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A New Course for the US and Pakistan

Frederick Barton

As Pakistan faces two near-term crises, parliamentary elections on Feb. 18 and increasing extremist violence, the United States has an opportunity to build a new and constructive relationship with the country. In the past, America has been reactive, driven by fear and uncertainty, with the end-result a military dominated policy. Now, there is a chance to forge a more values-centered partnership.

Pakistan's champions of democracy are warning that the election will not be free or fair. They cite recent violence, a biased elections commission, intelligence community meddling, and the absence of an independent judiciary. While the major democratic parties are expected to win, the rewriting of the rules by President Pervez Musharraf will probably produce a political stalemate or a public rejection.Before any US administration or Congress takes further action in Pakistan, there must be a greater confidence in answers to the following questions: How can the political ownership of Pakistan's people be maximized in the coming days and months? What is the best model for a peaceful and democratic transition in a post-Musharraf Pakistan? What are the sources of extremist violence within Pakistan and how can the United States be of greatest help?

There are three steps that the United States could pursue to set its relationship with Pakistan on a more promising course.

First, the United States should champion the rule of law. For too long, Pakistan's ruling elites have shaped justice to their own service. It is hard to imagine a successful Pakistani election without the reinstatement of the suspended judges, at all levels of the system.

Reforms of the police, prisons, prosecutors, and corrupt officials will only progress if the judiciary is insulated from political pressures. The recent demonstrations by Pakistan's lawyers are precisely the kind of opening that America should champion. Once the deposed judges are returned to the bench, an independent review of the judiciary and how it stood up to prior Constitutional violations and corruption should be a top priority. This is consistent with America's deepest held beliefs and a clear way to align ourselves with Pakistan's public and its civil society.

Second, the United States must improve its knowledge of Pakistan. At a time when Pakistan is growing and 50 percent of its 160 million people are under 20, the United States has been too dependent on singular leaders, the military and a few designated friends. Washington is more bravado than brilliance and has failed to tap into a huge diaspora of Pakistani-Americans (the largest single group of Muslim immigrants), and others who will extend the official reach.

Accelerated learning should be our concern. This will not happen with more high level, two-day visits - mostly to Islamabad - from top Washington officials, from a bunkered down and overstretched Embassy, or from multiple military scenarios that the Pentagon is designing. The deployment by the National Security Council of several small, integrated, interagency, and interdisciplinary teams, to travel throughout Pakistan for conversations with all levels of society would help develop a strategic and more grounded sense in the coming two months.

Finally, we must develop a trusted partnership with the people of Pakistan. The relationship of the past two decades has been built on events and issues rather than a joint commitment to the long-term well-being of Pakistan's people. Of the $10 billion of US involvement in the last five years, little has touched the hearts of Pakistanis, such as America's effective response to the devastating earthquakes of 2005.

Pakistan's tribal belt may be the place to start. Because of the challenges of the region, from well-armed insurgents to the destruction of maliks, any American approach must complement participatory tribal structures and a freshly engaged Pakistani government. The dangers will require more self-directed projects that combine catalytic US transfers and significant local inputs. Such a combination could speed delivery and capture the public's imagination.

The benefits of such a fast-flowing initiative would be felt well beyond the 20 million people of the Northwest. Emigration from the frontier areas has made Karachi the largest Pashtun city in the world and others have found gainful employment in Dubai, England, and the United States. The economic center of the region is thousands of miles away and yet there is a strong connection home. If the global Pashtun people see that there is a genuine effort to invest and better the lives of their long neglected native area, a lasting alliance can be started.

Pakistan's people must be at the center of any national resurgence. By building an informed relationship with Pakistan's citizens that is anchored by the rule of law, America can be a constructive ally.

Frederick Barton is codirector of the Center for Strategic & International Studies Post Conflict Reconstruction Program.

Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company

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