Was President Barack Obama's pledge Thursday to triple economic aid to
Pakistan a case of rewarding failure in what many experts have called
"the most dangerous place on earth"? It could come across that way,
as Washington and the general public continue to stew over bonuses to
The Bush and Obama teams have both expressed irritation at Islamabad's
failure to rein in jihadists, despite the $10 billion in largely
military aid from Washington after 9/11 compelled the two capitals
into yet another awkward embrace.
Let's keep a few things in perspective, though. That sum of military
aid is a mere half of what just one former Halliburton subsidiary,
KBR, has received to piece a much smaller nation of Iraq back
The $10 billion provided to Pakistan was meant in part to control
jihadist movements over a porous Pak-Afghan border. But that border
is infinitely more difficult to police than a certain southern border
of the world's mightiest nation, which we have yet to control. You
would have to imagine that many Pakistani military officials would
prefer to swap places with KBR executives.
There is, though, a thorny matter involving Pakistan's Inter-Services
Intelligence apparent success in undercutting Islamabad -- by secretly
assisting some jihadist groups that the country has banned. (Google
"Pakistan" and "double game" and marvel at the results.)
Daniel Markey of the Council for Foreign Relations has argued
persuasively that this seeming treachery is a result of a legitimate
Pakistani suspicion of a historic Washington tendency -- to turn from
friend to quasi-foe whenever Pakistan stops serving an immediately
useful purpose. The ISI and some leaders would thus prefer secretly
to keep a few "children of the American-Afghan mujahideen" around to
torment neighbors who threaten its security.
It's in this sense that Obama's move to offer Pakistan $1.5 billion in
economic aid over the next five years represents a major step forward
in public diplomacy, soft power and inner resolve.
Resentments won't heal immediately. My most recent visits to Pakistan
were peppered with angry declarations from citizens about how America
continues to see how Pakistan has been drained by the influx of
millions of refugees from Afghanistan after the U.S.-funded war
against the Soviets there. They rage about a sense of powerlessness.
"If America disappeared tomorrow, no one here would complain," one
pro-Western businessman told me last September. Another one observed
that Pakistanis are grateful for China's many investment projects in
Pakistan, which benefit ordinary citizens in a way that American
military aid does not.
My last trip to Pakistan was punctuated by almost ending up at the
Islamabad Marriott at the moment it was bombed by Talibanic forces.
The incident accented the Pakistani gripe that, for all the hectoring
from Washingtonians who wring their hands behind gated communities,
ordinary Pakistanis pay an unappreciated price, day to day, in the war
on terror. Some 6,000 civilians and 2,000 security forces are
reported to have been killed during this effort.
Predictably, many Pakistanis blamed India for instigating that
bombing, in much the same way that India would finger Pakistan
following the Mumbai bombings a few months later. The scorned
Pakistani nation watches America lovingly embrace an Indian rival that
once happily bedded down with the Soviet Union - all while Pakistan
believed that it stood firm as an American Cold War ally. This jilted
lover will not come around easily, but she should be wooed with
So we may have new beginning. Of course, given the corruption in that
atrophied nation, Washington would be prudent to provide aid and
services directly to Pakistan's marginalized areas, lest the money go
Still, Obama deserves considerable credit for his balance of carrot
and stick in that supremely chaotic part of the world. Following his
tough talk about Pakistan in his presidential campaign, his latest
moves show less of a sudden willingness to reward failure, and more of
a determination to pull Pakistan back up on its own two feet.
It could be a historic act of enlightened self-interest for Americans.