- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

A corollary of politics being the art of the possible is keeping errors and mistakes from turning into blunders. Over the past few weeks, the three presidential candidates have each made widely reported missteps. John McCain exchanged al Qaeda for Shia militants as being trained by Iran. Barack Obama dealt with a pastor’s incendiary rhetoric. And Hillary Clinton dodged hostile fire from the press about her dodging sniper’s bullets in Bosnia in 1996.

Last week, the U.S. may have made a mistake. It cannot allow that misstep to become a blunder. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher paid what was billed as an unannounced visit to Pakistan coinciding with the swearing in of the new prime minister, Youssef Gillani. To some in Pakistan, the visit seemed ill-timed and heavy-handed. The absence of Ambassador Anne Patterson, who was on well-deserved leave out of the country, raised questions about who was in charge of American policy.

Whether critics are correct or not in assessing this visit, the larger point is not to let what is a major difference between Pakistan and the Bush administration over how to wage the war on terror disintegrate into a blunder that will harm both states. In meetings with President Pervez Musharraf, the prime minister, Army Chief of Staff Pervez Kiyani and party leaders Asif ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, the Americans reportedly pressed the Pakistanis to continue along the current course of pursuing the global war on terror while discouraging the need to negotiate with militants and Taliban in the tribal areas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed the same warning last week, noting that Mr. Musharraf’s cease-fire in Waziristan failed, a clear signal of Washington’s view of trying to adapt the al Anbar Iraqi strategy of co-opting the enemy at least in the case of Pakistan.

Here is the crux of the problem. In my recent discussions with the senior political and military leadership in Pakistan, there is virtually unanimous agreement on the general strategy to be followed from Mr. Musharraf to Mr. Zardari. That strategy makes the fight against the militants Pakistan’s war, not America’s; that the path to success requires a political solution and a political process that, with dialogue, can embrace some and not disenfranchise all dissident elements; and that uses force as a last and not first resort. The phrase building a bridge to the Taliban is frequently heard.

This security strategy can only work if it has a powerful economic component. That means using Pakistan’s geographic location as the trade route to the region and finally exploiting Pakistan’s considerable iron-ore, natural-gas and coal resources through investment opportunities made available to foreign sources of capital. The vision is sweeping and may not work in execution. It is however a largely shared vision that if successful will raise the standard of living considerably and thus attract the full support and backing of the Pakistani people.

Washington will or should have no problem with the economic vision. The fixation and even obsession with the global war on terror and al Qaeda are different matters. Pakistani leadership does not share that assessment of the threat. Al Qaeda is secondary to Taliban militants who directly threaten the stability of Pakistan. This is an existential danger and the main reason why so far this alliance of bitter enemies has taken hold and why Messrs. Musharraf, Sharif and Zardari are not at each other’s throats. Of course, this alliance may prove only temporary which would be the worst of all worlds.

What should the Bush administration do, as well as the presidential candidates? Most importantly, the United States should accept and welcome the proposition that this battle is Pakistan’s, not ours. More direct economic aid is vital. The $150 million a year that the U.S. provides to Pakistan quite frankly is pitiful given the critical importance of a stable Pakistan, Afghanistan and the region. And we should facilitate through the private-sector investment in Pakistan’s considerable natural resources bearing in mind that as long as violence continues, considerable risk exists meaning that Overseas Private Investment Corporation and some further guarantees may be needed.

The U.S. also needs to make available to the security forces necessary equipment and more training for waging an insurgency. These are not F-16s or forces for fighting India. And they are systems that have sensitive technologies impeding transfer. However, if we want Pakistan to emerge as stable friend and major ally, letting it take the role is critical.

Forty years ago, Richard Nixon created the Guam Doctrine that later took his name. The idea was for regions and local states to shoulder more responsibility for security. It was a good idea then and is a good idea now. Pakistan should be the test case.

Harlan Ullman writes for The WashingtonTimes.

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