At U.S.-Pakistan Relations Conference, Experts and High Schoolers Alike Ponder Complex Challenges

March 2, 2010 — Since the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan has provided the United States with limited support against Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders taking refuge in Pakistan's rugged tribal areas – periodically handing over second-tier leaders, but doing little to net the big fish.

That stance changed dramatically in recent weeks, as Pakistan arrested several top Taliban commanders, including the No. 2 Afghan Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Does this signify the beginning of a major shift in Pakistani-U.S. relations, or is it a gambit by Pakistan to ensure it will have a seat at the table as the U.S. determines how to withdraw from the war in Afghanistan? That was one key question discussed on Thursday, Friday and Monday during a University of Virginia conference, "Global Security in the Balance: Pakistan and U.S. Foreign Policy."

"Given Pakistan's long record of supporting or at least tolerating some of these groups, it is too early to say whether it signals a permanent reversal of past policies, or is possibly a tactical shift to demonstrate it has leverage in the region," said Lisa Curtis, a former senior adviser in the State Department's South Asia Bureau during the Bush administration, speaking Thursday to a capacity crowd in the Harrison Institute Auditorium at the conference's opening symposium.

"The Obama administration has done a lot right on Pakistan," noted Curtis, who also dealt with South Asian foreign policy as a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is now a senior research fellow on South Asia at the Heritage Foundation. 

The Obama administration has made Pakistan a major foreign policy focus and understands that success or failure in Afghanistan is closely linked to the situation in Pakistan, Curtis said. "You can't have success in one country without success in the other."

For much of its history since its blood-soaked partition from India in 1947, Pakistan has been run by military and authoritarian regimes, often backed by American military aid. Most notoriously, during the 1980s President Reagan funneled money through Pakistan to the mujahedeen "freedom fighters" – including Osama Bin Laden – who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

That history of American support for Pakistan's military strongmen and Islamic militants is the backdrop for Pakistani popular outrage at U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan that have killed dozens of civilians, explained Hassan Abbas, a professor and chair of Columbia University's South Asia Institute.

"Americans may forget history, but the other side doesn't," said Abbas, who served in the administrations of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf.

As a result, anti-Americanism is on the rise in Pakistan. Eighty percent of Pakistanis think democracy is good thing, but 64 percent consider the U.S. an unreliable ally, said John Echeverri-Gent, a professor of politics who organized the conference with help from U.Va.'s Center for South Asian Studies.

Thursday's symposium was sponsored by U.Va.'s Office of the Vice Provost for International Programs and the Governing America in a Global Era Program of the Miller Center of Public Affairs.

After three panel discussions at U.Va. on Thursday and Friday, populated with more than a dozen experts on Pakistan, the conference concluded Monday with a discussion of U.S.-Pakistan relations for about 250 high school students gathered at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing Arts Center at Charlottesville High School.

Two panels of U.Va. students and professors spoke to students from Tandem Friends School in Charlottesville, Riverheads High School in Staunton and James River High School in Midlothian.

A number of additional schools were unable to attend due to a combination of budget cuts, numerous snow days racked up this semester, and major statewide Standards of Learning tests scheduled for the day after the conference, said Rachel Stauffer, outreach coordinator for the Asia Institute, an umbrella entity that encompasses the Center for South Asian Studies.

Four U.Va. students gave brief remarks on "Visions of Life in Pakistan." Ayisha Memon, a graduate student born in Pakistan who spent most of her life in the Middle East, explained the wide variability of Islamic practice throughout the Islamic world, and the outlier status of Islamic extremist practices such as suicide bombing.

Fourth-year student Fatema Munis discussed the role of women in Pakistan. Then second-year foreign affairs major Neal Modi presented the contrasting images of Pakistan in the American and Pakistani media.

After that introduction, a second panel launched into some of the same complex issues that the experts had argued about on Thursday and Friday. Echeverri-Gent laid out the "four key questions of Pakistani foreign policy" that he brought up during Thursday's panel discussion.

One of his questions addressed the effectiveness of U.S. foreign aid to Pakistan. President Obama recently approved $7.5 billion in civilian aid to Pakistan over the next five years, a break from the long tradition of American foreign aid flowing primarily to Pakistan's military. The aid is meant to strengthen Pakistani civil society, Echeverri-Gent said.

"But will the aid do any good?" Echeverri-Gent asked rhetorically, noting that Pakistan's government is rated as highly corrupt by Transparency International and anti-Americanism is on the rise.

"In the short run, U.S. aid probably won't do any good," he said. At least it won't buy Pakistani public support of America. But, in the longer term, it may bolster the forces in Pakistan promoting democracy and modernity as an alternative to Islamic militancy, including extending state services into the Pakistan's rural areas and supporting civil advocacy groups like women's rights organizations.

Some of Monday's discussion may have been a bit over the heads of her ninth-graders, said Stephanie Burr, a teacher of world history in Midlothian, "but it gave us lots of great information for us to take back to our schools and digest and discuss."

The Center for South Asian Studies will provide participating schools with suggested follow-up lesson plans and an online discussion forum in about two weeks, which may be moderated by the U.Va. undergraduate panel speakers, Stauffer said. The lesson plans will include an exercise for students to role-play major actors in the Pakistani-U.S. relationship, such as the U.S. military or rural Pakistani civilians. 

Panel moderator Robert Hueckstedt, a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, dismissed the students with a brain twister that might help them in their future role-playing.

"All of you are Taliban," he said, noting that "taliban" means "student" in Pashto or Afghani.

— By Brevy Cannon