Pakistan At The Brink

STOCK - Pakistan

To many observers, Pakistan has long been at the brink of an existential crisis, much of it due to a growing insurgency exacerbated by the war in Afghanistan.

But now the economy is in crisis, too. The catastrophic floods have imploded the struggling economy raising the specter of frightening consequences. Compounding that crisis is uncertainty over IMF loans needed to sustain the economy. Meanwhile, the Parliament is deadlocked over a sales tax to raise desperately needed revenues for the government.

Last week’s loss of a small partner — Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam — in the coalition for almost comedic reasons underscored the seriousness of these crises.

More shocks and warnings will follow especially after the release of the White House Afghan review last week. Eliminating so-called Taliban sanctuaries in western Pakistan was a central conclusion of that review. Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen reiterated that point in his latest visit to Pakistan. The White House will increase pressure on the Pakistani government to act.

Pakistan has a fundamentally different assessment and one that could put both countries on a collision course.

The game clock is ticking for Pakistan and America. A potential political crisis is likely to reach a head in the coming months in Pakistan with the prospect of toppling the government coalition headed by the Pakistan’s People’s Party. And the failure or success of NATO and the United States in Afghanistan remains very dependent on Pakistani support that may not be sustained by a different government.

By late summer or early fall, Washington will become obsessed with the 2012 elections. At that stage, and with economic conditions in Pakistan deteriorating, the PPP could lose a no confidence vote or the Pakistani Muslim League-N headed by twice Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could call for a mid-year election.

An election may produce a hung Parliament and what happened in Iraq. A PML-N victory means a PML-N prime minister and PPP president — a recipe for disaster. The winning campaign slogan for PML-N (and Sharif is no friend of America) reinforcing the public’s resentment of Predator strikes and the burden the war on terror has imposed on it as well as redress of acute shortages of food, potable water and electricity will be “Predators, PPP and the U.S. Out!”

Making matters worse, Washington-Islamabad relations are filled with political improvised explosive devices. The most recent IED explosion was the exit of the CIA station chief in Islamabad after his name became public. Expect more to follow.

Clearly, the White House has legitimate grievances over Pakistani reluctance to confront the Afghan Taliban, end endemic corruption and improve weak government. Pakistanis regard Washington as unresponsive and insensitive to their needs and sacrifices. Since the toppling of the Afghan Taliban nine years ago, America’s war on terror has cost Pakistan more than 35,000 civilian and military casualties with nearly 12,000 dead — far more than Americans killed on September 11th and in Iraq and Afghanistan — and deprived its economy of many billions of dollars.

The Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act has so far sent only a tiny fraction of the promised total $7.5 billion, miserly compared to what the United States has given to oil rich Iraq and to Afghanistan. Add to this a highly suspect, aggressive and often irresponsible media and the Supreme Court’s chief justice with grandiose views of his role, the dangers of Pakistani instability are hard to understate.

Conditions can be reversed. But that requires dramatic, bold, sweeping and prompt action by both sides. First, U.S. President Barack Obama and Pakistani President Asif Zardari need to meet and meet soon. That meeting cannot be a stroll around the Rose Garden. An intimate and sufficiently lengthy exchange to reach agreement on steps to be taken is essential.

Pakistan needs concrete signs of U.S. support. The United States needs concrete signs of Pakistani commitment in taking on the Afghan Taliban and making government more functional. Textile tariff relief and immediately beginning the transfer of 100 or so combat helicopters and other military equipment to Pakistan will show American bona fides. Zardari and his key subordinates including army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani must reciprocate with deeds and not promises responding to American needs and national interests.

Of course, a meeting between heads of state may not take place or could be deferred until it is too late for corrective action. Both presidents may not have the right chemistry. Congress may oppose any changes in policy. And, in the interim, conditions in Pakistan could disintegrate.

Whether the Obama administration understands the potentially explosive unstable situations in Pakistan and can or chooses to do anything about them are huge questions, as are the ability and willingness of Pakistan to take charge of its future. But these questions must be answered and answered soon. More than the future of Afghanistan is at stake.

Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI.

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