Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

Pakistan is not Egypt (and it hasn’t had a coup)

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One of the risks of the deteriorating situation inside Pakistan and its worsening relations with the outside world is the temptation to box it into a manageable category to make it less bewildering. Thus this week,  the disqualification of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani by the Supreme Court was widely described as a “judicial coup” - an evocation of the many military interventions in Pakistan since its creation in 1947 – and from there it became easy to compare it to the reassertion of military power in Egypt .  By then we were but a hop, skip and a jump away from Pakistan’s definition as a failed state.

But Pakistan is not a failed state. It is perhaps better described, as columnist Doctor Mohammad Taqi said on Twitter, by what in medicine would be considered ”a long term acute patient…like a successful failed state”. The disqualification of the prime minister will not lead to the collapse of the democratic system in Pakistan – rather the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) will choose a new prime minister and limp on to elections due by early next year.

And Pakistan is not Egypt. Unlike Egypt, Pakistan’s civilian politicians have had years of experience of trying to assert themselves over the powerful military.  Squabbling between politicians created the space for repeated overthrows of civilian governments in the past, culminating most recently in a military coup in 1999.  They have learned from their mistakes. Former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif was himself overthrown in that 1999 coup; he has recently become one of the country’s most outspoken critics of the army and would be wary of derailing the democratic process to the extent that it would open the door for a military takeover. Meanwhile, the Pakistan Army itself has shown no inclination to run the country, though it continues to dominate foreign and security policy.

So be wary of labels, and easy categories.  Or as Jay Ulfelder wrote about Egypt, “the labels we choose should reflect our thinking about the nature of the process involved and the historical cases to which we might usefully compare it. I don’t think we can figure out what to call…events (in Egypt) without first choosing a conceptual framework to characterize the larger change process in which those events are embedded.”

FATA is not a country in Africa

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U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is using increasingly forthright terms to describe the spillover of the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in its campaign of drone strikes. “We are fighting a war in the FATA, we are fighting a war against terrorism,” he said during a visit to India. The idea that the United States is at war inside Pakistan, albeit in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, is not new. But the use of language is significant, requiring as Spencer Ackerman noted at Danger Room, “a war-weary (US) public to get used to fighting what’s effectively a third war in a decade, even if this one relies far more on remote controlled robots than ground troops”.

Panetta’s choice of words (and venue for delivering them) may not go down too well with Pakistani authorities in Islamabad/Rawalpindi. It is not particularly promising for the people of FATA either, who find themselves caught in the middle of a shadow war between the United States and Pakistan. But in one respect, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Rarely has the United States fought a war in a place about which it knows so little. If Panetta’s comments force people to learn about FATA, it might even lift us out of what until now has been a polemical debate between supporters and opponents of drone strikes, with little attention paid to the voices of people who actually live there.

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