Pakistan has become the center of a vortex whose swirling and powerful forces threaten to disrupt far more than that country and the South Asian region. While many understandably and overly worry that the major danger of an imploded or radicalized Pakistan is what happens to its 60-80 nuclear weapons, the broader challenge will be the opportunity lost in bringing a measure of stability to South Asia and cauterizing the spread of terror from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwest frontier (the weapons are safe and will be kept safe by the Pakistani Army— but a separate discussion). And if stability cannot be achieved, unless more Icelandic-like volcanoes erupt and disrupt air traffic around the globe and somehow the Internet can be isolated, blow back from terror and radical jihadis will never be restrained as failed Times Square would be bomber Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen of Pakistani origin too visibly demonstrated.
To understand the strategic situation in the region, understanding the overarching paradoxes that both constrain and impel Pakistan is essential. A first paradox is the clash between Pakistan’s embrace of democracy and implanted and perverse fundamentalist Islamic roots. Second is the recognition by a series of U.S. governments of Pakistan’s crucial role as the region’s strategic center of gravity and the inability to deliver what Pakistan needs to stabilize its economy and win its existential battle with extremism. And third is the unhealed scar tissue from partition with India in 1947 that masks fears fostered by notions of insecurity and inferiority. From this understanding, a clearer, more concise series of prescriptive actions to assist Pakistan in achieving long-term stability for itself and for the region emerge.
From a superficial view, the challenges Pakistan faces are self-evident. After a decade of military rule under President and General Pervez Musharraf, a weak elected government struggles to deal with the existential threats posed by a widening insurgency; U.S. pressure to do more in combating local Taliban long nurtured by Pakistan’s Interservice Intelligence Service (ISI) in the Waziristans of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to support the war in Afghanistan; a faltering economy now rife with huge electrical power shortages and day-long blackouts; rising inflation; and an absence of jobs and hope for millions of its citizens.
Because of the on again, off again relationship with the United States in which Pakistan saw itself embraced and then abandoned by the United States during the Cold War; over its pursuit of nuclear weapons to balance its giant neighbor and seemingly permanent enemy India; and finally defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the huge, so-called trust deficit became a fixture between Islamabad and Washington. U.S. drone attacks into FATA have also become a double edged sword. That they have had devastating impact on Taliban and others is true. But collateral damage and dead civilians infuriate Pakistanis and exacerbate the trust deficit.
From birth under the charismatic Mohammad ali Jinnah (Quaid-e-Azam or great leader), a secular Shia in a Sunni land, Pakistan was declared an Islamic Republic. Indeed, one major reason for partition was religious. However, Pakistan was and is a democracy. Unfortunately, Jinnah’s untimely death a year after independence due to tuberculosis deprived Pakistan of someone who might have safely navigated through the storms and shoals produced by independence. Too many civilian governments subsequently failed with the end result of military imposed rule for half of Pakistan’s life.
The turning point in this first contradiction came in 1977 following a bloodless coup with General and later President Mohammed Zia ul Haq, Army Chief of Staff, overthrowing the government of Zulfikar ali Bhutto, hanged in 1979. Zia and military rule lasted until 1988 when he died in a bizarre and suspect plane crash. However, during his decade in power and greatly aided by American financial and military aid in the fight to defeat the Soviet Union after its incursion into Afghanistan, Zia did much to impose a fundamentalist and even radical Islamic stamp on Pakistani society.
In 1980, Parliament was replaced by a Majlis Shura appointed by the President with highly religious perspectives. Zia wanted Sharia to replace civil law. A doctored referendum in 1985 had 95% of Pakistanis approving. In creating and arming the Afghan Mujahidin, Zia inadvertently created a super abundance of small arms that would become ubiquitous throughout the nation and he would oversee more than ten thousand madrassas teaching many tens of millions of Pakistani youth radical versions of Islam. Parts of the military became contaminated with Islamic extremists.
As a result, today, while Pakistan genuinely sees itself as a democracy, the excesses created by Zia and intensified over the years in repeated clashes with India over Kashmir and after September 11th, metastasized into existential threats. Since September 11th, more than 31,000 Pakistani soldiers and civilians have been killed or wounded in this war including ten general offices lost in battle or by terrorist attack. Last year, there were over 2000 terrorist attacks and incidents alone. These threats provoked military operations into Swat and South Waziristan and of course retaliation.
As this tension between democracy and fundamentalist Islam waxes, the elected government remains dysfunctional in many ways and battered from many directions. That Pakistan has arguably the freest press in the world has allowed conspiracy theories and rumors often to become taken as fact and reality. That power has rested in a few feudal families and the army and today contested between the Bhutto/Zardaris and the Sharifs, also cannot be seen as democratic. The background and allegations surrounding President Asif Zardari over allegations (and they are allegations) of corruption make the governing task more difficult. A very activist judiciary and supreme court, supported by a strong lawyers’ movement with Islamist leanings are a further ingredient in the political process that plays a very influential role.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government earnestly believes that Pakistan is the strategic center of gravity in the region. Yet, from a Pakistani perspective, support compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars poured into Iraq and Afghanistan is trivial. During the Musharraf years, Pakistan received about ten billion dollars in military support funding. The current Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act will send $7.5 billion over five years into Pakistan. But so far none of the Kerry-Lugar money has been received. And while from a U.S. perspective, corruption and misuse of the money are inherent and valid problems, Pakistanis take a different view of the absence of American largesse. For example, on the military side, Pakistan has only 29 helicopters. The U.S. has tens of thousands. Why cannot Pakistan get more?
Finally, Pakistan must wrestle with its insecurities with India, an emerging megapower and a tendency towards arrogance as a means of counteracting this sense of inferiority. That said, what can be done?
Winston Churchill asked America to “give us the tools and we will do the job.” The biggest political, economic and psychological impact the U.S. can have would be to grant relief on textile tariffs imposed on Pakistani products. Shifting quotas away from other importers is the means and would not deprive American cotton growers of a cent. But the U.S. Congress does not see things that way and its opposition must be overcome.
Second, Pakistan needs the wherewithal to fight its war. This means more helicopters and transports; electronic equipment to detect insurgency cell phones and use of the Internet; medical support; and night vision and other soldier related pieces of kit. And the U.S. should bite the bullet and allow the Pakistanis to play a larger role in the drone attacks.
Finally, the international community must assist in brokering and reducing tensions between India and Pakistan. Each of these actions is a Sisyphean labor. But if Pakistan is the strategic center of gravity, and it is, and if Pakistan is to succeed, there is little alternative. We must understand the realities. And we must have the will and courage to act on them.
Harlan Ullman is an Atlantic Council Senior Advisor and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This article originally appeared in The Australian.