Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the possibility in April of Islamist militants taking over Pakistan and its nuclear weapons, her words were dismissed as alarmist – and perhaps deliberately so as a way of putting pressure on Islamabad to act.
The problem with Pakistan is that it is almost impossible to come up with a view that is not either alarmist or complacent. It is such a complex country that nobody can agree a frame of reference for assessing the risk. It is the base for a bewildering array of militants including Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda and anti-India groups, yet also has a powerful and professional army which would be expected to defend to the last its Punjab heartland and nuclear weapons against a jihadi takeover. Its potent mix of poverty and Islamist sympathies among a significant section of the population make it ripe for revolution, yet it also has a strong and secular-minded civil society which was willing to go out into the streets earlier this year to demand an independent judiciary.
You can assess the risk in Pakistan by looking at the rate of decline in stability there, and that was faster than anyone expected over the past year or so until a military offensive against the Taliban in Swat which began in April halted the slide.
Or you can look at the worst case scenario, of Islamist militants taking over a nuclear-armed Pakistan, and decide that even if that outcome is unlikely, the potential dangers arising from it are so great as to put Pakistani stability at the top of global risks.
Joshua Foust is an American military analyst. He blogs about Central Asia and Afghanistan at Registan.net . Reuters is not responsible for the content – the views are the author’s alone.
It would be an understatement to call opium cultivation in Afghanistan America’s headache. The issue of illegal drug cultivation and smuggling has vexed policymakers for three decades, and led to a multi-billion dollar campaign to combat the phenomenon.
When France and Germany put years of enmity behind them after World War Two, they made a leap of faith in agreeing to entwine their economies so that war became impossible. With their economies now soldered by the euro, it can be easy to forget how deep their mutual distrust once ran - from the Napoleonic wars to the fall of Paris to Prussia in 1871, to the trenches of World War One and the Nazi occupation of France in World War Two.
As India and Pakistan begin yet another attempt to make peace, they face a similar challenge. Can they put aside years of distrust to build on a tentative thaw in relations?
Having asked last month whether Pakistan was in a position to take on the Laskhar-e-Taiba, an obvious follow-up question was to try to assess how much of a threat the militant group blamed for last year’s attacks on Mumbai represents to the West and to India.
According to analysts who track the LeT closely, the Pakistan-based militant group is not the new al Qaeda. It is still very much focused on Kashmir and India, while its single-issue agenda along with the humanitarian work carried out by its Jamaat-ud-Dawa charitable wing mean it is more comparable to the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas than to al Qaeda.
A new poll shows public opinion in Pakistan has turned sharply against the Taliban and other Islamist militants, even though they still do not trust the United States and President Barack Obama. Reporting on the poll, our Asia specialist in Washington, Paul Eckert, said the WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, conducted in May as Pakistan's army fought the Taliban in the Swat Valley, found that 81 percent saw the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda as a critical threat to the country, a jump from 34 percent in a similar poll in late 2007. Read Eckert's report here. (Photo: Pakistani Taliban in Swat, 2 Nov 2007/Sherin Zada Kanju)
The poll shows a wide divergence between Pakistani public opinion and the views of the Taliban on the implementation of sharia, a religious issue sometimes cited to help explain earlier tolerance of the militants. Some 80 percent of the respondents said sharia permits education for girls, one of the first services the Taliban close down when they gain control of an area. And 75 percent said sharia allows women to work, which the Taliban do not.
One of the more intriguing reports about Pakistan under former president Pervez Musharraf was that it had come close to a deal with India on Kashmir. The tentative agreement failed to see the light of day after Musharraf became embroiled in a row over the judiciary which eventually forced him to quit. His successor, President Asif Ali Zardari, then renewed calls for peace with India, stressing the economic gains of increased trade ties and even offering to overturn Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine by offering to commit to a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. Then came last November’s attack on Mumbai, blamed by India on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, and all talk of peace was off. India quashed any suggestion a resolution of the Kashmir dispute would help bring peace to South Asia, insisting that linking Kashmir with the Mumbai attacks would reward acts of terrorism.
Three developments this week pushed Kashmir back onto the agenda.
In the Kashmir Valley itself, protests erupted over the alleged rape and murder of two Kashmiri women. Residents said the women, aged 17 and 22, were abducted, raped and killed by security forces. Indian authorities denied the killing and said the women drowned in a stream.
India has been fretting for months that it could be pushed into the background by the United States’ economic dependence on China and by the renewed focus on Pakistan by President Barack Obama’s administration. That anxiety appears to have increased lately – perhaps because the end of the country’s lengthy election campaign has opened up space to think more about the external environment — and is focusing on China.
In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Indian Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major said China posed a greater threat than Pakistan. “China is a totally different ballgame compared to Pakistan,” he was quoted as saying. “We know very little about the actual capabilities of China, their combat edge or how professional their military is … they are certainly a greater threat.”
After a diplomatic pause enforced by India’s lengthy election campaign, the country will soon have a new government after the ruling Congress party won an unexpectedly decisive victory. But analysts doubt the change of government will bring a significant change of heart in India towards Pakistan.
Despite Pakistan’s offensive against the Taliban in the Swat valley, they say India has yet to be convinced the Pakistan Army is ready to crack down more widely on Islamist militants, fearing instead that it will selectively go after some groups, while leaving others like the Afghan Taliban and Kashmir-oriented groups alone. While Pakistan wants to resume talks broken off by New Delhi after last November’s attack on Mumbai, India has said it wants Islamabad to take more action first against those behind the assault, which it blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.
