Posts Tagged ‘pakistan’

No Principal On The Playground: NY Magazine Worries About Pakistan’s Intractable Anarchy

June 14, 2011

In a previous post, I wrote: “In one way or the other, every one realizes or refers to the Pakistan’s central problem: that it has no recognizable statesman who has the power and legitimacy to lead its people through the mess it is in right now.” The New York Times Magazine expresses the same concern in a recent article, titled “Can Pakistan Be Governed?“, making this a far more existential issue than I had envisioned. It’s no longer the central problem of the Pakistani people: it is perhaps a defining characteristic of the Pakistani nation that it cannot be ruled in an orderly fashion.

The events of the last two weeks have certainly lent some gravitas to this question:

  1. Apr 5: Eight paramilitary forces attacked by a suicide attack.
  2. Apr 5: Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud claims responsiblity for an attack on a Shiite mosque in Chakwal, in the FATA, that claimed over 30 lives.
  3. Mar 30: Mehsud also claimed responsibility for the death of over 25 policement in an attack on the Manawan Police Academy in Lahore.
  4. Mar 28: Over 70 people were killed at a mosque in Jamrud, along the Peshawar-Torkham highway.

More lists are easily available online, by searching for ‘terrorism in Pakistan‘ or ‘Taliban attacks in Pakistan.’

The subtitle to the NY Mag  article asks, Is Zardari The Man To Do The Job? The way the picture is shot, it seems like the question has been answered. Situated plumb center in the picture, and right under an almost refulgent portrait of Mohammed Jinnah, the founder of the nation, Zardari flashes a nerdy grin. It’s hard to imagine that a man with such a visage can be expected to actually play an important role in setting the world right from the troubles that plague it.

In spite of this seeming inability to play a significant role on the world stage, Zardari seems to excel in pontificating about the way the world is. Most of these thoughts are expressed mostly by way of adding the word “world” in the middle of some pretty arbitrary thoughts: ““The world philosophers,” have come to the conclusion that aid has never been one of the best ways of developing countries,” or “Democracy becomes the best formula of the world because it learns from its mistakes.”

Perhaps through these interventions, Zaradari hopes to convince his audience that he is equipped to handle these problems at the global level at which they are playing out. The danger with the situation in Pakistan (“everyone’s favorite front-line state,” as Traub’s article wryly puts it) is that it’s most certainly going to affect a large part of the world. Indian commentators are continuously worried about how any fallout of chaos in Pakistan is going to spill over into their own security situation. Then of course, there’s the danger to general American interests in the region: the Taliban, perhaps the most powerful military force with which the United States has failed to reach any compromise, will probably gain a foothold in the region. What will Iran do? The Taliban is Sunni, which allies them with Iran’s arch-enemy, the now-defunct Ba’ath Party headed by the now-dead Saddam Hussein. Its resurgence in Afghanistan or Pakistan is not exactly the future Iran is dreaming of.

Where Pakistan is headed is everyone’s concern, but within no one’s ability to control. All any one can do is watch the numbers, as if we are looking at the stock tickers of death in the hope that they will tell us something about where the market will be a few months from now.

And we know how easy that is. Sheesh.


Pakistan As Playground: Some More Notes

February 4, 2009

Quite coincidentally, after I wrote a post yesterday on the prospective state of American engagement with Pakistan over the next few years, I ran into the online issue of a magazine coming out of India that has a round-up of opinions of the geopolitical future of Pakistan.

There are nine op-ed articles in this round-up, intended to be written as thought experiments, looking ahead and wondering what Pakistan will look like eleven years from now. The selection seems pretty diverse, if rag-tag, from commentators in India to an extract from a 2004 book by Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institute. Unfortunately, all the energies poured into the collation of these pieces doesn’t provide us with much fruitful insight — we get a general consensus on the cast of characters who are throwing their weight around on this stage, and a bunch of wishful thinking about how they will behave.

The articles pretty much support my conception of what the main issues in Pakistan are: the radicalization of the army, the need for outside intervention of some kind, the importance to the larger problem of stability in the region of resolving the power vacuum in Pakistan, and the perennial weakness of its civilian governments.

You could entirely skip the articles and take it from me that all they do is inform you that the main actors in the regions are:

  1. The military, with essentially two factions within them: the one that’s “Talibanized” or “jihadized” and the one that’s not.
  2. The jihadists themselves.
  3. Feudal landlords and other power brokers, with essentially regional affiliations that in some sense represent another binary divide in Pakistan: those who are Punjabi and those who are not.
  4. The international community, notably the United States, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The worst of the mistakes in this characterization is in the overly simplified view of the Pakistani military (which is also reflected in the (slightly less) simplified view of the regional power dichotomy.) The military has long been a breeding ground for a whole host of ideologies and power grab movements, similar to the structural history of the Communist Party in China. It would be hubris to try and predict the direction the military will go in over the next decade, because it isn’t clear which of its factions will achieve dominance over the others.

While the military might definitely be largely united in their animosity towards any meaningful reconciliation with India, there is no reason to believe that a force with a strong history of internal discipline and martial traditions will tolerate the emergence of a “non-state” band of tribal warlords. While the Pakistani army might be reluctant to appear to the larger populace as being controlled by American interests, they will certainly not stay their hand if they have to prevent civil unrest. This was certainly their desire during the 1971 war with India over Bangladesh — to prevent the disintegration of the country.

The most, perhaps only, really thoughtful article, though, comes from Rohit Pradhan and Harsh Gupta, who surprisingly seem, unlike the other contributors to this collection, to have no other pedigree than being journalists of some sort. They see that secessionist movements cannot threaten the overall strength of the Pakistani nation-state, partly because of the overwhelming power of the army and the need for external states to keep Pakistan intact, each for their own ends.

