Moving Beyond ‘Strategic Rent’ In Pakistan

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

us-pak-flags.jpgYesterday, the New York Times reported on the growing convergence of Punjabi and tribal area-based militant groups in Pakistan. The relationship between these two geographically distinct militant groups is more than ideological — tribal militants and al Qaeda have money, training sites and sanctuaries, and suicide bombs, while Punjabi militants have logistical networks in major cities like Lahore to survey possible targets and safe-house bombers. As Bruce Reidel, a former CIA analyst and the head of President Obama’s Pakistan and Afghanistan policy review, put it, “You are seeing more of a coalescence of these militant groups… Connections that have always existed are becoming tighter and more public than they have in the past.”

As CAP Senior Fellow Brian Katulis and I noted at the end of March, Pakistani militants were more likely to penetrate deeper into a weak Pakistan than they were to conduct their own “surge” against additional American forces in Afghanistan. Using existing links, militants (some still sponsored by elements of the Pakistani security establishment) have mounted increasing attacks deep in Pakistan’s “settled” areas -– especially Punjab -– even before President Obama announced his new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.

This more public alliance between militant groups has been driven not by a build-up of U.S. troops in Afghanistan or increased U.S. drone strikes in the tribal region but by former President Pervez Musharraf’s military assault on the vigilante Red Mosque compound in Islamabad in July 2007. It’s also a consequence of the myriad dysfunctions of the Pakistani state –- which include double games with militant groups, politicians concerned more with intrigue than national interests, and the overall inability to govern the country.

Most people in the upper echelons of the Pakistani state seem to prefer to look the other way as militants gobble up sections of the country outside the tribal areas -– President Asif Ali Zardari recently assented to imposing Islamic law in the Swat region, effectively turning that area over to militants. As a Punjab landlord told the Times, “The government is useless… They live happy, secure lives in Lahore. Their children study abroad. They only come here to contest elections.”

Neither the Pakistani political elite –- which seems content to give more territory to militants so the elite can continue its intramural fight over the scraps of state power –- nor the Pakistani military –- which continues to see militant groups as its strategic ace-in-the-hole even as these groups increasingly threaten the state itself -– seem willing or able to muster the political will to improve governance in the country. Militants inevitably fill this vacuum.

While President Obama and Congress have signaled their intent to shift U.S. aid to Pakistan from a military to a civilian and development orientation, there has been no visible shift in the orientation of Pakistani elites. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s comments on the conditionality of U.S. military aid indicate that Pakistani elites still view their relationship with the United States as one based on strategic rents –- and unaccountable strategic rents at that.

To be fair to the Pakistani government, we’ve not exactly been a reliable paymaster over the years. But the entire point, it seems to me, of the United States’ new Pakistan policy is to move beyond the strategic rent relationship and toward one of focused on long-term development and governance issues. In the near-term, as Brian and I argued previously, the United States should focus its counter-terrorism cooperation on civilian security and justice forces (the police and other national law enforcement agencies) rather than the military.

Regardless of what happens with the U.S. aid package, however, we still face a principal-agent problem. We (the principal) are counting on the Pakistani government (the agent) to accomplish something in our interests, while the Pakistani government has its own conception of its interests and strategic objectives. This problem leads to the Pakistani government using our military aid to further its own strategic objectives. Hopefully, the refocus on civilian development and governance assistance will more directly address the problems that allow militancy to flourish in Pakistan. But unless the Pakistani government decides that militancy is a threat to the state itself and acts accordingly, our civilian aid won’t have the impact it could.