11/13/2007 12:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's at Stake in Pakistan

The news coming out of Pakistan reminds us of what's at stake in our relationship with that nation -- which possesses nuclear weapons and serves as a base camp for al Qaeda -- and how our Iraq-centric policies are undermining our national security interests in the region. As the administration struggles to respond to General Pervez Musharraf's imposition of martial law, it's important for us to step back and reassess our national security priorities in the region.

The leading threat to our own national security from this region is al Qaeda. We took our eye off the ball when we invaded Iraq, instead of sustaining a robust military initiative and effective reconstruction program in Afghanistan. While the Administration continues to focus on Iraq, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan remains one of the most troubled regions in the world, home to both widespread poverty and al Qaeda operatives. Musharraf has been an unreliable ally in our efforts to prevent the border region from becoming an al Qaeda safe haven. Musharraf has also been a roadblock to democracy, and while he claims emergency rule is needed to combat extremism and instability, it is the lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists he's thrown in jail.

Indeed, recent events in Pakistan highlight the administration's failure to carry through on its stated commitment to promoting democratic reforms and basic human rights. In March 2000, just prior to President Clinton's visit in Pakistan with General Musharraf, I urged him to press Musharraf to act on his stated intentions to return Pakistan to civilian rule, democratic governance and respect for human rights. I made it clear that the U.S. could never enjoy a stable partnership with Pakistan until those critical issues were addressed. When I visited Musharraf in Pakistan two years ago, I again made it clear that he had to take off his uniform -- not just symbolically -- and move towards democracy.

But that hasn't happened and by continuing to bet on Musharraf to shore up stability in the short term, this Administration has further eroded our credibility and commitment to freedom in the long run. Instead of a policy based on one man, we need to work on building Pakistan's infrastructure and supporting democracy. Ultimately, this emphasis is good not only for the people of Pakistan but for our own national security as well. If we are truly to protect our own national interests, we must commit ourselves to promoting and supporting the rule of law and institutions that seek to eliminate corruption, poor governance, endemic poverty, and the historic marginalization that, along with the lack of basic freedoms and political rights, has allowed and will continue to allow terrorist threats to fester and grow in Pakistan and elsewhere.

With these priorities in mind, we should refocus U.S. assistance to Pakistan so it is more aligned with the needs of the Pakistani people and less with a military leader who has undermined democracy. Counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda in and along the Afghan border are an important element of our relationship, but that alone will not make for a more secure, stable Pakistan. Only a comprehensive foreign policy -- one that moves beyond the administration's myopic, country-by-country approach -- will make Pakistan, and in turn the U.S., more secure. If we fail to take that approach, we will have failed to learn the painful lessons of history and will be bound to repeat them -- this time in a region that is home to the greatest threat to our national security, al Qaeda.