The inauguration earlier this week of Asif Ali Zardari as Pakistan’s president offers the possibility – but hardly the certainty – of a new beginning for Pakistan, and a new era in US-Pakistan relations.
Zardari’s election gives Pakistanis an opportunity to move beyond the passions and antipathies of the Pervez Musharraf years. It offers them a chance – one last chance – to get serious about dealing with the grave problems confronting their country. The United States can and should help with these efforts.
During the past year and a half, one political crisis after another has distracted Pakistanis from squarely facing the huge economic and security challenges that threaten their nation. Large swaths of Pakistan are no longer under the effective control of the state. Armed insurgents regularly employ terror tactics and remind Pakistanis just how incapable of providing basic security their government is.
Spiralling food prices mean that growing numbers of Pakistanis go to bed hungry. Power blackouts are daily occurrences and have jolted the industrial base of the country. The educational system is dysfunctional, the judicial system corrupt. Young men cannot find jobs and are ready targets for extremist recruiters.
If Pakistan does not begin to address these problems in a systematic and sustained fashion, this nation of 165 million people – the world’s sixth most populous country – could go off the rails. And vital US interests would be jeopardised.
Is Zardari up to the task?
Doubts abound, both at home and abroad. If he is to erase those reservations, he could do no better than to live up to the fine promises he made in an article in The Washington Post last week. In that article, Zardari laid out his vision of a “democratic, moderate and progressive” Pakistan. An early test of his intentions will be whether he voluntarily surrenders the vast powers of the presidency that Musharraf had accumulated for himself and which have been used to bring down a succession of elected governments.
The Bush administration belatedly recognised that a Pakistan policy built around Musharraf was a dead end. It has welcomed Zardari’s election, all the more so since it has considerable worries about Nawaz Sharif, the leader of Pakistan’s other principal political party.
But Washington must avoid both words and actions that would allow Zardari’s political opponents to label him “America’s man”. Unfortunately, that epitaph is the kiss of death in Pakistan. Instead of linking itself to one individual or party, the United States must work to sustain democratic governance and the rule of law in Pakistan.
In the days and weeks ahead, the administration must make clear its expectations of Pakistan. The good news is that – contrary to what Pakistanis widely believe – the United States wants for Pakistan the very same things most Pakistanis desire: a stable government responsive to their wishes, a prosperous economy that meets the needs of the meekest as well as the mightiest, a judicial system that dispenses impartial justice, an end to extremist-sponsored violence and peace with its neighbours.
If the country’s new political leadership is prepared to move Pakistan in this direction, Pakistanis have every right to look to the United States for substantial assistance in strengthening their economy, providing for the education of their young people, making quality health care available to all Pakistanis, and working with Pakistan in a multitude of other ways to build a modern, prosperous country.
In the United States, there is widespread support for generous and long-term assistance to Pakistan. Bipartisan legislation, the Biden-Lugar bill now under consideration on Capitol Hill, envisions a tripling of US assistance during the next decade. Prospects for its adoption are promising.
In one respect, however, the Biden-Lugar bill does not go far enough. The single most useful thing the United States can do to help Pakistan succeed is to put Pakistanis to work. And the single most effective step toward this end Washington could take would be to eliminate its current punitive tariff policies on Pakistani exports.
As it currently stands, US trade policy actually discriminates against Pakistan. US tariffs on Pakistani textiles – easily Pakistan’s most important export – are far steeper than on similar goods from other countries. As Edward Gresser of the Progressive Policy Institute has pointed out, each container of exported towels puts 500 Pakistani men and women to work.
Yet, textile exports from literally dozens of developing countries around the world face lower US tariffs than do Pakistani textiles. The least we could do is to level the playing field for Pakistani goods.
Similarly, many rich countries enjoy US trade benefits not available to Pakistan. Last year, Pakistani exports to the United States totalled not much more than a quarter of the value of Sweden’s exports. Yet the $365 million in tariff duties we imposed on Pakistan was almost three times the figure we extracted from Swedish goods. No wonder many Pakistanis disbelieve our protestations of good intentions toward their country.
It makes good political, economic, and strategic sense for the United States to move – and quickly – to give Pakistani textile exports preferred tariff status – or at least parity with their competitors. Doing so will not be easy. Entrenched US interests will denounce the idea as too costly for American industry and too destructive of American jobs. But surely a way can be found to meet the legitimate concerns of US companies and workers. As the United States seeks to help Pakistan, trade parity should be at the top of the next administration’s agenda.
* Robert M. Hathaway is the director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Middle East Progress