The Pit of Despair

In the streets of Pakistan, people have had it about up to here. For the Obama administration’s diminished goals there, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Here is a sad, sad statistic for you: a grand total of 6 percent of Pakistanis aged 18 to 29 believe that their country is "heading in the right direction." Four years ago, the figure was 14 percent. The next generation of Pakistanis, in short, is sinking into despair. But it's not just sad, the way it would be if 94 percent of Somalis or Congolese had given up on their future. It's also extremely dangerous, because Pakistan has 185 million people, a large nuclear stockpile, and an array of violent Islamist groups who are terrorizing the country's own people and its neighbors.

There is something viscerally satisfying about the prospect of leaving Pakistan to stew in its own juices. Americans are feeling betrayed by a country they once viewed as a staunch ally in the war on terror. Even Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an extremely patient interlocutor with Pakistan's leadership class, testified in 2011 that the brutal Haqqani network of the Afghan Taliban was "a veritable arm" of Pakistani intelligence and added that the country would never be a "respected and prosperous nation" unless it mended its ways. And now, with America's endless military engagement in Afghanistan scheduled to draw to a close in 2014, the United States has the chance to disengage from Pakistan as well. But the truth is that we can't actually afford to indulge that impulse.

Pakistan is the example par excellence of the hopeless predicaments that Barack Obama inherited from George W. Bush. My personal shorthand for these snarled knots is: "You have to, but you can't." You have to persuade Iran to end its nuclear program through blandishments and threats; you have to leave behind a government and an army that the Afghan people can believe in; you have to convince Pakistan's military and intelligence leaders that the Afghan Taliban is their enemy, not their instrument. But you can't. So you come up with a decent-sounding-if-not-terribly-persuasive plan and send it off with a prayer. This degree-of-difficulty problem is why I've always been more sympathetic to Obama than many of his critics on both the left and right.

Bush never had a vision of U.S.-Pakistan relations much beyond, "You're with us or against us." Obama has tried to do better, through a combination of development assistance, democracy support, and the intensely focused diplomacy of Richard Holbrooke, the late special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The "strategic partnership" that Holbrooke forged was supposed to demonstrate a deep and abiding commitment which would not only improve Pakistan's economic and security capacity but flatter the country's leaders into greater compliance with U.S. objectives. That didn't happen. Holbrooke hoped that U.S. aid, channeled through Pakistani institutions, would help bolster the civilian government, and improve America's standing. That didn't happen either. The relationship cratered in 2011, either because Holbrooke died in late 2010 or, more likely, because of popular fury when U.S. forces crossed into Pakistani territory to kill Osama bin Laden, and later killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the border. The policy failed because it couldn't succeed.

In recent days, I've been talking with current and former administration officials who deal with the region, and several things have become clear. First, the deep freeze is over. U.S. military and intelligence officials are now meeting regularly with their opposite number. The Pakistanis have slightly opened the spigot on diplomatic visas, which they choke off at moments of pique. Bilateral working groups on the economy, security, education and defense have been meeting, and issuing soothing press releases. The United States, as one intelligence official I spoke to confirmed, has significantly slowed the pace of drone attacks; the Pakistani side has lowered the rhetoric. It does not hurt that Pakistan is preoccupied with national elections now scheduled for May 11.

It's not only temperatures that have cooled; so have expectations. The strategic partnership is history. "There's a lot of wisdom in having a more modest relationship," as one official said to me. "On things like the Haqqanis, our long-term goals don't align. It's better to recognize that they don't and work on what we have in common." In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States (and no relation to the jihadists), suggested that the two sides admit the truth and "explore ways to structure a nonallied relationship." That's not so far from what's happening now, though no one would dare to call it that. The chastened wisdom of 2013: "We can't, so we won't."

The Obama administration still depends on Islamabad for its exit strategy from Afghanistan, both because Pakistani intelligence continues to use Taliban proxies to destabilize its neighbor and because political reconciliation between the Afghans and the Taliban will never happen without active Pakistani engagement. Islamabad has made a few gestures towards the reconciliation process, as I described in an earlier column, but nothing decisive; Afghan leaders remain extremely skeptical of Islamabad's intentions. The United States is withdrawing one way or another, and Afghanistan will cope as well as it can with whatever support from the U.S. and foreign donors it continues to receive.

