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Michael Kugelman

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Pakistan's Biggest Threats May Not Be What You Think They Are

Posted: 08/10/11 02:03 PM ET

The most troubling news to emerge from Pakistan in recent days has little to do with militancy or other headline-grabbing scourges that afflict the country. Rather, it relates to a new Oxfam report's finding that more than a third of the country's population -- about 60 million people -- is undernourished.

Pakistan may well be convulsed by extremist violence; according to Pakistani estimates, it has killed or injured 30,000 in recent years. Yet contrary to what U.S. media coverage may suggest, this is not the greatest threat to the Pakistani people.

Numerous candidates contend for this dubious honor. One, underscored by Oxfam, is hunger. Even before last year's devastating floods, which destroyed more than 2 million hectares of arable land, the World Food Program estimated that 77 million Pakistanis were going hungry. Another is water insecurity, one of Pakistan's biggest killers. With a third of Pakistanis lacking access to clean water, no wonder waterborne illness claims the lives of 1.2 million Pakistanis per year -- and 630 children every day. Lack of education also tops the list. More than 40 million of Pakistan's 70 million school-age children (those between the ages of 5 to 19) are not in school. And then there is Pakistan's energy crisis. Due to power shortfalls, some Pakistanis suffer outages for as long as 20 hours per day -- crippling industry and bringing misery to millions of households. All of this is compounded by state corruption, which constrains access to these precious resources and services.

Such far-ranging privation crystallizes a tension point in U.S-Pakistan relations. While Pakistani hostility toward the United States is undoubtedly sparked by drone strikes and a perceived U.S. tilt toward India (to name just a few triggers), it is also fueled by a belief that Washington does not care about the majority of the population's basic needs. While millions of Pakistanis are sick, hungry, or preoccupied with securing electricity or schooling, according to this narrative, Washington stubbornly fixates on militancy and nuclear security -- issues that affect relatively few Pakistanis directly.

This narrative, like many about America, is misleading. Yes, the United States accords prime importance to combating extremism, promoting stability, and fulfilling other security goals in Pakistan -- understandable objectives given Washington's interests. However, America does not ignore the economic needs of Pakistan's masses. The Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, signed into law in 2009, authorizes $1.5 billion in annual civilian assistance. Yet even before passage of this legislation, America was Pakistan's largest bilateral aid donor. According to Center for Global Development figures, U.S. grant assistance between 2004 and 2009 was double that of Saudi Arabia, the second-largest funder.

The problem is that due to U.S. bureaucratic delays, much of this aid has not been disbursed. Additionally, due to poor governance in Pakistan, what has been disbursed often does not reach its intended recipients. And given the state of the U.S. economy and growing American disenchantment with Pakistan, cuts to future aid are all but certain.

Many Pakistanis welcome such cuts, and argue that their country can turn to others instead -- a questionable assertion. Lately, Pakistan's relations with two of its other major funders -- China and Saudi Arabia -- have been strained. China has alleged that militants who launched attacks in Xinjiang earlier this month trained in Pakistan's tribal belt, and according to media reports now wants to deploy its military forces there. Saudi Arabia -- like China, a close ally -- is troubled by Islamabad's recent efforts to improve ties with Tehran, a regime the House of Saud views with unease. While Islamabad's ties to these two allies are by no means imperiled, it is naïve to assume that their largesse -- which is exceedingly modest relative to Washington's -- will increase in order to compensate for a U.S. aid cut-off.

This all gives the lie to the populist refrain, heard often among Pakistanis, that Washington needs Islamabad more than Islamabad needs Washington. In reality, both nations badly need each other. Unfortunately, owing to their divergent interests, neither government can meet many of the other's needs.

And what of the needs of the Pakistani people -- those of education and electricity, and wheat and water? These are hard to satisfy as well, though for reasons that go beyond the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Pakistan will neither attain lasting food, energy, and water security, nor educate its masses, until its political leadership removes the indigenous obstacles that have long constrained the country's development. These range from corrupt irrigation water allocation systems and feeble tax collection to gender disparities and inequitable land ownership.

Ultimately, Pakistan's biggest threats cannot be eliminated by the United States or any other outsider. They can only be eliminated by the Pakistani establishment, which has long sanctioned the conditions that enable these threats to persevere.