What should the U.S. do about the strategically important nation of Pakistan?

The mood in Washington is presently sour.

Top officials in the White House, the State Department and the CIA think Pakistan was either complicit or incompetent in harboring Osama bin Laden.

Some Congressmen, both Republican and Democrat, are grumbling about the very substantial U.S. aid package flowing to a partner they deem unreliable, perhaps even untrustworthy.

The military are fed up with an intelligence and military apparatus in Pakistan that alternately chases some terrorist groups but buys off others.

Is it not time for the U.S. to dump Pakistan? Let us consider the consequences.

Pakistan is currently a shaky democracy that has been in and out of military dictatorships since its creation in 1947 as a homeland for Muslims. Even now the Pakistani military calls many of the shots. Pakistan's population of 170 million, is fragmented into six main ethnic groups, and is abjectly poor. Only 2 percent of the populace pay taxes. The country's political institutions are weak, as is its economy.

Pakistan is consumed by a pathological fear of neighboring India, with which it has fought four wars. President George W. Bush cultivated India, encouraging its nuclear development program. In contrast to Pakistan, India's economy is booming. Thus unless there is dramatic improvement, Pakistan could be a failing Muslim state, with a population of 300 million by the end of the century, in a critical strategic region.

It is also a nation with a bristling nuclear arsenal of more than a hundred missiles, and imbedded al-Qaida, Taliban, and other terrorist factions, some of which would dearly like to acquire one of those weapons.

Does this seem like a nation the US should spurn, however prickly it may be to work with?

A final factor to consider is that if the U.S. disengaged from its rocky partnership with Pakistan, the Pakistanis would likely ally more closely with China, currently an economic rival to the U.S. with strategic ambitions in areas of American dominance.

Pakistan has long had cordial relations with China, whose president Hu Jintao once described the relationship as "higher than the mountains and deeper than oceans." In 1950 Pakistan was one of the first countries to break relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan and recognize the Beijing government.

The two countries have regularly exchanged high level visits and China has provided weaponry to the Pakistani military.

After the 9/11 attack on New York masterminded by Osama bin Laden, President Bush called upon Pakistan to declare its stance for-or-against the U.S. in the campaign against al-Qaida. Pakistan's then President Musharraf came out forcefully in support of the U.S., triggering an alliance with Washington after an on-and-off relationship with the Americans over the years.

But some Pakistani politicians have consistently argued that China is a more logical and reliable partner for Pakistan than the U.S.. Their argument gained some fervor when President Bush forged a close relationship with India that included support for India's nuclear development.

Clearly an American disruption of its partnership with Pakistan now would encourage the movement in Pakistan to make China its principal ally.

In 2009 Congress voted a huge multi-billion dollar aid bill for Pakistan focused on democratic and social development. It included a strict annual review aimed at curbing military meddling. Pakistan's military balked and Congress backed down.

1 comment on this story

It would be folly for Congress to cancel this aid program important for the stabilization of Pakistan. But Congress has a right to ensure that in a time of fiscal hardship at home, these billions are spent productively.

The U.S. is right to challenge Pakistani actions and policies contrary to American interests. It is right to determine friend from foe in the Pakistani government, military and intelligence apparatus.

This is a far cry from cold-shouldering Pakistan and throwing it into the arms of China.

John Hughes teaches journalism at Brigham Young University. He is a former editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, and a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column.