- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2011

With the United States accusing Pakistan of using insurgent groups to fight proxy wars, issuing a recent ultimatum demanding that Islamabad sever ties immediately, it is clear that Washington’s patience is nearing its end. The United States, meanwhile, is reducing aid packages, increasing drone strikes in the tribal areas and moving American troops in Afghanistan eastward to the mountainous border with Pakistan. In sum, Washington is telling Pakistanis to expect more guns, less butter and fewer books. What is problematic with this approach, however, is that heavy-handed efforts have failed to work in undermining insurgencies in the past. I’m afraid such efforts in the future would fall victim to the same fate.

Contrary to popular opinion among U.S. foreign policymakers, the way to undermine growth of insurgencies in Pakistan is not through drone strikes, air and night raids, or covert operations, most of which kill innocents and breed more anger among local populations, and all of which have increased significantly in the last few years. Nor will the fix be found in more military aid, for which much remains unaccounted. The way to undermine violent extremism is to give potential recruits - often the poorest of the poor in Pakistan - a viable alternative for which to live, not die.

Look at who is being enlisted. Recruits are found among the unemployed, illiterate and disenfranchised in the poorer provinces of Pakistan, from Baluchistan to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. If we do not want these vulnerable populations joining extremist movements, then we should offer viable alternatives, something we haven’t helped Pakistan do effectively.

In order to change this tide, we must make every effort to reduce poverty and improve the quality of life for Pakistan’s rural poor. On this, a three-pronged strategy is critical. First, we must focus on building healthy political systems in Pakistan. Of the nearly $20 billion in U.S. aid given to Pakistan since President Pervez Musharraf took power in 2001, most has been military aid, leaving very little spent on establishing the foundation - election commissions, ballot machines, monitoring systems, legal observers - for democratic elections.

Second, we must focus on educating the populace. For much of the past decade, investments in Pakistan’s educational system have been negligible. Annually, only 2 percent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product is spent on education, resulting in some of the developing world’s worst enrollment rates: Roughly one-third of eligible youth are enrolled in secondary school and 5 percent in tertiary institutions. Despite the fact that nearly 50 percent of the adult population is illiterate, U.S. development assistance hasn’t effectively reduced that number.

Third, we must enable economic prosperity for Pakistan’s poor. Pakistan’s presidents have failed to commit dollars to improve the lives of its impoverished, which are left vulnerable to Taliban and al Qaeda recruitment. Few viable alternatives or incentives remain to give the needy a reason to say no to extremism (such as a job, an education and political opportunity). Radical madrassas, or religious schools, often fill that vacuum, providing food, education and sometimes housing. U.S. nonmilitary aid commitments of late have attempted to address these needs, but most fail in the implementation phase due to lack of local credibility, reliance on American contractors and failure to focus on long-term sustainability.

This is where the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN) comes in, directly and positively impacting the lives of 30 million rural poor all across the country. As Pakistan’s largest network of nongovernmental organizations, the RSPN is mobilizing local communities in ways similar to the much-lauded and oft-praised (particularly in Washington) National Solidarity Program based in Afghanistan. Implementing a fairly basic yet effective concept, RSPN organizes and trains local communities to build infrastructure, provide social services and economic opportunities, manage natural resources, foster capacity of local leadership, and establish partnerships with the private and public sectors. While their track record is undoubtedly strong - having served the nation for nearly three decades and delivered a twofold increase in household income to many of the communities served - RSPN’s future is uncertain, in large part because U.S. and foreign funding is weighted toward a military approach, not a sustainable, local development one. While USAID has supported a handful of smaller RSPN projects in the past, much more support is needed to scale up RSPN’s efforts nationally.

We must reduce the failed, heavy-handed U.S. military approach in Pakistan, which only further alienates sovereign-minded Pakistanis. Drone strikes may kill a key insurgent, but they inevitably kill scores of civilians, simultaneously enraging the entire surrounding community. Democracy will only flourish in Pakistan if the necessary social, economic and political structures are steadfastly in place - and for the last decade, the United States has largely neglected these frontiers. The time to reverse past precedent is now and the RSPN offers a strong opportunity to redirect U.S. funding.

Rep. Michael M. Honda, California Democrat, is chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ Afghanistan Taskforce.