Last week’s tripartite summit in Washington, D.C. during which President Barack Obama hosted President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan was a lot like a Chinese meal.

After a substantial repast of meetings and media events, one is left with a gnawing hunger for real progress in the battle against insurgents in both countries.

Zardari came to convince Washington that he needed much more aid than the current $1.5 billion annually for five years promised by bills pending before the U.S. Congress and substantial military aid. He left with the promise of five additional helicopters and little in the way of additional financial aid. Indeed, the U.S. had already pledged $1 billion at the Tokyo meeting of the Friends of Pakistan as a down payment towards the promised Kerry-Lugar $1.5 billion aid package.

Karzai appeared to have gone home with a sense that the earlier coolness of the U.S. administration had been replaced with a grudging acceptance of the inevitability of his re-election as President in the August election against a divided field. To borrow a phrase from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld “you fight alongside the ally that you can get.”

The U.S. clearly wished for greater action by Pakistan against the militants inside Pakistan and along the Afghan border. It also wanted better collaboration between the Afghans and Pakistanis. It  may not have got much progress on the first but made some progress on the latter objective. Yet, given the waning popularity of both leaders at home, Obama may be left wondering how strong his allies are going to be in the battle against terrorism and militancy, and how long the U.S. public and European allies will want to stay the course in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What’s missing from the picture in Pakistan?

A fledgling civil government has been unable to assert its control over the country’s polity and its military. Lacking a clear vision of what kind of country it wants Pakistan to be, the government has made alliances with all types of parties, many of them opportunistic members of the preceding Musharraf regime. Despite his own promises and a written commitment of his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Zardari has yet to shed the extraordinary presidential powers of his predecessor, thus diminishing the powers of the prime minister and parliament. And, despite a raging insurgency that has swept from the Afghan borderlands into the Pakistani hinterland, the government has not yet shown itself operating on a war footing.

The Swat deal with the Pakistani Taliban collapsed, as widely expected. In the absence of effective civil administration and a community-based police force that could have kept the militants at bay, yet again the military has been sent in to roust the Taliban. But it faces a daunting task, as an energized insurgency, with well equipped fighters, promises to battle the army street-by-street for the towns of Swat.

Meanwhile, Pakistan faces the prospect of a million plus refugees.  The government seemed unprepared for such a massive exodus and it seems to be falling back on the old system of proposing an international aid conference to garner relief assistance. Yet again civil society seems to be bearing the brunt of the relief efforts.

If there had been an institutional mechanism for national security analysis and decision making with a clear central command authority(a Pakistani Richard Holbrooke who could team up with the Army Chief)  to break down the stove pipes in the Pakistani government, the exodus would have been anticipated and arrangements put in place to look after the displaced people. Most of them now are seeking shelter outside the paltry camps set up to handle them. The National Security Council has been abolished. The Defence Committee of the cabinet does not appear to have met to discuss the crisis. And in the absence of a National Security Adviser, sacked by the prime minister in a moment of pique following the Mumbai attack, there is no formal mechanism for studying such issues nor a central point in government to ensure that all parts of the administration work together to anticipate problems and resolve issues.

A highly personalized decision making process remains in place, informed in some cases more by anecdote than by analysis. Most exchanges on military issues take place directly between the President and the Army Chief. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is often by-passed. Coordination of the fight against the militants between Interior Ministry and the military is desultory at best. That relationship has not yet recovered by the abortive ham-handed attempt of the current Interior Minister to wrest control of the Inter Services Intelligence in the summer of 2008 away from the military.

The only silver lining from the collapse of the Swat deal has been the rising anger of civil society against the excesses of the Taliban and revulsion for their obscurantist views on religion and social behavior. But chances are that this anger may soon turn against the government itself, if it fails to control the situation.

The army, still unequipped and untrained for counterinsurgency, may yet be able to clear the Swat valley of the militants. But, as a senior military officer confided to me, the army will be unable to hold the territory indefinitely. Providing governance and justice is the civilians’ job. And there is no evidence of civilian institutions or a police force to do the needful. So the Taliban may return to fill the vacuum, as they did before. Moreover, the fear is that even in the Bajaur agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Area, where a huge military operation created almost 300,000 refugees and devastated the territory, the Taliban may stage a comeback.

The military says it opposed the latest Swat deal, as it was to earlier deals. The provincial government of the Awami National Party states that the military sought the deal as a respite because its soldiers were unwilling to fight. The federal government threw the hot potato of the deal into the lap of parliament that hurriedly approved the deal. As yet, there does not seem to be any strong evidence of discontent in the ranks of the army. But the growing frustration of the soldiers is understandable in a battle that seems unending.

The government of Pakistan needs to take several steps to remedy the situation:

  • Mobilize public opinion against the radical and convoluted view of Islam being propagated by the insurgents,
  • Provide employment opportunities for the unemployed youth of the country, starting with massive infrastructure investments (roads, bridges, tube wells) in  the borderlands, and
  • Show through its actions and public (not closed-door) deliberations that it is urgently and actively engaged with the issue.

Zardari’s prolonged absence from Pakistan during this time of crisis has raised eyebrows. He needed to be back in Islamabad, working with his prime minister and the Army Chief to come up with solutions to the rising crisis rather than continuing his two-week overseas tour. He left Pakistan for Libya on April 30, then went on London and the United States, stopping in London again and Paris on his way back. While it is important to meet key world leaders, the signaling effect of his actions is important in Pakistan and for allies that have promised to help.

Much more important is the need for actions that will restore confidence in his government’s ability to meet this huge challenge.

If Pakistan is indeed at war, as it seems to be, then Zardari could begin the reform process by disbanding his 67 plus cabinet of featherbedders and replace it with a small and effective War Cabinet of the best and brightest from all parties and segments of Pakistani society. He could ask the government and the military to produce their plans for post-kinetic actions in Swat. And he needs to have in place a robust and comprehensive communications strategy to counter the Taliban’s propaganda and to share with civil society information on what is being done and why. He has an economic plan that worked at the Tokyo meeting. He must make it work now.

The Tokyo pledges and Washington parleys should have convinced Zardari that Pakistan’s friends in the United States and elsewhere are willing to help. But they need proof that Pakistan is willing to help itself first. Zardari needs to grasp this opportunity to turn things around rapidly before civil society, or the military, decides to take matters into its own hands yet again.

Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.  He is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within and FATA: A Most Dangerous Place

Related Experts: Shuja Nawaz