Foreign Policy Blogs

The Problem with Pakistan

Pakistan’s short-sighted foreign policy and military spending will not lead to long-term regional stability.


A recent report by the Congressional Research Office shows that Pakistan has been purchasing U.S.-made weapons and military resources that are useless against terrorists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pakistan’s interests would be better served if this money were used for other military or civilian purposes.

Notable purchases made with national funds since 2001 include: 18 new F-16 combat aircraft, 500 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, 500 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, 100 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and six Phalanx Close-In Weapons System naval guns. Also, using U.S. military aid, Pakistan has purchased about 5,250 TOW anti-armor missiles, five refurbished SH-2I Super Seasprite maritime helicopters, and one ex-Oliver Hazard Perry class missile frigate.

Why does Pakistan need anti-ship and air-to-air missiles? Against what navies will Pakistan deploy its maritime helicopters and new missile frigate? When will Pakistan need to target armored vehicles? Would the $2.8bn spent on these weapons have been better used elsewhere?

Pakistan’s strategy toward Afghanistan and its own lawless areas is still just as short-sighted as it was when the ISI harbored the fleeing Afghan Taliban after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Knowing that international forces would eventually pull out of Central Asia, Pakistan’s military saw the Afghan Taliban as an important tool for asserting regional influence. Now however, Pakistan must realize that bolstering its military might, protecting international terrorists, and playing the regional puppet master will not lead to long-term stability.

Pakistan and Afghanistan need educational, governmental, and economic development and reform. In order to organize these movements for long-term growth, security must be well established. Pakistan’s military must go after those militants that are hiding in North Waziristan and elsewhere. It can no longer afford to protect Lashkar-e-Taiba and other terrorist organizations used as extensions of foreign policy. Purchasing $2.8bn worth of air-to-air and naval weapons is not effective in fighting terrorists in the tribal areas. It would have been welcomed by Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, which is in desperate need of better materials and more troops.

Alternatively, that money could have been very useful for civilian development. People living in the tribal areas need the resources to build schools that teach a peaceful and constructive curriculum in order to draw young people away from violent movements. Security must be increased so that girls can freely attend school. Reforming the government along the frontier requires the support of regional tribal authorities. And money is needed to protect the development of transportation infrastructure, oil and gas pipelines, and clean water.

These issues are central to long-term stability in the region that secures Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and quells the violence in the tribal regions. Security is vital to many of these developments, but some, like educational reform, must continue despite ongoing violence. The military and the ISI’s habit of protecting and using internationally active violent groups to meet its foreign policy objectives must finally come to an end.

Unfortunately, as the historian Stephen P. Cohen concludes in The Idea of Pakistan, decades of U.S. involvement in the region “strengthened the hand of Pakistan’s Army without making it pro-American and had economic consequences no less ambiguous, bolstering elites and self-appointed middlemen.” Further drone strikes and rumors of American meddling are unlikely to bolster support for the United States. It is up to Pakistan’s leaders to spend available resources in intelligent ways that will support important development issues. U.S. aid should focus on security, education, and infrastructure, and Pakistan should not be spending billions of dollars on revamping its navy. Instead, Islamabad will find that efforts to reform its education, economic, and governing structures will go a long way to ensuring long-term stability.

photo courtesy of The Diplomat