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How Can the Presidential Campaign Work for U.S. in Pakistan?

The crises of 2011 are ripping apart a working relationship with Pakistan. Controversy over CIA agent Raymond Davis, the raid on the bin Laden compound, accusations of ISI support for the Taliban, civilian casualties caused by drone attacks, and now NATO airstrikes on Pakistani soldiers have roiled emotions. One must view these events as a whole, not individually. They are tying the hands of Pakistan's military and civilian leaders in cooperating with the U.S. to fight our common enemies. Here, political attitudes and opinions on Capitol Hill and among voters have hardened, complicating our ability to forge policies that enable effective engagement with Pakistan.

The interests of both countries mandate that Pakistan's military and elected government unite in fighting violent extremism. One needed step is strong Pakistani communication campaign to marginalize and de-legitimize the extremists. That could lay the political foundation for taking the military battle to militants. They've at time proven they can do that. But the controversies over U.S. actions have instead led Islamabad to adopt policies that obstruct fighting extremists. Success requires that we work together to overcome the widely shared perception that the U.S. deliberately seeks to abuse Pakistani sovereignty and that cooperation with us makes the military or civilians American pawns.

Another key is our Presidential election campaign discourse. It affects attitudes and opinions among Pakistani elite policy makers. In a 24/7 global media environment, Pakistanis closely follow what's said here. Measured language is vital. Pakistani politics breeds conspiracy theories. Like or dislike Pakistan, we need to engage with it, and do so effectively. Americans dismiss our campaign rhetoric. Pakistanis don't. Words matter. Words said on the campaign trail can later haunt whoever occupies the Oval Office.

Most Republican presidential hopefuls are raising legitimate questions about our Pakistan policy. Though their views differ slightly, Senator Rick Santorum and Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann have challenged our aid program. Newt Gingrich has expressed frustration with Pakistanis who fail to recognize that the U.S. will track down and eliminate terrorists who threaten American lives. Mitt Romney would be wise to clarify his views on Pakistan. His debate suggestion that the way we dealt with Indonesia in the 1960's might offer an approach for Pakistan today could be construed as supporting a military coup. That is what the U.S. did then and it's the last thing Pakistanis want. Romney certainly did not intend that. But Pakistan's media and public pick up on virtually every utterance made here by political figures, and Pakistanis have long memories. Unless clarified, his words could haunt him if he becomes President. He ought to make clear that he strongly supports the elected government.

The President is walking a fine line. Pakistanis still await an apology for the NATO airstrikes. Politically the Obama is in a tight spot. A report on what happened is due December 23. Attacked by Republicans for unwarranted apologies for past U.S. policy, domestic politics constrains him until the more facts are established. It's a conundrum that the White House needs to address more squarely. Overall, the Pakistanis complain that the U.S. Administration sends conflicting messages about our intentions in the region.

What can the presidential aspirants do? They can go beyond the current rhetoric to register points that resonate with Pakistanis and serve our mutual interests. Turning relations with Pakistan into partisan fodder is not useful. It would send a powerful message for the Pakistanis to hear from both parties the following:

· The U.S. supports the primacy of elected civilian government and democratic institutions even while it works with Pakistan's military leaders to address our interests, especially in Afghanistan.
· While we may have to condition our military aid to Pakistan's cooperation within its borders in fighting Afghan insurgents, we should stand strongly behind pro-democracy forces. That embraces targeted civilian aid that is carefully monitored to ensure proper use and branding so that we receive credit for our contributions.
· The U.S. is ready to expand trade by foregoing the protectionism so hurtful to Pakistan's struggling economy. This assistance as well as creation of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones will win us more friends than our current aid programs. This will show that in the national interest we are prepared to make difficult domestic political decisions.
· We recognize that Pakistan has legitimate security interests in Afghanistan and that with 35 million Pashtuns, no Pakistan government can support action that fails to address their concerns. But we won't tolerate its using the Pashtun card to meddle, and
won't allow it to obstruct a political settlement that would end the insurgency.
· Whatever suspicion Pakistan may harbor, as journalist Zahid Hussain has noted, only the U.S. offers Pakistanis hope for the future. No other nation does that.

These messages to Pakistan will put the political discourse between Pakistan and the U.S. on a sounder footing. It will vest Pakistani policy makers and military with more flexibility to fight violent extremism and help revitalize ties with the U.S. What the candidates for President say, and how they say it, can make a huge difference in advancing or blocking what is mutually beneficial. Meanwhile, it will require Pakistani leaders who are willing to stand up against the tide of opinion and take their own political risks.

James P. Farwell is the author of "The Pakistan Cauldron: Conspiracy, Assassination & Instability" and senior strategic studies he is a Senior Research Scholar in Strategic Studies at the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies (Canada Centre), Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. Marvin G. Weinbaum is a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute and former intelligence analyst in the U.S. Department of State.