After 2014, Afghanistan will fade away; but Pakistan will still cling to America's trouser cuffs like a tenacious burr. What will become of U.S.-Pakistan relations when U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan ends? American officials have been at pains to say: We're staying. In a recent speech in Islamabad, U.S. Ambassador Richard Olson said, not once but twice, "2014 is not 1989" -- that infamous year when the Soviets packed up and left the region, and then the United States did so as well. Those working groups will keep working; aid will keep flowing. Of course, the fact that a growing number of lawmakers oppose that aid, and that Congress has blocked free-trade legislation that would allow Pakistan to establish so-called Reconstruction Opportunity Zones to export textiles to the United States, makes Pakistanis understandably skeptical of that claim.

If abandoning Pakistan is a bad idea (no matter how gratifying) and if at the same time Washington has little if any ability to make military and intelligence officials in Islamabad comply with U.S. counterterror goals, the best solution may be to focus on the war on despair rather than the war on terror. It is, after all, despair among ordinary Pakistanis, not the brutality of jihadists in Waziristan, which makes Pakistan so dangerous to itself, its neighbors and the United States.

Post-2014, or for that matter starting now, Obama should give more authority to U.S. diplomats, and less to the Pentagon and the CIA. He should push for trade legislation --which will create manufacturing jobs -- once Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wins his primary against an expected Tea Party opponent, and thus can safely contemplate offending the textile industry. And the administration should stop doing things that play into the hands of Pakistan's extremists and obscurantists, like issuing ultimatums about covert support for extremists (leave that to Congress) and authorizing drone strikes, save in exceptional circumstances. Obama can't do anything to make most Pakistanis stop hating America, but he can stop doing things that distract Pakistanis from addressing their own problems.

Right now, there are very few signs that Pakistan's corrupt and feudal political class is prepared to face those problems. While it's a very good thing that the regime of President Asif Ali Zardari just became the first civilian government to serve out a full term in Pakistani history, there is no reason to expect the next government to be any less feckless than his. (It may, in fact, be his.) The only saving grace in Pakistan is that few people have fond memories of the last era of military rule: former Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has returned to Pakistan in the hopes of starting a political career, appears to have zero appeal. Democracy in Pakistan is thus likely to survive its own persistent failure. That is a genuinely good thing.

Nothing good will happen soon; but perhaps someday Pakistan's democracy can begin to make inroads on Pakistan's despair. With low expectations and a modest investment, Washington can afford to be patient.


Terms of Engagement

The African Century

The unlucky continent finally seems to be on a real path to growth, but is democracy essential to sustain Africa’s rise?

Call me a cynic, but I've been skeptical of the African economic miracle story. We keep hearing that "six of the world's ten fastest growing economies" over the last decade are in sub-Saharan Africa, but rarely that three of those six -- Angola, Chad, and Nigeria -- depend on oil, and thus could fall to earth as prices decline. But the Economist has convinced me that growth is broader and deeper than I thought. Its recent special report, "A Hopeful Continent," notes that across Africa income per capita has grown 30 percent over the last decade, after having shrunk 10 percent over the previous 20 years. Projected growth over the next decade is 6 percent annually.

That leaves me with a few questions: What does that tell us about development policy? Is this a story about aid? Democracy? Economic policy? The commodities markets?

First of all, is the boom even real? Is Africa itself hopeful, or just little bits of it? Todd Moss, head of the Emerging Africa Project at the Center for Global Development, says that he views the changes in Africa as "big and important and historically different from the past," but he adds that "the dominant trend is divergence among countries." For every Ghana or Ethiopia that is making durable progress, there is a Chad that is "stuck in the past and free-riding on the commodities boom." Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is somewhere in the middle, its banking sector set to dominate the continent while the mighty torrent of oil money corrupts politics and barely reaches the poor.

But there's no question about what distinguishes the success stories from the failures -- governance. Moss points out that about half of African contrives have improved on indicators of good governance, and half haven't. Oliver August, author of the Economist report (yes, the famously anonymous "newspaper" now seems to award bylines for its most ambitious efforts), noted that he traveled 15,800 miles over Africa's roads without once being asked for a bribe.

I was astonished at the description of West Africa, a region I've visited three times over the last decade and viewed as a sinkhole of ethnic violence, big-man government, and drug money corruption. In Senegal, August notes, the apparently ageless President Abdoulaye Wade was ridiculed when he tried to stand for a third term despite a constitutional prohibition; in Guinea, a virtual narco-state five years ago, a civilian leader has put the generals in their place; Sierra Leone is at peace; and Ivory Coast is coming back to life after a civil war. On the other hand, Mali, which in 2007 hosted the biennial meeting of the Community of Democracies, is now a barely governed mess.

