The relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, long a pillar of security and democratic solidarity against threats from Russia and nonstate actors like al-Qaida, is faltering. The rift has been laid bare in recent weeks as a faction within the U.S. Congress attempts to block the sale of needed fighter jets to Pakistan’s military. But the implications of the frayed relationship run far deeper, threatening to jumble the regional balance of power, fracture the anti-extremist coalition and sideline U.S. influence at a time when it is most needed.
Since the Cold War, Pakistan has been a staunch American ally, playing a critical role in driving Russia out of Afghanistan and serving as a democratic bulwark against communism and religious extremism. Following 9/11, the bilateral relationship was reinvigorated as the U.S. promoted a grand strategy to fight al-Qaida and stabilize Afghanistan after the Taliban were toppled from power. U.S.-Pakistan diplomatic, commercial and cultural ties have strengthened during this longstanding partnership, and as a result, Pakistan today is more stable, prosperous and democratic. It holds more regional clout than ever before.
Despite our sustained mutual interests and democratic kinship, worrisome ambiguity toward the bilateral relationship is brewing among officials in both countries. This attitude surfaced recently in the U.S. Congress — specifically in the person of Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — where there is outright opposition to a deal to sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan to strengthen our capacity to fight terrorism. The ostensible — and unsustainable — basis of Corker’s position is that Pakistan is not committed to the war on terrorism.
I would challenge any faction in Congress that holds this view to come to Pakistan and bear witness to our solidarity and resolve. Pakistan continues to suffer mass-casualty attacks by the Taliban and al-Qaida, including at the Army Public School in Peshawar, at Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, in Quetta, and most recently in Lahore, where 74 were killed and more than 300 injured. Here, members of Congress will find a nation under siege, but nonetheless committed across political differences to dismantling terrorist networks and mitigating their sources.
Doubters should know that Pakistan has lost nearly 500 troops and many thousands of civilians in this fight. These losses were sustained in offensives against terrorist networks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas — a longtime U.S. priority. As a direct result of these offensives, Pakistan has rooted out extremists’ safe havens, played a critical role in dismantling al-Qaida’s deeply entrenched networks and seized more than 160 tons of improvised explosive device precursors. As grievous as our losses have been, the past year has seen the lowest number of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings since 2007.
These actions are not representative of a country that is half-hearted in the fight against regional and global extremist threats. Rather, it is clear that Pakistan is committing vast resources and bearing incredible sacrifice at the vanguard of the war. In addition to the severe human costs, three decades of war has also meant slower economic growth and foreign direct investment than that of other developing countries whose borders are not active war zones. These are among the hidden opportunity costs of our commitment to fighting terrorism.
Denying Pakistan aircraft that our military deems necessary for continuing offensives against a terrorist network is ultimately counterproductive and self-defeating. It weakens our frontline actions against regional and global threats. It undermines a democratic ally that must maintain its legitimacy in the eyes of its people by taking every step to keep them safe. And it opens the door to new players that do not share America’s interests and values. Pakistan has one of the fastest-growing economies and is the sixth largest population in the world. This fact is not lost on China, which has swooped in to host talks with Pakistani leaders as the U.S. wallows in ambivalence. And Russia, which has been cozying up to Pakistan since early 2015, is close on China’s heels.
History has made it clear that the U.S. and Pakistan are far stronger as allies, and that the world has benefited greatly from this partnership. Pakistan is ready and willing to continue its role at the front lines of the war against terrorism. But the U.S. has a part to play in assuring our ability to fight and win on the battlefield. As talks between a delegation of top U.S. diplomats and the Pakistani government continue, the U.S. should reaffirm fighter plane sales and with it, faith in an indispensable partnership in defense of civilization.
Asif Ali Zardari, president of Pakistan from 2008 to 2013, is president of the Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarian.
Source: Chicago Tribune