Pakistan on the Brink?

The teeny, tiny flag out there is Pakistan.

The teeny, tiny flag out there is Pakistan.

Anyone who has spent much time, say, on the Afghan border with Pakistan, has a pretty solid opinion about Pakistan as a generalized, national entity.  That opinion is based on a few points of frustration: the Taliban, Haqqanis, Hekmatyar, and hordes of other assorted insurgents who’ve been fighting U.S. troops since 2001 have a safe haven in Pakistan; U.S. bases on the Pakistan border have been routinely attacked by insurgents coming across the border, and they flee right back; sometimes attacks even originate from Pakistani military outposts.  I’ve spent a fair bit of time at or near border crossing points to experience some of this firsthand.  So what is the general opinion?

An older Afghan National Army commander–who had served in the Soviet-era Afghan army and who had to flee with his family to Pakistan during the civil war and Taliban years, where he lived as a refugee and worked as a shopkeeper–once told me this:  you can buy a large, expensive pot to catch the water from a leaky roof, then buy more and larger and more expensive pots to catch the water–but eventually one day you will have to fix the leaky roof.  He said in his wisdom, experience, and frustration that most of Afghanistan’s problems come from the leaky border with Pakistan, and all of these other efforts won’t amount to much until it is fixed.  My interpreter for that conversation–an educated, easygoing young guy–added that if ever Afghanistan declared war on Pakistan, he would gladly pick up a gun and fight.

The American guys and gals I know who’ve spent way, way more time than me out along the border would probably say that the term “leaky border” is putting it lightly.  They’d likely tell you that Pakistan does precious little to curb insurgents at the border, or even to place any pressure on the bad characters who enjoy safe haven there.  Even Osama bin Laden had a pretty nice setup in Abbottabad, right under the nose of the Pakistan Military Academy.  Given all this, it’s hard not to wonder why Pakistan’s government isn’t outright categorized as a state sponsor of terrorism.

This is, as so many things are, only part of a larger story.  And why I wanted to go hear Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, when she spoke at the Asia Society on January 15th.  If you could forget for a moment that the world’s 6th most populous country–which has around 100 nuclear warheads (North Korea, by contrast, has maybe 10), where even the capital in Islamabad is prone to power outages and shortages of potable water, and where most lawmakers and even the president evade taxes–is often called a “failed state,” then I would say that Minister Khar’s talk was encouraging.  Khar is clearly a political superstar–she is well-spoken, masterfully graceful when faced with difficult questions, and she puts a calm, confident, and progressive face on the current government in Pakistan.

Minister Khar stated clearly and emphatically that Pakistan is a partner with the U.S. in what we call the “War on Terror.”  She described how, before September 11, 2001, Pakistan had experienced only one suicide bombing.  After 9/11, she said, “we lost count.”  She pointed out that more than 6,000 Pakistani military and police members have been killed by insurgents, which is more than the U.S.’s casualty toll in Afghanistan.  She said that more than 30,000 civilians have been killed by the insurgency.  She said the full economic impact of the insurgency on Pakistan’s economy since 2001 is $75 billion, which dwarfs the millions of dollars annually given by the U.S. to Pakistan in foreign aid.  If Pakistan is not an equal partner against terrorism, she asked, “then why are we suffering more attacks than you?”

She said that Pakistan was interested in playing a significant role in regional solutions, to include moving toward normalizing relations with India.  But on questions of corruption and problematic governance, she hedged.  She did have this to say, however: this year’s elections will mark the first peaceful, democratic transition of power since Pakistan was established in 1947.  And that President Zardari’s government has taken as many steps as possible toward establishing functional democratic governance in Pakistan.  “Sure, there are governance issues,” she conceded, but democratic systems and structures take time to establish.  A question was asked about NGOs operating in Pakistan and whether foreign aid should be channeled through them, and she responded that, while many NGOs help a lot of people, flowing money and solutions through NGOs in order to sidestep problematic government structures do not fix the problem:  “International aid should be focused on strengthening structures of government instead of working around them,” because in the end, the problem of a government failing to deliver services to people is not fixed by a government continuing to fail to deliver services to people.  I think the U.S. has learned this lesson over and over again in Afghanistan, and it was an important point to make.

But.  Minister Khar’s talk did not address problems such as the sometimes hazy loyalties of the Pakistani security forces, the leaky border with Afghanistan, the terrorists and insurgents living safely within Pakistan’s borders, the targeted attacks against minorities such as Christians and Hazaras–or even the fact that Pakistan’s prime minister had just been arrested.

It’s wild, what went unspoken.  Yet I couldn’t help but wonder: what indeed would the process look like for a democratic government in Pakistan to truly get up on its feet?  Could this be it?  Opinions, predictions, and pessimism abound.  But none of us really know for sure just yet.  I’ll watch with hope for a positive step forward to come with the elections in May.

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