Despite a continuing flow of depressing reports from Pakistan about the safety and security of this strategically vital American ally, on the eve of President Asif Ali Zardari’s first anniversary as president, the latest news, at least anecdotally, offers a glimmer of optimism. Predictions of dire outcomes leading to a failed government overthrown by an army coup are being replaced with signs of real progress, even though economic and political forces conspire to breed poverty and illiteracy, and huge gaps between rich and poor exemplified by the landed gentry and those who work the land for a pittance remain reminders of Pakistan’s potential fragility. Still, indications of improvement are present and growing.
Politically, the government seems to be finding its feet. It has taken many crucial and long overdue actions from beginning the reform of the Federal Criminal Regulations of 1901 in the northwest territories to forming a united front with the opposition in the fight against the insurgents and extremists with the support of PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif. And the government is addressing the economic crises with greater focus and cohesion.
As a result, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s approval ratings are moving up, reflecting changing public attitudes towards the government. While Zardari’s poll numbers are low, he has begun to reverse adverse opinion by agreeing to seek repeal of the 17th Amendment to the Pakistani Constitution that will reduce presidential power in favor of the prime minister and has recently removed a number of government officials accused of being his political “cronies.” He also has moved to assume greater civilian control of the government and the army.
A driving factor responsible for these changes has been a major shift in public opinion that has turned against the Taliban because of outrageous conduct towards Pakistanis from murder to mayhem. This has enabled the government to take strong measures to improve security across much of the country. Military operations in Swat have been accompanied by increased anti-terrorist activities by Pakistani police and security forces. These positive steps have been greatly reinforced by the targeting and killing of Baitullah Mehsud — a major victory for the Pakistani government.
In Islamabad, police and security forces are aggressive at checkpoints in stopping and inspecting all manner of vehicles. Terrorist attacks are declining. And Interior Minister Rehman Malik now deems security conditions in Islamabad safe enough to reduce protection for many high-level visitors.
Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin, an investment banker in a former life, believes the economy has “bottomed out” and is improving. Moody’s has upped the debt rating of Pakistan to “stable,” and legislation is being offered to encourage foreign investment by establishing an arbitration commission, putting in place bankruptcy laws consistent with Western business practices and moving the Investment Board directly under the prime minister’s authority to give it greater power. Clearly, more needs to be done. But given Pakistan’s close encounter with near insolvency late last year, full marks are in order — so far.
Further, the return of the internally displaced persons and refugees from Swat to their homes has been handled competently, overcoming forecasts of humanitarian disaster. For better or worse, this success story has not been reported. It certainly should be.
In a visit to army headquarters in Rawalpindi, a definite air of confidence is apparent among senior Pakistani officers. No doubt the Swat operation has been crucial. One also gets the feeling that the army is prepared to do more in South Waziristan despite the absence of lift and other capabilities and so far largely unfilled attempts by the United States to make that support available.
That said, Pakistan is Pakistan, and the obstacles and challenges are immense. Years of military rule have led to a languishing of educational institutions, basic infrastructure including power and transportation as well as hobbling a transition to a truly democratic state. Thousands of madrassas still teach radical ideologies that are inimical to Islam. And many Pakistanis continue to regard India as the primary enemy along with strong anti-U.S. leanings that are not ameliorated by the military escalation in Afghanistan. In fact, most Pakistanis believe that a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan will lead to a reduction in violence and a reduction in cross-border raids by the Taliban who will no longer need refuge in Pakistan.
But pessimism over Pakistan’s future is not without justification. Conditions could deteriorate. An upsurge in terrorist attacks could undo much of this progress and challenge government control.
In the early years of World War II, as the Axis victories began to falter, Winston Churchill could declare that this was not the end, nor the beginning of the end. Instead, Churchill observed this was the end of the beginning.
That condition one hopes applies to Pakistan.
Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and chairman of the Killowen Group, which has served as a consultant to Pakistan’s current government. This essay was syndicated by UPI.