The $110 Billion Question
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
When one looks across the Arab world today at the stunning spontaneous democracy uprisings, it is impossible to not ask: What are we doing spending $110 billion this year supporting corrupt and unpopular regimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan that are almost identical to the governments we’re applauding the Arab people for overthrowing?
Ever since 9/11, the West has hoped for a war of ideas within the Muslim world that would feature an internal challenge to the violent radical Islamic ideology of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. That contest, though, never really materialized because the regimes we counted on to promote it found violent Muslim extremism a convenient foil, so they allowed it to persist. Moreover, these corrupt, crony capitalist Arab regimes were hardly the ideal carriers for an alternative to bin Ladenism. To the contrary, it was their abusive behavior and vicious suffocation of any kind of independent moderate centrist parties that fueled the extremism even more.
Now the people themselves have taken down those regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, and they’re rattling the ones in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman and Iran. They are not doing it for us, or to answer bin Laden. They are doing it by themselves for themselves — because they want their freedom and to control their own destinies. But in doing so they have created a hugely powerful, modernizing challenge to bin Ladenism, which is why Al Qaeda today is tongue-tied. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Al Qaeda’s answer to modern-day autocracy was its version of the seventh-century Caliphate. But the people — from Tunisia to Yemen — have come up with their own answer to violent extremism and the abusive regimes we’ve been propping up. It’s called democracy. They have a long way to go to lock it in. It may yet be hijacked by religious forces. But, for now, it is clear that the majority wants to build a future in the 21st century, not the seventh.
In other words, the Arab peoples have done for free, on their own and for their own reasons, everything that we were paying their regimes to do in the “war on terrorism” but they never did.
And that brings me back to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last October, Transparency International rated the regime of President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan as the second most corrupt in the world after Somalia’s. That is the Afghan regime we will spend more than $110 billion in 2011 to support.
And tell me that Pakistan’s intelligence service, ISI, which dominates Pakistani politics, isn’t the twin of Hosni Mubarak’s security service. Pakistan’s military leaders play the same game Mubarak played with us for years. First, they whisper in our ears: “Psst, without us, the radical Islamists will rule. So we may not be perfect, but we’re the only thing standing in the way of the devil.” In reality, though, they are nurturing the devil. The ISI is long alleged to have been fostering anti-Indian radical Muslim groups and masterminding the Afghan Taliban.
Apart from radical Islam, the other pretext the Pakistani military uses for its inordinate grip on power is the external enemy. Just as Arab regimes used the conflict with Israel for years to keep their people distracted and to justify huge military budgets, Pakistan’s ISI tells itself, the Pakistani people and us that it can’t stop sponsoring proxies in Afghanistan because of the “threat” from India.
Here’s a secret: India is not going to invade Pakistan. It is an utterly bogus argument. India wants to focus on its own development, not owning Pakistan’s problems. India has the second-largest Muslim population on the planet, more even than Pakistan. And while Indian Muslims are not without their economic and political grievances, they are, on the whole, integrated into India’s democracy because it is a democracy. There are no Indian Muslims in Guantánamo Bay.
Finally, you did not need to dig very far in Egypt or Jordan to hear that one reason for the rebellion in Egypt and protests in Jordan was the in-your-face corruption and crony capitalism that everyone in the public knew about.
That same kind of pillaging of assets — natural resources, development aid, the meager savings of a million Kabul Bank depositors and crony contracts — has fueled a similar anger against the regime in Afghanistan and undermined our nation-building efforts there.
The truth is we can’t do much to consolidate the democracy movements in Egypt and Tunisia. They’ll have to make it work themselves. But we could do what we can, which is divert some of the $110 billion we’re lavishing on the Afghan regime and the Pakistani Army and use it for debt relief, schools and scholarships to U.S. universities for young Egyptians and Tunisians who had the courage to take down the very kind of regimes we’re still holding up in Kabul and Islamabad.
I know we can’t just walk out of Afghanistan and Pakistan; there are good people, too, in both places. But our involvement in these two countries — 150,000 troops to confront Al Qaeda — is totally out of proportion today with our interests and out of all sync with our values.