Weekly Insights and Analysis

U.S., Pakistan, Afghanistan: Striking A Balance

May 13, 2009

By Ellen Laipson

President Obama’s meetings this week with the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan focused on the immediate security crisis – the eroding situation in Pakistan and the continued threat of the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. But chances for lasting and effective cooperation between Washington and the beleaguered governments in Kabul and Islamabad will require more than intense leadership summits.

It will also require rebuilding of trust and persuading presidents Zardari and Karzai and their compatriots that Washington can balance its military and counterinsurgency know-how with a deep and sustained interest in the security and well-being of their societies.

President Obama’s new policy acknowledges that governance and development are critical to ensuring that the conditions that led to the rise of the Taliban and the Taliban’s willingness to shelter the foreign forces of al-Qaida do not prevail. There is talk of billions of dollars in investment in economic development, education, and basic health services. In spite of U.S. economic stress, Congress appears willing to support significant new aid dollars for the two countries.

But let’s be honest: The true results of such activities will not be known for years, and one cannot assume that the development preferences of the governments in the region will easily align with our priorities.

Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan are still tribally organized, with powerful cultural norms, systems of justice and consultation that do not lend themselves naturally to the modernist models of aid professionals. There will be resistance, and results will not be readily apparent.

Reform of education alone will be a source of friction at many levels. Access to schooling for girls, matching curricula to skills needed in the economy, and changing norms about child labor are only a few of the daunting challenges in this one sector alone.

The larger context is the political environment and the historical memories that shape views of America’s intentions. Presidents Zardari and Karzai are both relative newcomers to their national politics, but around them are players steeped in narratives about American betrayal and neglect. The locals perceive that the United States engages in the region only when there is a direct and acute self-interest; when circumstances change, Washington moves on to new crises and forgets its promises.

This story reflects the grievances of the early 1990s, after the Soviet withdrawal, and the aftermath of the 2003 decision to go to war in Iraq, leaving in Afghanistan too few forces and resources to definitively resolve the Taliban-al-Qaida problem that brought U.S. forces there in 2001.

Recent civilian casualties from U.S.-led operations have heightened opposition to the partnership with Washington. While the two leaders are dependent on U.S. political and military support, they have a hard balancing act to not appear complacent about controversial side effects of these operations. Their publics perceive little difference between presidents Bush and Obama with respect to the dominance of the military in our relations with both countries.

President Obama and his team need to realize that these wounds are still fresh, and that there is cynicism about U.S. long-term intentions. This underlying tension cannot be entirely resolved. It is indisputably true that the U.S. will determine its priorities according to its own perceived interests, and the leaders who met in Washington have to be responsible for setting their own national agendas and promoting policies that address the needs of their very different populations.

The public discussion of America’s role in the region is focused on the dangerous and frightening realities on the ground, but the long-term prospects for successful collaboration require – perhaps in different channels that can help shape public opinion and build trust with the leaders – a very different tone and a capacity to show more understanding of the legacy of U.S. involvement in the region.

Ellen Laipson is President of the Stimson Center, a non-profit, non-partisan institution dedicated to international security issues and is a Trustee of The Asia Foundation. She was Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council from 1997 to 2002. The below opinion piece originally ran on, and is included here with permission from the author.


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