“U.S. must help Pakistan provide for its people”

Special to The Seattle Times

By Ambreen Ali

THE U.S. media have become obsessed with Pakistan of late, fueling a sense of panic that we must do something quickly to save Pakistan from crumbling.

True, violent tragedies seem to occur in Pakistan regularly, overtaking headlines before the prior ones register. But the most important policy the U.S. can implement as Pakistan takes on big challenges is to step out of the way.

Those attacks are a sad reminder that for Pakistan’s involvement in America’s war, its citizens have paid a hefty price. For years, the U.S. has focused the Pakistani government on a border fight with Afghanistan, instead of the needs of its people.

While the U.S.-backed dictator Pervez Musharraf received billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, the country itself crumbled into vulnerability. Musharraf minimally addressed the nation’s infrastructure and economic needs, and the famously corrupt Asif Ali Zardari has fared far worse.

As a result, 12-hour power outages have now become a daily routine in Pakistan’s biggest cities. Even the most skilled struggle to find work. As impoverished as Pakistanis were a decade ago, they are worse off today.

For that, the U.S. must admit its role. The billions we poured into the country encouraged Pakistan to focus its resources on military growth. According to the Center for American Progress, between 2002 and 2007, the U.S. spent $5.8 billion in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Of that money, 96 percent went to military operations. Just 1 percent went to development.

I witnessed the results of that imbalance firsthand while on a service project in Pakistan four years ago. Through the U.S.-based Impak fellowship program, I taught a summer computer course to high-school grads in a slum on the outskirts of bustling Karachi.

One day in class, a student recited a poem she had written for me.  Shagufta Ahsan had turned 16 that day, and she asked me to close my eyes as she listed her birthday wishes. They ranged from “I want to catch butterflies” to “I want a computer.” But at the end, there was a sadder note: “My wishes are too stupid for rich people. All my wishes will go with me into the next year too.”

While many of the adults in Shagufta’s slum had low-paying jobs at a nearby factory, Shagufta’s parents were both unemployed. Empowered by a free education through the nonprofit The Citizens Foundation, she tutored other students in English for spare cash.

She had just graduated high school when I met her, and despite a sharp mind and an apparent knack for learning, she wasn’t going on to college: She couldn’t afford the paltry fees. “The government is failing me,” she repeatedly told me.

Shagufta dreamed of joining the Air Force, not because of some patriotic call to serve her nation, but because it promised stable income and a means to support her family. Like her, most of my students wanted to be soldiers. In Pakistan, the last stable source of jobs is the military. Not incidentally, U.S. aid to Pakistan has long focused on strengthening its military might.

There’s some truth in the American assertion that Pakistan has been an unwilling partner in the Afghanistan war. Pakistanis see their own national needs as having been pushed aside while their U.S.-backed leaders joined a battle on America’s behalf.

Not only that, but Pakistan has incurred direct costs as well. When the U.S. intensified pressure in Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership moved into Pakistani territory. As U.S. drone-fired missiles followed, many Pakistani civilians have become refugees or lost their lives in the violence.

The Obama-endorsed $1.5 billion aid package proposed for Pakistan focuses on economic aid, a crucial realignment of our support. Ultimately, what Pakistan needs is breathing room to grow its nascent state and provide for its people.

Insurgent groups have been all too eager to step in where the government has failed. If we are to commit to a safer world, we must give Pakistan the capacity and freedom to help its citizens achieve their dreams.

Ambreen Ali is a Seattle-based journalist. She most recently visited Pakistan last fall, on the heels of a six-month reporting trip to India.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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