– Ali Gharib and Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON (IPS/GIN) – The United States and its allies must act urgently to prevent Pakistan from descending into a spiral of economic, security, and political crises, according to a new report released here by an influential think tank.
The 27-page report, “Needed: A Comprehensive U.S. Policy Towards Pakistan,” called for at least $4 billion to $5 billion in new aid for Islamabad of which $1 billion should be earmarked for the military and the police, to help ward off the growing threat posed to the central government by Islamic militants based in the frontier regions with Afghanistan and linked to Al-Qaeda.
“Simply put, time is running out for stabilizing Pakistan’s economy and security,” the task force warned. “We cannot stress the magnitude of the dangerous enough nor the need for greater action now,” it stressed, adding that failure to provide needed assistance could well result in “state failure.”
“If we fail, we face a truly frightening prospect: terrorist sanctuary, economic meltdown, and spiraling radicalism, all in a nation with 170 million inhabitants and a full arsenal of nuclear weapons,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said Feb. 25 at a Capitol Hill briefing, at which the report was released.
“The stakes could not be higher, and (this) report could not be more timely,” said Sen. Kerry (D-Mass).
Sen. Kerry, who served as the working group’s co-chairman along with former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, used the report to push for swift congressional passage of a bill that would authorize $7.5 billion in non-military aid for Pakistan over the next five years.
Co-sponsored with the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, the bill enjoys strong backing from President Barack Obama, as well as Vice President Joseph Biden, who introduced a similar bill in the Senate last year.
The new report comes amid a comprehensive review by the administration over future U.S. policy toward both Afghanistan and Pakistan-or what is increasingly referred to as “AfPak”-headed by former senior CIA South Asia analyst Bruce Riedel.
The recommendations produced by that review, which is supposed to be completed within 60 days, are to be implemented by former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who was appointed by Mr. Obama to serve as a special representative for “AfPak” just three days after the new president took office.
Mr. Holbrooke traveled to the region one week later, highlighting how serious the administration considers the situation in Southwest Asia to be.
Indeed, the administration was hosting a meeting of top Pakistani and Afghan officials, including Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, in order to gain their input for the review.
The meeting is also aimed at encouraging the two governments to work much more closely together, and with Washington, in combating the growing Taliban insurgency on both sides of their common border.
That meeting follows an announcement by President Obama that he will send 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan in the coming months to join the NATO-led force of some 65,000 already deployed there in hopes of beating back recent gains by the Taliban.
But Mr. Holbrooke himself has warned that “there is no way that the international effort in Afghanistan can succeed unless Pakistan can get its western tribal areas under control.”
Since Mr. Holbrooke made that statement, militants linked to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda appear to have consolidated their control of the Swat valley in the North-West Frontier Province in what most analysts here consider a major setback to Pakistan’s counter-insurgency struggle.
The new report about the situation in Pakistan, and the measures needed to remedy it, is likely to gain considerable attention here, if only because it was a similar Atlantic Council working group chaired by retired Gen. James Jones that warned one year ago that Washington and NATO were losing the war in Afghanistan.
Gen. Jones serves as President Obama’s national security adviser.
The new report, however, focuses less on the military situation in Pakistan than on the non-military challenges faced by the democratically elected civilian government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari.
It argues that Islamabad, which has been hit especially hard by the global financial crisis, needs considerably more assistance than what would be provided under by the Kerry-Lugar bill.
In addition to the $1.5 billion a year offered by the bill, Pakistan requires another $5 billion a year “to cover critical budget shortfalls,” according to the working group which included, among others, two former assistant secretaries of state for South Asian Affairs.
One of them is Karl Inderfurth, who served under former President Bill Clinton and is rumored to be nominated as the next U.S. ambassador to India.
Under a loan approved by the International Monetary Fund late last year, Islamabad could receive as much as $7.6 billion over three years.
The administration of former President George W. Bush provided more than $10 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan over its eight-year term, but almost all of it was devoted to military assistance, and most of that was used for the purchase of weapons systems and equipment better suited to war with India than to counter-insurgency.
In addition to the proposed non-military aid, the U.S. should provide another $1 billion “to better equip the Pakistan Army for counterinsurgency” and another $200 million to recruit, train and equip 15,000 more police and paramilitary forces.
A major aim should be “the elimination of Al-Qaeda bases and operations in Pakistan’s border region,” the report said.
“Despite its current economic hardships, the United States has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into Iraq and many billions into Afghanistan in the past,” according to the report. “However, it has been relatively miserly in its assistance for Pakistan where the stakes are far larger and more important to long-term American interests.”
The report also called on Washington to “reinforce Pakistan’s efforts to strengthen democracy” and democratic institutions, among other things by supporting efforts to update its census in ways that will ensure more equitable distribution of federal resources.
It also stressed that U.S. policy toward Pakistan must be considered in a much larger regional context and called for Mr. Holbrooke to consider convening a regional conference.
Such a conference would include India, Turkey, China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, and the European Union to discuss “how stability and peace can be achieved; how terror can be contained; and how states in the region can cooperate with each other more effectively.”
It described the situation as so critical that action must be taken in “months, not years.”