India too is a player who needs Pakistan to remain unfragmented in some way or the other. In his article, R Vaidyanathan claims that India will simply watch from the sidelines as its Western neighbor disintegrates but that hardly does justice to India’s historical attitude to its neighbors. India fought actively to hasten the disintegration of the first versoin of Pakistan, formed in 1947; it also attempted to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal conflicts. A damaged Pakistan, which might result in jihadi armies gaining access to sophisticated weaponry, is not a scenario India would like to imagine. It will do what it can to find an ally within Pakistan who will at least prevent the greater of two devils from taking control of the reins.

In one way or the other, every one realizes or refers to the Pakistan’s central problem: that it has no recognizable statesman who has the power and legitimacy to lead its people through the mess it is in right now. This person will have to be someone who will have credibility with the middle class and bourgeois elite who participate in Pakistan’s nascent civil society, who will be able to politically assuage the religiously more radical elements of its society, and at the same time, will be able to fend off its army’s constant needling and attempts to preserve and extend its own power. The reason General Musharraf met with such fervent approval from large sections of Pakistan’s intelligentsia, back in 1998, even though he’d done nothing short of suspending all democratic institutions, was because he’d seemed back then to be precisely this kind of Messiah. Perhaps he might still return; at any rate, Zardari and Sharif are clearly not the answer, even if one were to completely ignore their history of political corruption and venality.

The Political Playground of Pakistan

February 2, 2009

It’s hard not to notice that Pakistan is the center of a lot of attention now, after Obama has become POTUS. About three days after his assuming office, rep0rts came in that airstrikes ordered ostensibly by an organ of the United States government targeted areas within the north-western border of Pakistan. The idea that these are CIA-controlled drones appears mainly to be an idea of the Pakistani and Indian media, a possibility stated with glee by the latter source and with some consternation by the former.

So far, every one’s following the script, except the rather terse but aggressive stance taken by the Obama administration, mostly via Defense Secy. Robert Gates, that these attacks will continue as necessary, which is a little more peremptory and directly indifferent to Pakistan’s sovereignty than the Bush administration was in general. However, even this indifference is not unexpected, given then-Senator Obama’s assertion that he would pursue aggressive action against those actors in Pakistan against whom the government of Pakistan was “unwilling or unable” to mount a serious offensive.

It will be interesting to note over time if the current US administration does in fact pursue a more public attitude of military incursions within areas that are inside Pakistan’s political boundaries. In essence, Pakistan’s government has, over the last few years, allowed its inaction to give some measure of encouragement to the non-state forces operating in its remote areas, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. I don’t know what the translation of “federally administered” must be into the local language in those provinces, but I would imagine that at least some of the natives there have found out a way to pun it with “federally fucked.” While some parts of the areas are in fact not that far from Islamabad, the seat of Pakistan’s government, there is certainly much to be doubted in any assertion by the government that they can control critical intelligence information about the area or that they have actual political control over it. Even Pakistan’s most hopeful allies in the Unites States Senate, like John Negroponte, a Deputy Secretary of State and Director of National Intelligence,  have expressed very cautious optimism about what the Pakistani government can achieve to integrate this region into the nation’s economic and political mainstream.

The US engagement in Pakistan is going to be a far more adventurous story, though possibly capturing far less public interest, than its engagement in Afghanistan. The simplest reason for this will be that the US will have minimal ground engagement in these regions for obvious political reasons. This will mean that casualties will be low and so will media attention. The Pakistanis may complain about how any American action in the area only exacerbates terrorism and militant Islamic activity but they can’t raise the most serious objection usually used in such circumstances — that their sovereignty is being transgressed. The state has a very tenuous hold on these areas to begin with and the natives have only a vague idea of allegiance to the Pakistani government. In the end, what the Pakistani government wants is political stability over all else, and the jury is still out in Pakistan, and in the rest of the world, if suppressing cross-border terrorism in the FATA is inimical or helpful to such stability.

American activities in Pakistan, if they gain in intensity over the next few months and years, will turn into a rich mixture of political doublespeak and tactical expediency. The actions in that region affect the fate of the American military support for political change in Afghanistan, no doubt; they also will be watched with keen interest by the Indians who would rather things remain murky on Pakistan’s western front so that they have fewer resources to devote to managing their proxy war on the Indian border. Of course, matters are not quite as simple even from the Indian point of view, because instability in Pakistan, to which the current situation in the FATA will contribute, also pull in Indian resources and energies as India’s political establishment worries about the fall-out of a non-civilian government returning to power in Pakistan, and possibly imposing martial law in order to control the political situation. A militarily strong neighbor is never in the long-term good interests of India because it is bound to be more fundamentalist than a civilian government and more compelled to adopt a hawkish stance towards India.

An American military solution to the FATA problem doesn’t have a good script to follow. This is certainly not early Afghanistan or Iraq because the Americans consider the ruling government an ally, unlike their issue with the Taliban. This is not Vietnam because there is no coherent and united political force to fight against. This is not late Afghanistan or Iraq either, though there are more parallels with this situation — fractured tribal interests filling a power vacuum, because there is a national government in the backdrop whose stability needs to be preserved, for the sake of geo-political sanity.

The playbooks of American interventions in Central America might be of some utility here. The current government of Pakistan has to, in effect, assent to becoming a client of the American intelligence and military forces, and through some combination of active and covert cooperation do serious enough damage to the military capabilities of the FATA natives, that they will either sue for peace or simply cease to be a viable alternative for politicall leadership in the area.