How much time does Pakistan have?

May 20, 2009

Ahmed Rashid’s article on Pakistan in the New York Review of Books makes for an alarming read.  Excerpts do not do justice to it,  as you have to read the whole thing to understand why he thinks Pakistan really is on the brink, but here are a few:

“American officials are in a concealed state of panic, as I observed during a recent visit to Washington at the time when 17,000 additional troops were being dispatched to Afghanistan. The Obama administration unveiled its new Afghan strategy on March 27, only to discover that Pakistan is the much larger security challenge, while US options there are far more limited.”

“The last two years have bought some hope in the growth of the middle class, an articulate and increasingly influential civil society made up partly of urban professionals and publicly involved women. Most Pakistanis are not Islamic extremists and believe in moderate and spiritual forms of Islam, including Sufism. However, Pakistan is now reaching a tipping point. There is a chronic failure of leadership, whether by civilian politicians or the army. President Zardari’s decision to invade Swat in early May came only after pressure was applied by the Obama administration and the army and the government had been left with no other palatable options. But with the Taliban opening new fronts, it will soon become impossible for the army to respond to the multiple threats it faces on so many geographically distant battlefields. The Taliban’s campaigns to assassinate politicians and administrators have demoralized the government.”

“The Obama administration can provide money and weapons but it cannot recreate the state’s will to resist the Taliban and pursue more effective policies. Pakistan desperately needs international aid, but its leaders must first define a strategy that demonstrates to its own people and other nations that it is willing to stand up to the Taliban and show the country a way forward.”

There has been much alarmist talk this year about Pakistan, notably with U.S. adviser David Kilcullen saying in March that the Pakistani state could collapse within six months, followed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying in April that Pakistan posed a “mortal threat” to the world. Most of that talk has been dismissed as exaggerated, including by Juan Cole in his blog Informed Comment and other analysts. The country has a strong civil society, which only in March took to the streets to demand an independent judiciary and the reinstatement of the Chief Justice. It has a powerful military, and whatever its critics say about its policies, the Pakistan Army is intensely patriotic and is hardly likely to hand over control of the country to Islamist militants who do not even believe in the existence of the nation state. 

Yet looking at the flood of refugees in Pakistan — above one million and still rising, according to the UNHCR — you do have to wonder how much time Pakistan has to right itself.  President Asif Ali Zardari says the current offensive in the Swat valley is just the start of an operation that will take the army  deep into the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.  How many more internal refugees can the country cope with, especially given that it traces its current instability to the three million refugees who flooded in from Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979?

Part of the problem is that some of the solutions for Pakistan lie in the long term.  To the west, an end to the fighting in Afghanistan would stop instability washing over into Pakistan. But no one expects a political settlement in Afghanistan any time soon. To the east, peace with India would boost the economy by encouraging trade and give the Pakistan Army an opportunity to readjust its mindset away from seeing India as an existential threat. But India remains wary of Pakistan after last November’s attack on Mumbai and any moves made by the newly re-elected government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to reduce tension are likely to be slow and tentative.

If Pakistan is indeed, as Rashid writes, reaching a tipping point, it does not have the time to wait for long-term solutions.

(Photos: Refugees caught up in a dust storm/Faisal Mahmood)

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