Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Trump's Good Idea: Conditional Aid to Pakistan

President Donald Trump announced that the US would withhold aid to Pakistan in a January 2 tweet. While conditional aid, particularly with regards to Pakistan, is part of the solution to creating a more stable region, Trump's tweet lacked any semblance of diplomacy. It also exposed his lack of understanding of the power structures in Pakistan.

Trump initially tweeted:

The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies, deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!

It's true that beginning with Pervez Musharraf in the fresh moments after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Pakistan has been playing a "double game" of sorts. While the government promises to work in tandem with the U.S. to fight terrorism, the intelligence service, ISI, and the military have trained and funded terrorist groups.

Trump is not only wrong when he says Pakistan has given the U.S. nothing, his statement is impolitic. Pakistani soldiers have fought terrorist groups such as the TTP in remote areas in which the US military is unwilling to engage. They've provided the US with logistic support. They have turned over some members of al Qaeda. Trump's statement calling out Pakistan's "lies" ignores the country's support in the fight against terrorists in the region.

Whether led by Musharraf, Asif Ali Zardari, or Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani government has been ineffectual and less powerful than the military and the ISI. So Pakistan isn't so much playing a double game as it possesses different power centers with competing interests.

The military and the ISI have two primary goals: combating India and instituting a policy of strategic depth in Afghanistan. The purpose of training and funding terrorist groups is to create instability and weakness in India. However, these groups' ideology isn't limited to anti-Indian sentiment. Some are also anti-Western, an unfortunate reality of ISI's anti-India campaign. Pakistan most closely aligns with the ethnic Pashtuns of Afghanistan. Pashtuns inhabit both sides of the border with Afghanistan. The most powerful Pashtun group is the Taliban. Thus, Pakistan has had a hard time distancing itself fully from the Taliban since the group ensures a Pakistani ally on its western border. The military's biggest fear is a pro-Indian government in Afghanistan.

Conditional aid in Pakistan could be an effective policy. Previous US administrations have felt that the alliance is more positive than negative despite the unfortunate reality that some US aid to Pakistan will indirectly be funneled to terrorist groups. If Trump disagrees, then the US could withhold military aid and instead tie aid to the strengthening of the government and the implementation of the rule of law.

One downside to providing conditional aid to Pakistan is that we don't live in a vacuum. China and Pakistan have fostered a close relationship since the 1960s and Pakistan will simply turn to their neighbors for aid in the absence of support from the US. It may also leave room for Russia to widen its net of influence.

Trump's policy of conditional aid to Pakistan is a good idea, but it has its pitfalls. It must be part of a larger approach and undertaken with a delicate touch as to not push Pakistan away from the US and into the arms of China and Russia. However, Trump's aggressive tweet has shattered the hope tactful diplomacy. Instead, the tweet provoked outrage. The result has been waning American influence within Pakistan. The best course for Trump in the short term is to backtrack and apologize.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Estonia, Russians, and Russia: a complex mix

Estonia is a tiny sparsely populated country sitting in the Baltics under the shadow of its powerful Russian neighbor. Yet ethnic Russians within Estonia often find themselves at a disadvantage. For Estonia's leaders, it's a difficult duality to navigate.

Estonian President Toomas Hendrick Ilves has been a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression in Ukraine. Many in the West blame Putin for inciting a civil war between Western sympathizers and ethnic Russians in the former Soviet republic. Ilves fears Estonia could be next if Putin is not dissuaded by tough talk.

Ilves isn't delusional. Estonia gained independence by defeating the Red Army in 1920. The Soviet Union occupied the country in 1940 and took it back from the Germans in 1944. The country of Estonia was wiped off the map and incorporated into the Soviet Union.

In June of 1988, Estonians took to the Song Festival Grounds en masse to sing patriotic songs and wave the blue, black and white flag of their country. A significant portion of the country showed up preventing the Soviets from putting down the protest.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Estonia's subsequent independence, there has been an uneasy relationship between the Estonian state and its ethnic Russians. Estonia has the tenth most stateless persons of any country in the world despite its minute population overall (1.3 million). This is due to anti-Russian laws. For non ethnic Estonians- event hose born int he country- the naturalization process is quite rigorous. While Estonian is barely spoken in northwestern Estonia, those residents still must pass a difficult language test to gain citizenship.

The result is that many ethnic Russians, who make up about a quarter of the country, hold a gray passport. This allows them freedom of movement between Russia and Estonia, but doesn't give them citizenship in either country.

The border city of Narva is nearly 100% Russian. Some believe Putin has eyes on the enclave. Others believe that the ethnic Russians of Narva prefer to remain part of Estonia partly because of higher wages. Estonia is also part of NATO and if Putin invades Narva, all of NATO is obligated to fight.

Tensions are high in the region. NATO has performed military exercises in the country. Estonia has ramped up its own exercises. The heightened sense of anti-Russian anxiety could trickle down to a distrust toward ethnic Russians.

Ethnic Russians make less money than ethnic Estonians although the gap is closing. Russians faces obstacles towards entering public occupations. Initially, they were even banned from playing for the national soccer team.

Certainly Estonia's leaders need to remain concerned about the belligerent actions of its Russian neighbor, but suppressing ethnic Russians' rights will backfire. Putin will be able to manipulate any frustration among the ethnic Russian populace.

Estonia is becoming a global tech hub. It's one of the most wired countries in the world. Nearly every establishment offers free WiFi in the capital, Tallin. Companies such as Skype and Kazaa were created in the Baltic country. The nation's best of hope of staving off Russian aggression is to continue to promote innovation. Integrating ethnic Russians into its tech culture and tamping down ethnic chauvinism will also keep ethnic Russians happy to continue to call Estonia home. Estonia has a Russian problem, but it's not from within.