A New Face in the U.S.-Pakistani Relationship

[Note from Ryan Goodman: It is an honor for us to publish an essay from Ambassador Cameron Munter, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan 2010-2012 and in several other distinguished posts over nearly thirty years as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. We asked Ambassador Munter for his views on U.S. policy to Pakistan especially as U.S. counterterrorism policy in the region is expected to shift in the months and years ahead.]

Usually, when we speak of new faces, we speak of new individuals: a new team that gets a fresh start.  And while Pakistan has a new government, and President Obama’s second term has some new players in foreign policy, that’s not what I’m thinking of.  Rather, I’m speaking of an image.  I believe that a traditional face of U.S. engagement with Pakistan -– that of military and security experts, a tradition dating back to the foundation of Pakistan more than six decades ago – has become so central to the relationship that other elements that might balance it have been crowded out.  It should be no surprise, really, that the Bush and Obama administrations have focused so much on security in Pakistan.  From 9/11 through the war in Afghanistan, that has been the way these presidents and their teams have worked tirelessly to keep America safe.

In doing so, however, we have made the image of a soldier or a drone the image of America’s strategic vision for Pakistan and the region.  As 2014 approaches, and American troops end their combat mission in Afghanistan; as drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal areas appear to be fewer in number and more precise in targeting; as the general trends of the U.S. “pivot toward Asia” become clear, the soldier and the drone will be less common.  Even though the President’s commitment to U.S. security does not waver, the reminders of his commitment will be fewer and far between – at least it would seem, seen from the street in Pakistan.

Will that face of America – the M-16 and flak jacket, the film of a predator strike – remain, or can we replace it with something else?  A different face of commitment, one that Americans have supported throughout the last decade but which has, in the Pakistani media (fairly or not) been shoved aside by the violence in the tribal areas and unrest throughout the country?  That other commitment has been enormous expenditure by the U.S. government in support of economic growth, building schools, replacing crops destroyed by floods, refurbishing power plants, and improving health delivery services, to name just a few achievements.  But few Pakistanis believe this aid has made a difference.  Instead, they associate us only with the manifestations of the war on terror.

In the coming month this can change.  No, it should not just be a PR campaign to convince Pakistanis of our commitment to what they care about (not just what we care about).  Certainly, PR is necessary, but lacking a new face, it won’t be sufficient.  It will require two things.

First, on the policy level, we must use the changes in 2014 to wrest U.S. policy toward Pakistan from its current status as derivative of the war in Afghanistan.  Of course, Pakistan has an enormous role to play in security arrangements of the region in years to come.  Its relationship to India, to China, to Iran, and of course to Afghanistan are very important as the international community seeks to find a just and equitable peace in the region.  But we should make every effort to consider Pakistan’s needs.  Not just the needs of the Pakistani military and intelligence leadership, important as they are.  Rather, the needs of a country of nearly 200 million people whose stability and prosperity will be essential to the long-term stability and prosperity of the entire region.  Pakistan’s success is not a guarantee of regional peace; but Pakistani failure is certainly a guarantee of regional strife.

Second, on a practical level, we should provide a face of American commitment that we know, through decades of effort, is welcome.  Polling shows consistently that while most Pakistanis are angry at America (citing security policies as the reason), most Pakistanis – across the political spectrum, rural and urban, young and old – want a better relationship with us.  Why?  Because despite all the searing problems of the last decade, they admire us:  they admire our educational institutions, our business acumen, our commitment to philanthropy.  And here, I believe, they can find the practical partners to renew Pakistani understanding of American commitment to the relationship.  Universities, businesses, foundations.  Students and teachers, businesspeople and investors, donors and grassroots workers.  These are the faces of the relationship in which America can play to its strengths, and in doing so, help build a successful Pakistan that is so necessary for us to achieve our own strategic interests in South Asia and beyond.

Recent press articles highlight just how worried we’ve been about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.  And we should be worried.  We need to know if that arsenal can be misused or fall into the wrong hands.  But even a massive surveillance effort, while necessary, will be insufficient.  We need to take modest but purposeful measures to help Pakistan remain stable.  That’s not the same as focusing so overwhelmingly on immediate security concerns.   We also need to engage in Pakistani politics, economics, society, where we have a much stronger hand to play than we perhaps realize.

Certainly, such changes cannot take place overnight.  After all, the main reason that we see so few American university professors or businesspeople in Pakistan is that it’s still considered too dangerous.  Yes, Pakistan’s government must take on the terrorist challenge, and it is enormous.  And when Pakistan’s new Interior Minister propose plans to make the best use of Pakistan’s internal security forces, we should engage with him and take seriously any requests for help.  But I believe we have a chance to do so, a chance afforded by the potential change in the face of America in Pakistan: difficult as it is, painful as our experiences in Pakistan have been, let’s listen to them and see if their plans to tackle terrorism have a place for our help.  It’s certainly in our interest and theirs.  Who knows?  If Pakistan’s new leadership is able to make real progress against terrorism, there may be another new face – a face of a Pakistan that is not the negative image so common in recent years, but a Pakistan where people of good will are determined to succeed, and ask the help of an old friend in doing so. 

About the Author(s)

Cameron Munter

Professor of Practice at Pomona College, Former Ambassador to Pakistan (2010-2012), Former Ambassador to Serbia (2007-2009)