The war of words is officially on. The killing of Osama bin Laden has shone a harsh light on the fraught U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
In Washington, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are angrily questioning how it’s possible that Pakistan didn’t know about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden as he hid for years under their noses in Abbottabad, a military garrison town.
In Islamabad, Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani lashed out at the United States, calling it “disingenuous” to believe that Pakistan could have been “in cahoots” with al Qaeda. Whatever the case, the U.S. strategic calculus in South Asia is now in flux. What is Washington’s best opportunity to use this watershed moment to restore stability to Pakistan? Partner with China.
Unfortunately, the debate on Capitol Hill has quickly fallen into two polarized and short-sighted camps. In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings last week, both Democrats and Republicans used bin Laden’s death to justify an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking member on the committee, argued, “It’s exceedingly difficult to conclude that our vast expenditures in Afghanistan represent a rational (strategy).”
Other lawmakers have called for renewed pressure on Islamabad to take direct action against anti-U.S. militant bases in Pakistan, such as the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network.
Neither path is likely to work. Abandoning Afghanistan for a third time since 1989 is not going to set us there — indeed, each time the United States neglects the country, it gets worse. And strong-arm tactics won’t work either:
A gambit to withhold military or civilian assistance is also not going to force Islamabad to change its strategic calculus, which is rooted in decades of deep mistrust of the United States.
Furthermore, because of continued U.S. dependence on Pakistani supply routes into Afghanistan and Pakistani intelligence services’ ability to unleash terrorist devastation such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks, calling Pakistan’s bluff could be disastrous.
It’s time to return to the fundamentals when it comes to U.S. interests in Pakistan. Ultimately, Washington desires a prosperous, sustainable, and secure South Asian region that does not remain a base for al Qaeda and its affiliates, or a likely flashpoint for a nuclear exchange.
Understood this way, U.S. interests are broadly shared by China, Pakistan’s primary ally and a major investor in the country’s economic success. That’s a point President Barack Obama should drive home to Chinese officials this week, as Washington hosts the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Indeed, the late Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke made a similar case to the Chinese in Beijing.
To date, China’s relationship with Pakistan — with which it has shared military technology and invested in major infrastructure projects — has only enabled that South Asian nation’s unstable status quo. When it comes to military hardware, China has shared ballistic missiles such as the short-range DF-11, is jointly producing the JF-17 advanced fighter with Pakistan, and has provided its ally with anti-ship cruise missiles, among other weapons.
China also built the massive multimodal port in the southern city of Gwadar, along with a highway and rail link connecting it to China. Indeed, the relationship is so strong that, at the request of Beijing, the Pakistani military stormed Islamabad’s Red Mosque in 2007 to liberate 10 Chinese nationals, a move that crystallized the Pakistani Taliban as an anti-government movement.
Nevertheless, there are two important points of convergence between Beijing’s long-term interests and Washington’s. First, China is concerned with preventing Islamist terrorism from disrupting its Central Asian energy routes and its restive western region, Xinjiang, which borders Pakistan.
China is actively securing natural gas and oil reserves as far as Turkmenistan on the Caspian, rebuilding the old Soviet-era pipelines to feed its western frontier and crossing territory that hosts a majority Muslim population.
Secondly, China has a stake in promoting sustainable, pan-Asian prosperity in the medium-to-long term to fuel its torrid economic growth. China — and neighboring India — are undertaking a monumental frenzy of urbanization. A study prepared by McKinsey estimates that approximately 375 million Chinese and 250 million Indians will move from villages to cities over the next 20 years.
This growth will require a substantial productivity increase across all economic sectors — but along the China-India periphery, the question of whether this massive urbanization will be sustainable hinges on higher levels of food production.
This is where Chinese, U.S., and Pakistani interests powerfully intersect. China needs a marked increase in Pakistani agricultural productivity, while America needs Pakistan to build a prosperous economy and a moderate political order that sees its neighbors to the northwest and east as economic opportunities — rather than threats. Land reform is key to creating a win-win situation for all three countries.
Farm productivity in Pakistan is stuck between 17 and 50 percent of its potential, according to research from the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. Improved agriculture requires better-educated farmers who own their own land and are incentivized to make use of sustainable methods that also boost their production. Even Cuba figured this one out.
Political moderation requires the rise of a phenomenon that does not yet exist in Pakistan — a competent and legitimate political party with a reform mandate. Pakistan’s patronage pyramids — run by powerful family dynasties — are today inseparable from the civilian political parties they control. They are equally responsible for the status quo: economic failure and the government’s sheltering of Islamist militant groups, despite billions of dollars in U.S. foreign assistance.
At the root of that corruption is Pakistan’s system of semi-feudal land ownership, which, ironically, the Chinese Communist Party is more than happy to prop up.
There is little time to waste: Commodity prices are nearing record highs, the fighting drags on in Afghanistan, and the people of Pakistan are hurting. In 2009, the year before the devastating monsoon floods that displaced some 20 million people, the United Nations judged that half of the Pakistani population was food insecure.
Two-thirds of Pakistanis are living in rural areas and relying directly or indirectly on agriculture, with at least 24 percent of Pakistanis living on less than $2 a day.
A green revolution in the Pakistani agricultural belt could forge an independent farming class in the countryside that could remake Pakistan both politically and economically. With a simultaneous effort to formalize property rights in urban areas, a moderate and stable middle-class would have the best chance to peacefully reassert the civilian government’s full authority.
In short, prosperity and self-reliance will lay the foundation for a government that is willing to embrace the Asian economic growth narrative and free itself of the need to bind the nation together using a narrative of perpetual external threats.
But without deep reforms in Pakistan, China will not get what it needs out of its dysfunctional ally — and neither Beijing nor Washington will be able to convince Islamabad to end its dangerous dalliance with South and Central Asian terrorist groups.
Together, however, these two superpowers can succeed where, individually, each would fail.