Last week, Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations. The foreign minister is a glossy, silver-haired gentleman, and he delivered a glossy address lauding the new "Strategic Dialogue" with the United States, his government's commitment to transparency and accountability in the distribution of humanitarian assistance for victims of the epic floods, and so forth. He was asked several terribly polite questions and answered in kind. Then I asked the minister if he worried that his government's lack of capacity and even lack of legitimacy in the eyes of citizens was impeding development. Qureshi blew a gasket. "I really fail to understand what you're trying to say," he shot back, "but I can tell you that there are no capacity issues. The Pakistan Army is working. [The] Pakistan Army is an institution that belongs to the government of Pakistan.… They are working under instructions of an elected government, and that is what it ought to be."
Of course, nobody believes that, not in Washington and not in Islamabad. The response to the floods has confirmed, with a vengeance, both the fecklessness of Pakistan's civilian government and the dominance of the military. Several days ago, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in a direct confrontation unprecedented during his tenure, upbraided the country's president and prime minister, supposedly his bosses, over the government's rampant corruption, demanding that they fire several cabinet ministers.
All this raises a question, similar to the question posed by the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan state: What, exactly, does Barack Obama's administration think it can accomplish there?
Although U.S. troops are fighting in Afghanistan, many of Obama's senior advisors see Pakistan as the real prize. Al Qaeda takes shelter there; nothing threatens American national security so much as the prospect of a giant nuclear-armed state overwhelmed by terrorists; and the United States would seem to have a much better shot at establishing stability in Pakistan, a democracy and a longstanding, if wayward, ally. In the middle of the long policy debate of 2009, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said to me, "If I said to you right now, we can send $30 billion a year to Pakistan or $30 billion to Afghanistan, which would you pick? Every goddamn person says, 'Pakistan.' So I say, 'OK, guys, we should be talking about a PakAf policy, not an AfPak policy.'"
In the "Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy" released this January, the White House promised an "enhanced partnership" with Pakistan that would move far beyond the military funding the previous administration provided. The promise of partnership was echoed in the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, which provides $7.5 billion to Pakistan over five years with the money divided between "high-impact, high-visibility infrastructure programs," humanitarian aid, and "government capacity development."
Those funds have only begun to be disbursed, and the imperative of responding to the flood has temporarily eclipsed long-term goals; but events of recent months have shown how very deep-seated Pakistan's problems are. The floods, though an act of God, were enormously exacerbated by state failure. The national disaster plan, drawn up after the terrible 2005 earthquake, had never been implemented. Squabbling among Pakistan's provinces had blocked the building of a dam on the Indus. And amid the calamity, President Asif Ali Zardari took a trip to Europe, including a widely publicized visit to his French château.
The premise of the George W. Bush administration's highly regarded Millennium Challenge Account was that U.S. assistance would be most effective in countries where the government was at least modestly accountable to its people, made investments in education and health care, practiced economic transparency, and reined in corruption. By those standards, especially in matters of public investment, Pakistan falls way below many much poorer countries. The administration is hardly blind to the fact that Pakistan is incurring the kinds of failures that would disqualify it from receiving Millennium Challenge funds. In a very unusual moment of public criticism, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told an audience that Pakistan cannot have a tax system in which elites "pay so little it's laughable" and expect "the United States and others to come in and help."