As the race for the White House heats up, presidential candidates are using the turmoil in Pakistan to show off their foreign policy credentials. Unfortunately few of the candidates have demonstrated a clear understanding of the complexities Pakistan presents, including the political situation, nuclear safeguards, al-Qaeda, and terrorism.

Given Pakistan’s significance as the only Islamic country with a robust nuclear program; contiguous borders with war plagued Afghanistan, and its historically volatile relations with nuclear armed India, the existing level of disorder in Pakistan is clearly a reason for the candidates to weigh in. Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on December 27, 2007 deepened the instability, unleashing a new wave of panic both in Pakistan and abroad.

But the candidates, and in particular the Democrats, are offering the wrong solutions.

In Pakistan, once a cab driver remarked to me that there existed not one, but five Osama bin Ladens. The cab driver went on to suggest that even if one or two were killed, al-Qaeda would not become dysfunctional. The candidates should consider this wisdom, instead of offering a guns blazing strategy in Pakistan.

At the New Hampshire debate on January 5, Senators Obama and Clinton, and former Senator John Edwards were all unanimous in their eagerness to launch unilateral strikes on Pakistan if they knew the location of Osama bin Laden. Given the reliance on the kind of intelligence that President George Bush launched the Iraq War, Democratic candidates might like to think twice. The presidential candidates should also be reminded that Pakistan is a sovereign nation and unilateral strikes on Pakistan would be in violation of international law. Such a move by the United States would not bode well for its already deteriorated image as a responsible world leader.

Seeking a more nuanced position, Senator Clinton proposed at the debate to “try to get (Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf) to share the security responsibility of nuclear weapons with a delegation from the United States and, perhaps, Great Britain, so that there is some fail-safe.” Before taking responsibility for Pakistani nuclear warheads, the could-be president might like to comment on the incident last year in which six U.S. nuclear warheads on cruise missiles were accidentally flown to Louisiana from North Dakota. The bombs were left unguarded on a landing strip for ten hours before anyone noticed they were missing. It might be worthwhile for the potential Commander in Chief of the armed forces to ensure that U.S. nuclear warheads do not remain vulnerable to such gaffes in future before recommending safeguards for other nations.

Republican candidates’ strategies for dealing with the mayhem in Pakistan have generally been more astute, with some exceptions. Mike Huckabee’s recommendation to prevent more illegal Pakistanis coming in, by building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, shows his lack of understanding of the issues at play. Maverick outsider Ron Paul, on the other hand, must be lauded for pointing out that extremist militancy exists because U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, and maintained military bases in Muslim countries for a long time prior to 9/11.

Among all the candidates, Senator John McCain offers the most insightful solutions, in part due to his long standing relationship with President Musharraf. He rejects the option for making unilateral strikes in Pakistan, recognizing the enormous military challenge the strategy poses, as well as the risk of alienating the people and government of Pakistan. Realizing also that confronting terrorism requires long term solutions, McCain calls for a comprehensive Pakistan policy. While McCain has not ruled out military options in dealing with terrorists, his vision outlined in Foreign Affairs, supports dealing with some of the root causes by getting children out of madrassas and into schools.

All of the candidates should know that eliminating terrorist havens in Pakistan must go hand in hand with stabilizing neighboring Afghanistan, a country which has not been accorded the priority it deserves. The Taliban and al-Qaeda were able to master the art of military maneuvers in the treacherous and cave-laden mountainous border regions of Pakistan along Afghanistan in the days of the Afghan Jihad against the Soviets. Successive U.S. administrations armed these groups, then known as the Mujahideen, to fight the Soviets. U.S. and Saudi governments provided the Pakistan government with monetary and military incentives to allow the Mujahideen theuse of Pakistani territory for refuge and training. Now, no one is possibly more at home in the territory along the long and porous borders, than al-Qaeda led militants.

Pakistan continues to be thronged by millions of refugees, who despite living in abject poverty and statelessness, refuse to go back to their country for fear of their lives. The associated costs for Pakistan have considerably undermined its fledgling economy. With relatively open borders providing a safe haven to refugees, Pakistan has suffered from narcotics and arms traffic through all the years of turbulence in Afghanistan.

As Pakistan suffers from the contagion of conflict ridden Afghanistan, its current political crisis presents a favorable playing field for terrorist groups. This is evident in the rising incidence of terrorism and suicide bombings across the country. It is imperative therefore that U.S. presidential candidates support Pakistan’s return to political stability by encouraging a transition to democracy. Charting the way to Pakistan’s democratic future in the short-term would include: a return to the constitution and judiciary that existed prior the imposition of emergency last year; restoration of the freedom of press and free association; release of all political prisoners jailed during recent crackdowns; and, accommodation of independent international monitors during parliamentary elections promised next month.

A critical step for any government that comes to power in Pakistan, must be to take responsibility for developing its tribal regions where militants have sought refuge. U.S. presidential candidates should seek conditions such as the growth and development of Pakistan’s tribal frontiers for the flow of future aid to the country. Gradual and sustained abolition of tribal laws and feudal structures, in tandem with socio-economic growth, is key to progress in the vulnerable tribal lands.

Having said that, Pakistan should not be made a scapegoat for the lack of vision in dealing with the region as a whole. The role of great powers in the region has been detrimental to Pakistan’s national security. The next U.S. president offers a chance for change. America’s choice should be a President who goes beyond showboating and demonstrating who can “be the toughest” by standing behind real democracy, while seeking innovative solutions both inside Pakistan and its neighbor, Afghanistan.

Saira Yamin teaches at the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. She is currently pursuing doctoral studies in Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and is an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus.

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