So good governance is the key. Is that news? To some people, yes. In The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs argued that "Africa's governance is poor because Africa is poor" -- not the other way around. The real reason Africa was poor was the unlucky accident of geography -- bad soil, disease, lack of access to ports and navigable rivers -- and the self-perpetuating nature of poverty. The only solution was thus to kick-start development with foreign aid. Sachs described poor countries as desperately sick patients who needed the care of Western donors, and lamented that the practice of "clinical economics" had not reached the subtlety of clinical medicine. Once it did, governance would take care of itself.

Foreign aid has clearly played an important role in reducing infant and maternal mortality in Africa, decreasing the incidence of malaria and AIDS, and raising the fraction of children who attend school -- all immensely important advances. But it is almost certainly not responsible for economic growth, as the economist William Easterly showed in his polemic, White Man's Burden. And it is economic growth, far more than aid, that has provided the resources which have made social advances possible. Over the last decade, as Jamie Drummond, executive director of DATA, the organization co-founded by Bono in 2002, points out, foreign assistance to African has tripled to $50 billion, but domestic resources have risen almost six-fold to $400 billion. 

Sachs's argument was appealing to African political and intellectual elites because he blamed persistent poverty on geography and a callous West. But his metaphor of a "poverty trap" also denied the agency of Africans themselves, since there was no escape absent Western intervention. If the real issue is governance, however, the opposite narrative applies: Both the problem and the solution are essentially African. Good governance requires political leaders who are prepared to threaten the interests of their own class. In fact, for that very reason, scholars who ascribe persistent poverty to bad political institutions rather than geography or history, like Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, the authors of Why Nations Fail, assume that weak states will stay weak, since elites benefit from those bad institutions. The achievement of sustained growth in countries like Ghana or Mozambique, despite decades of past mismanagement -- and civil war, in the latter case -- is thus all the more admirable.

But what, exactly, does "good governance" mean? Is it democracy? The Economist points out that the number of more or less democratic countries in Africa has gone from 3 to 53 over the last two decades. And both Easterly and Acemoglu/Robinson argue that democratic accountability is the only sure means of preventing elites from arranging things to their own benefit. And yet Ethiopia and Rwanda, which made it into the list of fastest-growing economies despite having no real natural resources to speak of, offer very little political freedom. Ethiopia has a Chinese-style command economy, while Rwanda is the closest thing in Africa to an East Asian-style liberal autocracy, with a free market and a very un-free polity. The non-African countries on the list of fastest-growing economies, by the way, were China, Myanmar, Kazakhstan, and Cambodia. This implies either that the list doesn't mean very much, or that the democratic effect on growth is overrated.

Most African autocrats are not, of course, liberal -- they are monsters like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe or thugs like Sudan's Omar al-Bashir. It is no coincidence that both those states are rich in natural resources. Countries with oil, gold, or diamonds offer an overwhelming temptation to capture the state and turn it into a private piggy bank. This is the underlying reason for the "resource curse." The development economist Paul Collier argues in The Plundered Planet that the single most important question for impoverished nations is whether their resources will turn out to be a curse or a boon. The answer is almost always the former -- which means, Collier says, that over time nations like Chad and Angola will actually experience a net economic loss from their windfall wealth.

It need not be so. Botswana has used its diamond wealth to create broad prosperity. The Economist reports that administrators in Ghana, which has recently made big oil finds, are being trained in transparent and accountable practices. Drummond directed me to a recent TED talk by Bono, who, after the usual appeal for increased aid, said that Africa's greatest disease was corruption, for which the only cure was transparency. This may prove to be the signal struggle of the next generation. (Of the 20 most corrupt countries, according to Transparency International, nine are in Africa.) Collier points out while in many states, elections "discipline governments into good economic performance," in resource-rich countries the incentive to capture the state turns elections into a free-for-all "unless offset by strong checks and balances." That is, Nigeria and Angola need better governance to succeed than do Rwanda and Ethiopia. That's got to be a discouraging thought, even for Bono.

The moral of the story is not, "There's nothing the West can do," but rather, "It's not what we thought." Virtually all African countries still need aid for both targeted social investments and infrastructure, where in general it lags far behind Asia. But more than aid, they need trade and investment. Bob Geldof, Bono's mentor in the aid-for-Africa line, is now a partner in 8 Miles, a private equity firm which invests in Africa. But states will attract foreign investors only if they improve the investment climate, strengthen the rule of law and reduce corruption -- where the West can help with policy advice, training, and technology. It's not very heroic. "We" -- the West -- cannot make poverty history; only "they" can do that. The good news is that they're doing it.