With Friends Like These…

There are few foreign policy investments that pay lower dividends than those in Pakistan, that chronically dysfunctional country interminably toddling on the brink of catastrophe.  Yet the US keeps pouring money into the sinkhole.  Why?

The good and great from the US regularly call on Pakistan’s leadership, proclaiming solidarity despite growing evidence to the contrary. Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Islamabad this week whispering sweet-nothings while doling out plenty of something, was the latest American suitor.  “We’re trying to escape the bonds of gravity, leave behind an era of mistrust and launch a new period of cooperation.” she said after announcing $500 million in US aid for Pakistan, which is part of a larger $7.5 billion assistance package.

What sort of cooperation does Clinton have in mind?

Pakistan hopes it will have a distinctly green sheen.  A recent article in the New York Times details Pakistan’s defunct system of tax collection, which exempts large sectors of the economy, including agriculture, a critical segment in a quasi-feudal country.  Also excluded are profits from stocks and real estate investments.   As a result, Pakistan’s rate of revenue from taxation as a percentage of GDP ranks among the lowest in the world.  The situation is growing direr.  Last year, Pakistan’s income tax receipts were the lowest ever, rendering the country even more reliant on foreign aid from the willfully credulous.  “The Americans should say, ‘Enough. Sort this out yourselves,’” a candid Pakistani economist told the Times.   “But you are cowards. You are afraid to take the chance.”

What explains American “cowardice?”

American reluctance to press Pakistan is not from fear of losing a reliable partner against extremism.  For three decades, the country has nurtured radical Islamic militants as a tool of its foreign policy, principally as a cudgel against India.  That support is ongoing.   Taliban “assets” are given safe haven and operational guidance by Pakistan’s intelligence service, seriously undermining efforts by the US and its allies to stabilize Afghanistan.  The same might go for al-Qaeda’s leadership. In a candid moment this week, Clinton said, “Somebody in this Pakistani government does know where Osama bin Laden is hiding [in Pakistan].”

Nor can the US be concerned about jeopardizing goodwill if it reduces its bilateral assistance.   It is already negligible: a Pew Research Center survey taken last year found that 64 percent of the Pakistani public regards the US as an enemy, while only nine percent describe it as a partner.   There are, of course, good reasons for the animosity.  During the Cold War, America mindlessly supported numerous despotic Pakistani regimes, a shortsighted policy that continued through Pervez Musharraf’s misbegotten tenure.  Additionally, the US’ abandonment of Pakistan after the American-supported Mujahideen in Afghanistan defeated Soviet forces in the late-1980s, leaving Islamabad to grapple with the fallout, caused great resentment, as does continued American drone attacks which result in civilian casualties.  And then there is anger about US foreign policy more generally.

But there is more to the story.   As is often the case, client states tend to resentment their patrons, an anger borne from frustration with being feckless and dependent.  Such self-hate distorts perceptions. Thus, the US, Pakistan’s great benefactor, is not just seen as a meddling superpower, which it is, but rather irredeemably malevolent, the source of bizarre and ubiquitous conspiracy theories—an enemy, even the enemy.

What, then, explains America’s fidelity to Pakistan?

The answer principally resides in the perception that an unreliable Pakistani partner is far better than a failed nuclear-armed state.  Doubtlessly, Pakistan understands this, begging the question whether its nuclear arsenal better serves as a deterrent to US financial disengagement than as a military deterrent to its historical foe, India.  Regardless, American policy is counterproductive, as the US’ enabling financial assistance effectively feeds Pakistan’s inequality, which feeds the discontent that feeds extremism—yet another example of how America finances both sides of the “War on Terror.”

Pakistan may well be on the road to collapse, a prospect made dangerously real by the strength of its homegrown extremist insurgency.  But the impetus to alter the course by addressing its structural inequalities, among its other problems, is undermined by US assistance, which rewards bad behavior.  As one commentator put it, “United States policy does not change because Pakistan, sadly, does not change.”  It might also be said that Pakistan does not change because American policy towards it requires none.  Either way, the actual dividends from the bilateral relationship for both countries are drying up.

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