Pakistan: is the threat exaggerated?

April 27, 2009

As Pakistani forces fight militants in an area close to Swat, there are two contrasting images of a state in upheaval.

One is a nuclear-armed country in great peril, in danger of being overrun by militants, and in turn a mortal threat to the rest of the world, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton painted it last week.

The other is a nation of more than 160 million people with a burgeoning middle class that all but rejected Islamist parties in the last election, and hit the streets last month forcing the government to respect the independence and integrity of the judiciary. A nation with a professional army that for all the coups it engineered at home has credited itself well in all three wars it fought with much larger neighbour India, a bureaucracy as professional and cast in the same steel frame of the British empire as its counterpart in India, and a free and aggressive press.

In short as Juan Cole writes on his blog Informed Coment, Pakistan, for all its problems, is hardly the Somalia that some people think it to be. “All the talk about the Pakistani government falling within 6 months, or of a Taliban takeover, flies in the face of everything we know about the character of Pakistani politics and institutions during the past two years,” he writes.

Pakistan’s two big provinces of Punjab and Sind account for some  85% of the  population, and while these provinces have some Muslim extremists, they are a small fringe there, he writes. The Pakistani Taliban are largely a phenomenon of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas west of the North-West Frontier Province, and of a few districts within the NWFP itself. These are largely Pashtun ethnically.

The  “breathless observation” that there are Taliban a hundred miles from Islamabad doesn’t actually tell you very much, since Islamabad is geographically close to the Pashtun regions and it doesn’t necessarily mean the Pashtuns can dominate the capital, Cole argues.
So is the world being unnecessarily alarmist? Can the Taliban made up of few thousand fighters really take on the world’s sixth largest army, well-trained and for the task at hand well-armed ?

Or is the threat - some say of an Iranian-style revolution – very real and the Pakistani state, perhaps even many of its people in denial?. Mohammed Hanif, author of the acclaimed book The Case of the Exploding Mangoes, wrote in the Washington Post that in much of Pakistan there is “little sense of an impending crisis, just the blithe belief that the Taliban are not as bad as they seem.”

In any case, many Pakistanis believe the fractious government and security services are no match for the men with beards and guns, he writes. “I hear vague comparisons with the days before the Iranian revolution; the only problem is that we don’t seem to have a Khomeini, at least not yet. And we do have nuclear bombs. ”

So if this is not the looming apocalypse that Washington has made it out to be over the past week, is it a steady drift  towards an Islamic fundamentalist state?  Pakistanis seems to be exhausted, and there is not the will to fight the Taliban, Hanif writes.

Every now and then when the alarm bells ring from Washington to London - and the arms of those in power in Islamabad are twisted - there is a bit of movement.  Another offensive is launched, as has happened now in Lower Dir. But many complain it does not really change anything.

The Pakistani establishment has shown no determination to stop that drift towards a fundamentalist state, only to slow it slightly, apparently so that the electorate can get used to the idea, argues Newswatch, an intelligence analysis website.

[Residents fleeing the fighting in northwest


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