The election of former cricket star Imran Khan as Pakistan’s next prime minister comes at a pivotal moment. Khan must decide whether he will try to break the Pakistani military’s stranglehold over policymaking and institute much needed reforms, or preserve the status quo and become the generals’ charismatic puppet. Unfortunately, the current U.S. policy of supporting the country’s military at the expense of its civilian government risks nudging him in the wrong direction.
Pakistani democracy is often seen as a “charade.” The military enjoys a virtual monopoly over foreign and economic policy, and the country’s parliament is dismissed as a mere patronage scheme, which preserves family fortunes and perpetuates tribal dominance. But Western critics often fail to appreciate how their own governments have undermined the country’s democratic institutions and empowered its unelected military rulers.
U.S. policy in particular has cultivated the military’s outsized influence. Since the Cold War, Washington has regarded Pakistan as little more than a security bulwark, first against the Soviet Union and then against jihadists after 9/11. Tens of billions of dollars in U.S. aid have flowed into Pakistan in recent decades, the vast majority directed at strengthening the military and coaxing it to cooperate with U.S. counterterrorism efforts. A report from Harvard’s Belfer Center found “a systemic lack of supervision in the provision of aid to Pakistan… and the incentivization of U.S. taxpayer–funded corruption in the Pakistani military and security services.” It’s no wonder the Pakistan Army — flush with American aid dollars — is now the most powerful part of the government.
Far from serving U.S. interests, however, this strategy of strengthening Pakistan’s military has backfired spectacularly.
The military has shown little commitment to fighting terrorists. (Remember when Osama bin Laden was founded hiding a thousand yards from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point?) Instead, it exacerbates the conditions that contribute to terrorism in the first place. Pakistan’s military siphons away state resources and fails to alleviate the destitution and isolation in the tribal regions where the Taliban thrive. In the name of national security, the generals have plunged their military into a dangerous nuclear competition with India. The military fosters deep ties to the Taliban and the Haqqani terrorist network, which it hopes will act as pro-Pakistani proxies in Afghanistan after U.S. troops finally go home.
It’s true that that the civilian government is beset by patronage and corruption. But as a national celebrity untethered to the dynastic families who have dominated Pakistani politics, Khan has a rare opportunity to bring about meaningful change. He seems sensitive to the importance of legacy and capable of thinking about leadership in more holistic and historic dimensions. And as an already wealthy individual with a significant record of philanthropic giving, he might prove less susceptible to the transactional aspects of Pakistani politics.
He could focus on more productive competition with India. Rather than wasting money and energy on a nuclear arms race, Khan might take heed of how India is using rapid advancements in biometric technology to create transparency in the provision of government services (even if it raises privacy concerns), and to cut down on corruption. He just might have the vision to see how innovative initiatives are enabled by strong civilian leadership, and seek to best India in enfranchising and accounting for his people.
Choices made in Pakistan will also have critical implications for Washington’s increasingly important relationship with India.
India is a natural partner for the United States, which needs more friends in Asia if it wants to counter an increasingly assertive China. Yet the Pakistani military’s antagonistic posture has forced India to focus on its western border. Taming Pakistan’s military would likely lead to better Indo-Pakistani relations, defusing the dangerous nuclear standoff and allowing India to shift its focus to countering China. In the coming decades, the United States’ relationship with India will matter far more than its relationship with Pakistan, and our policy should reflect this reality.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration suspended security aid to Pakistan, but did so more out of grievance than strategy. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help,” President Donald Trump tweeted. This move appeared more intended to punish Pakistan’s military than to empower its civilian government. Unlikely to yield a shift in strategy, it smacks of mere deal making: yet another futile attempt to try to coerce Pakistan’s military to do Washington’s bidding.
If the Trump administration is serious about combating terrorism in Pakistan, it should take a step back and let Imran Khan attempt to bring prosperity and a sense of self-determination to his people.
These are some of the most durable antidotes to the desperation and indignation that fuel violent extremism. As a show of goodwill, the United States should put an end to drone strikes — which Khan has vociferously denounced, and which some insist create as many terrorists as they kill. It should continue to withhold taxpayer funded aid from the military regardless of its level of cooperation, and instead encourage the private sector to invest in Pakistan’s growing economy and partner with its civilian government. Finally, the United States should pin its hopes on this sporting politician, and remain clear-eyed about the limits and liabilities of military solutionism.
After all, in Pakistan as elsewhere in the region, we have seen how Washington’s reach exceeds its grasp.
Mark Hannah, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation (@EGFound), and teaches at New York University.