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The Hill: Upholding U.S. values in Pakistan

Since Sept. 11, the United States has given large sums of money to Pakistan to gain allegiance and support in the global war on terror. In return, the United States hopes for cooperation on issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to cracking down on jihadist groups. As a result, President Obama is confronting questions over how to balance security concerns with humanitarian and human rights principles, the very choice he denounced as false in his campaign. Yet presidential candidate Barack Obama was right that demonstrating America’s values and support for human rights abroad will make us safer.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a well-respected watchdog based in Islamabad, reported between 300 and 400 extrajudicial killings by security forces during counterinsurgency operations in 2009. Human Rights Watch recently released initial findings documenting extensive military abuses against civilians. And it is clear that U.S. government officials at the highest levels are aware of the military’s alleged involvement in gross violations of human rights. The United States should be publicly scrutinizing these abuses and ensuring that U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent on long-term goals for stability. Our credibility in the region is at stake.

The controversial role of the military is not confined to the battlefield. An active military general is in charge of coordinating humanitarian assistance, and at one point was simultaneously leading military operations. The military determines who is eligible for government assistance by designating a limited number of areas as conflict zones, whose residents are the only ones eligible for government aid, rather than assisting victims based on their legitimate needs. Moreover, the military is now in charge of rebuilding schools, roads and other infrastructure, which pushes the civilian government aside. USAID recently provided $55 million to the Pakistani military to rebuild a road in South Waziristan.

U.S. policy toward Pakistan is conflicted when it calls for the strengthening of the civilian government while also encouraging the Pakistani military to conduct civilian tasks. These expansive and controversial military roles remain unchallenged by U.S. diplomats, who tacitly acknowledge that questioning the military’s responsibility in violating humanitarian and human rights principles could hurt security gains.

I’ve met with several administration officials and congressional staff who, while sympathetic to the plight of Pakistani civilians, maintain that the priority of defeating the Taliban limits U.S. leverage over the Pakistani military on human rights concerns — divorcing people’s rights from U.S. strategic interests.

In 2009 President Obama said, “We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe.” Yet, the Obama administration’s call for a new paradigm in the conduct of the war on terror rings increasingly hollow as it falls short of demanding proper accountability from the Pakistani military in the name of shared security interests.

We do not have to choose between our security and our ideals. Upholding international humanitarian and human rights principles should be at the top of the United States’s to-do list in its policy toward Pakistan.

Duplat and Rendón, advocates at Refugees International, recently traveled to Pakistan.