From The New York Times:
By Nadia Naviwala
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — What do we do about Pakistan? Because I am a Pakistani-American who recently spent several months there, people here are constantly trying to get me to answer that question. One of the most important things I can offer them is a reality check.
I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, but my family moved to Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, in the early 1990s. Those were Karachi’s worst years and constitute my earliest memories of terrorism. Political and ethnic violence wracked the city, becoming, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan today, an excuse for every type of crime — shootings in mosques, kidnappings, violent break-ins and streetside executions if you belonged to the wrong ethnic group. By 1996, my family gave up on Pakistan and came back to the United States. By 1999, Pervez Musharraf gave up on Pakistan and overthrew the government.
Worse than the violence, for a Pakistani-American child, was that Pakistan was boring. As far as I am concerned, Pizza Hut was the only good thing that happened to Pakistan in those years. Prior to that, there was no American fast food in Karachi, let alone malls or highways. You couldn’t even find a decent candy bar.
And as I got older, I grew increasingly irked by the conservatism. Pakistan, I felt, was easily the most closed country in the world — traditional dress was mandatory, girls were either stuck at home or harassed in the streets, and I almost never saw a foreigner.
I never imagined that I would see Pakistan the way I saw it this summer, after a mere 14 years. Karachi today looks like any major, cosmopolitan city — movie theaters, restaurants, and cafés full of boys and girls smoking, in jeans, mingling together. More women are finishing college and getting jobs, and they have traded traditional baggy shalwars for trousers and capris. The city has been aggressively transformed by a mayor so impressively capable that he seems misplaced in a culture of corrupt politicians and broken bureaucracies.
If I sound like a wide-eyed Pakistani-American, it’s because I am. Pakistan today is more open and progressive than Pakistani communities in the United States. My parents’ generation in America has worked hard to preserve the Pakistan they left behind in the 1980’s.
Pakistani-Americans whisper and shake their heads about the wild parties they hear go on in Pakistan today. It’s true: alcohol, although illegal, is everywhere. And when I celebrated Christmas in Karachi this December, it was a Pakistani-American girl I met there who commented disapprovingly. Meanwhile, my Pakistani friends didn’t believe me when I tried to tell them that, having grown up in the United States, I have never met a Muslim who celebrated Christmas.
This is the change we need in Pakistan, but no U.S. policy or aid program could have brought it about. The desire that many Pakistanis have for a more open and liberal society, and the local leaders and businesses that are making it possible, are our best bet for stability and security in the region. Social change, economic growth, political maturity — these are things that crowd out groups like the Taliban and make their rhetoric fall flat. But these things have no formulas and Americans have the least ability to understand or control them — no matter how many policies are pronounced in Washington or billions of dollars poured into Islamabad.
More importantly, progress in Pakistan — strengthening economic growth, governance and liberal values — takes years to realize but only a few American airstrikes or Taliban bombings to destroy. American mistakes in the region have been aggravating public sentiments for years and fueled fundamentalism in the mainstream. In the 1990s, none of my aunts wore burkas. Now, they all do. And Taliban bombings in the cities are leading to a flight of people with means, usually the most progressive and educated, and capital. As we learned from our support for the mujahedeen in the 1980s, the secondary effects of U.S. policy are the most damning.
How do we harness and support positive trends in Pakistan? If Washington can put good people to work on that question, who will also factor in the limits of American understanding and ground capabilities in Pakistan, they will come to a better question: How can we protect the progress that Pakistanis have already made?
Instead of fixing “Af-Pak,” the best thing America can do for the region is stop it from getting more fouled up than it already is. So my answer to the question “what do we Americans do?” is to first understand what we have done already: U.S. war policies are inadvertently undermining the social and economic progress that Pakistanis have made over the years.
We need to accept the limits of our capabilities and understanding of realities on the ground. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States and other countries have a huge presence, few Americans travel to Pakistan and U.S. officials are extremely restricted in their movements.
Finally, we need realistic objectives, which will end up looking more like damage control than the magic bullet against the Taliban that everyone is looking for. Pakistan is a different story from Afghanistan — it is far more developed and modern. Afghans may not have the ability to lead themselves out of this mess, but Pakistanis do. After all, Pakistanis are the ones who suffer the most when their cities are bombed and their soldiers killed. If the United States continues to distort the situation through aggressive policy demands, then we are only reinforcing anti-Americanism and the breakdown of Pakistani institutions. What’s worse, if U.S. attention remains fixated on narrow measures of military success, Pakistan will become collateral damage of the Afghan war.
Nadia Naviwala is a student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a former national security aide in the U.S. Senate. She is currently researching U.S. development assistance in Pakistan.