The Best Wall of Defense

The Best Wall of Defense

The most dependable guarantor of Pakistani stability isn’t a troop buildup in Afghanistan; it’s Pakistan’s emerging middle class.


Poor old Uncle Sam can’t seem to catch a break in Pakistan. A week after Congress approved the Kerry-Lugar bill, which grants a shiny new $1.5 billion a year for the next five years for Pakistan’s economic development and security needs, opinion polls confirmed what had been reported by Western media outfits for weeks: that Pakistanis are increasingly distrustful and suspicious of America. Eighty percent do not want to cooperate with the United States in its “war on terror.” Seventy-six percent don’t want the United States to partner with their country in its pursuit of extremists through drone strikes.

There is much disquiet about these poll numbers among American diplomats assigned to manage the US-Pakistan relationship, particularly given the low opinion of America among Pakistan’s emerging urban middle class. The concerns are well-founded. It is one of the great prizes in the Muslim world. There’s fat chance of winning hearts and minds anywhere else if the United States can’t do well in Pakistan’s cities.

Even more perplexing for US policy-makers is that anti-Americanism in Pakistan is growing just as Pakistanis are becoming increasingly assertive in their rejection of extremism. The same Pakistanis who are so deeply averse to America’s growing role in their country’s affairs reject the presence of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in their country even more emphatically (86 percent) and support their military’s recent offensive against the extremists in Swat overwhelmingly (69 percent). Support for peace deals with terrorist groups–something that has long been an Achilles’ heel of US policy in Pakistan–has nose-dived from 72 percent to 50 percent. Pakistanis are fed up with extremism.

The roots of America’s image problem are not hard to find. Every time a Pakistani government bends over backward to please Washington, it suffers domestically. Why they bend over so readily is no secret: elite Pakistan (military, feudal and capitalist) loves a good sugar daddy, and Uncle Sam is among the best.

The Obama administration is right to formally commit support to democracy in Pakistan (as the Kerry-Lugar bill does, by promising aid only if it is managed by democratic civilian governments). However, it is wrong to think that being democratically elected gives a government a free pass to do things that fly in the face of public opinion. Obama should know better, given that he is the beneficiary of eight years of suicidal Republican governance in his country.

Overt and undignified cooperation with America, even if it is in pursuit of a common enemy, won’t fly in Pakistan, because it is more of the same client-patron relationship that has always defined US-Pakistan relations. The Pakistani people suspect that the only beneficiaries of American largesse will be the ruling elite. Since unfettered corruption has long been a staple of government in their country, their calculus is probably right.

Part of the complexity in Pakistan is rooted in its scale, something too often understated in Western reporting or not stated at all. Pakistanis represent the Muslim world’s largest and most widely dispersed diaspora. With nearly 180 million people, Pakistan is the seventh-largest country in the world. Roughly one in six Pakistanis lives in a middle-class household. They help generate the world’s twenty-seventh-largest economy. The Kerry-Lugar bill’s $1.5 billion would be benevolent if Pakistan were the size of Jordan (population 6 million) or Georgia (4.5 million). In Pakistan, $1.5 billion is less than 0.1 percent of GDP. Remittances from Pakistan’s diaspora, at more than $7.5 billion a year, are five times what the Kerry-Lugar bill offers. And there are no embarrassing conditions placed on the checks those Pakistanis send home.

While Democrats in America, Karzai cabinet members in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s entire spectrum of opinion are alarmed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops in Afghanistan, the Pakistani elite stands its ground. Pakistani military and civilian leaders want more US troops in Afghanistan for the same reason the American war machine does–sustained rents and profits. There are 1.5 billion good reasons in it for them. The longer the United States remains mired in the Afghan quicksand, the longer the Pakistani elite will be able to extract US aid by perpetuating fears that the world’s most unstable nuclear power is on the verge of “going rogue.” Like Sarah Palin, Pakistan’s elite is full of hot air.

The most dependable guarantor of Pakistani stability is Pakistan’s emerging middle class, which has the most to lose in a civil conflict. This was the year Pakistan’s middle class came of age, conquering some of the country’s longest-festering demons. In March it forced the military to accept an independent judiciary, and in May it helped pressure the military to take on terrorists in Swat. The fight against terror in Pakistan has been expensive, with 7,000 civilians and 2,600 security personnel killed by terrorists since 2003.

The notion that Pakistan can be stabilized by a sustained US troop buildup in Afghanistan is nonsensical. A military surge there would only buttress a fear-based, profit-motivated narrative of Pakistan that is cultivated by corrupt Pakistani elites. It is the Pakistani middle class that is the best wall of defense against instability–not US soldiers in Afghanistan.


Stephen M. Walt

, “High Cost, Low Odds

John Mueller

, “The ‘Safe Haven’ Myth

Selig S. Harrison

, “The Ethnic Split

Priya Satia

, “Attack of the Drones

Manan Ahmed

, “Paranoia Over Pakistan

Robert Dreyfuss

, “How to Get Out

For a collection of The Nation‘s best Afghanistan coverage, see our special page of links, “Afghanistan In Crisis.”

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