With Pakistan launching what the country’s Daily Times calls an “all-out war” against the Taliban, more than 500,000 people have fled the fighting in the northwest, bringing to more than a million those displaced since August, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.After apparently giving the Taliban enough rope to hang themselves, by offering a peace deal in the Swat valley which the government said they then reneged upon, the government for now seems to have won enough popular backing to launch its offensive.But to succeed in defeating the Taliban, the government must also be ready with a strategy to rebuild shattered lives if the mood in the northwest is not to turn sour, Dawn newspaper says. It quotes defence analyst Ikram Sehgal as estimating the military could take up to two months to conclude its campaign, and that dealing with the impact on civilians will require more than 10 times the one billion rupees (12 million dollars) the government has so far announced.In a separate article, it says that refugees are already upset about the behaviour of both the Taliban and the military. ’We are frightened of the Taliban and the army. If they want to fight, they should kill each other, they should not take refuge in our homes,” it quotes an 18-year-old girl as saying.Both Pakistan’s The News International newspaper and the blog Changing up Pakistan warn against the onset of compassion fatigue, both for the sake of the people affected and to make sure refugee camps do not turn into recruiting grounds for the Taliban.”If the militants can provide services and offer more viable options for IDPs than the state, that is a dangerous phenomenon. The government and international agencies must therefore do more to relieve the plight of the ever-increasing number of displaced persons in Pakistan, not just for humanitarian purposes, but because we cannot afford to let the Taliban win any more,” Changing up Pakistan says.In the meantime, more questions are being raised about the U.S. administration’s policy of using unmanned drone aircraft to fire missiles on Pakistan’s tribal areas. The missile attacks, meant to target militant leaders and disrupt al Qaeda’s capabilities, cause civilian casualties, alienate Pakistanis who see them as an invasion of sovereignty and add to a perception that Pakistan is fighting “America’s war” in one place, while being bombed by American planes in another.Foreign Policy Journal quotes U.S. Congressman Ron Paul as criticising the Obama administration for continuing the drone missile attacks first started under President George W. Bush. “We are bombing a sovereign country,” it quotes him as saying. “Where do we get the authority to do that? Did the Pakistani government give us written permission? Did the Congress give us written permission to expand the war and start bombing in Pakistan?” he asked.
It adds that he said there are “many, many thousands of Pashtuns that are right smack in the middle, getting killed by our bombs, and then we wonder why they object to our policies over there. How do you win the hearts and minds of these people if we’re seen as invaders and occupies?”
Dawn newspaper also urges an end to the drone attacks in a passionately worded editorial.
With President Hamid Karzai now looking all but unassailable in Afghanistan’s August election, two articles out this week – one from Washington and the other from India – offer mirror-image analyses of President Barack Obama’s handling of the Afghan leader. They should really be read as companion pieces since both offer insights into the workings of the Obama administration and the complexities of Afghan politics. Reading both together also highlights how different the world looks depending on your perspective, whether writing from America or Asia.According to this article in the Washington Post by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (highlighted by Joshua Foust at Registan.net) the Obama administration had decided to keep Karzai at arm’s length. It says Obama’s advisers faulted former President George W. Bush for forging too personal a relationship with Karzai through bi-weekly video conferences and as a result creating such cosiness that it became hard for his administration to put pressure on the Afghan government.”It was a conversation. It was a dialogue. It was a lot of ‘How are you doing? How is your son?’” it quotes a senior U.S. government official who attended some of the sessions as saying. “Karzai sometimes placed his infant son on his lap during the conversations.”"Obama’s advisers have crafted a two-pronged strategy that amounts to a fundamental break from the avuncular way President George W. Bush dealt with the Afghan leader,” the report said. ”Obama intends to maintain an arm’s-length relationship with Karzai in the hope that it will lead him to address issues of concern to the United States, according to senior U.S. government officials. The administration will also seek to bypass Karzai by working more closely with other members of his cabinet and by funnelling more money to local governors.”Retired Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, has a rather different reading on the wisdom of the Obama administration’s approach. In this article in the Asia Times Online, headlined What Obama could learn from Karzai, (highlighted by Marie-France Calle on her French-language blog), he says the Americans allowed themselves to be outmanoeuvred by the Afghan President by keeping him at arms-length.”In retrospect, United States President Barack Obama did a great favour to Afghan President Hamid Karzai by excluding him from his charmed circle of movers and shakers who would wield clout with the new administration in Washington,” he writes. “Obama was uncharacteristically rude to Karzai by not even conversing with him by telephone for weeks after he was sworn in, even though Afghanistan was the number one policy priority of his presidency.”But Karzai, he says, had the last laugh, as the opprobrium heaped upon him by the west raised his standing in Afghan eyes. Karzai had been able to manoeuvre himself into a strong position through weeks of Afghan-style backroom negotiations, capped by a decision by a popular candidate to pull out of the election race.”The Afghan experience with democracy offers a good lesson for Obama: it is best to keep a discreet distance and leave the Afghans to broker power-sharing on their own terms, according to their own ethos and tradition,” he writes. “However, Obama has a long way to go in imbibing the lessons of democracy in the Hindu Kush …”(Reuters photos: President Karzai, and Karzai with President Obama and Vice President Biden. Photos by Yuri Gripas and Jonathan Ernst)