The desire that many Pakistanis have for a more open and liberal society, and the local leaders and businesses that are making it possible, are our best bet for stability and security in the region. Social change, economic growth, political maturity — these are things that crowd out groups like the Taliban and make their rhetoric fall flat. But these things have no formulas and Americans have the least ability to understand or control them — no matter how many policies are pronounced in Washington or billions of dollars poured into Islamabad.
More importantly, progress in Pakistan — strengthening economic growth, governance and liberal values — takes years to realize but only a few American airstrikes or Taliban bombings to destroy. American mistakes in the region have been aggravating public sentiments for years and fueled fundamentalism in the mainstream. In the 1990s, none of my aunts wore burkas. Now, they all do. And Taliban bombings in the cities are leading to a flight of people with means, usually the most progressive and educated, and capital. As we learned from our support for the mujahedeen in the 1980s, the secondary effects of U.S. policy are the most damning.
How do we harness and support positive trends in Pakistan? If Washington can put good people to work on that question, who will also factor in the limits of American understanding and ground capabilities in Pakistan, they will come to a better question: How can we protect the progress that Pakistanis have already made?
Instead of fixing “Af-Pak,” the best thing America can do for the region is stop it from getting more fouled up than it already is.
So my answer to the question “what do we Americans do?” is to first understand what we have done already: U.S. war policies are inadvertently undermining the social and economic progress that Pakistanis have made over the years.
We need to accept the limits of our capabilities and understanding of realities on the ground. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States and other countries have a huge presence, few Americans travel to Pakistan and U.S. officials are extremely restricted in their movements.
Finally, we need realistic objectives, which will end up looking more like damage control than the magic bullet against the Taliban that everyone is looking for.
Pakistan is a different story from Afghanistan — it is far more developed and modern. Afghans may not have the ability to lead themselves out of this mess, but Pakistanis do. After all, Pakistanis are the ones who suffer the most when their cities are bombed and their soldiers killed. If the United States continues to distort the situation through aggressive policy demands, then we are only reinforcing anti-Americanism and the breakdown of Pakistani institutions. What’s worse, if U.S. attention remains fixated on narrow measures of military success, Pakistan will become collateral damage of the Afghan war.