Pakistani urban areas—that would then get at the foundations of militancy in the region. Using Peshawar and Quetta as the primary staging areas, a network of improved roads could provide easy market access for local merchants, which would further prop up the economy and improve informal communications with the rest of Pakistan.

In the short term, this will have serious consequences. It is to be expected that militants will bomb or otherwise attack workers setting up construction cooperatives, just as it is to be expected that if they don’t destroy the roads, the militants will use those roads to project their own power. Such a problem is not insurmountable, though—even in the midst of all the violence in the FATA, the government has never lost control of the roads. The government can maintain control of the roads, even while it pushes at a small scale into underserved communities, undermining one of the primary reasons for militancy.

One of the ways in which this clashes with what Jones wrote is that it seems designed to coerce and control (in the sense of being designed to reduce, marginalize, or eliminate Talibanism). I don’t think it “really” does, even if that is the language I was using at the time. At its heart, this kind of a strategy rests on creating the conditions under which people will willingly choose not to adopt extremism. Much as some people mock the idea, focusing on education and development is the only way to prevent future generations from turning into new Mad Mullahs causing havoc all over Waziristan. If the development gap is closed, it is an easier case to ask the rest of Pakistan to consider the FATA (for example) as equally Pakistani as Punjab.

For now, though, it is difficult to avoid the need to fight a bloody war to root out what’s there. That’s fine, and if the Pakistani government chooses to do that, more power to them. For the U.S.’s part, we have no business launching missiles into Pakistani territory—such activity reinforces the worst stereotypes and perceptions about us, and prevents people from seeing the more constructive ones.

This is very rambling right now because I am sleep deprived and excited, but there is a tremendous amount of merit to this idea. I highly suggest getting a trial subscription from WPR to go read Jones’ essay.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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