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Taking seriously the situation in Pakistan

Commentary, 10 March 2009
Terrorism, Central and South Asia
Pakistan is at risk of collapse. Increasing threats to its integrity on the economic, political, and military fronts may constitute the biggest existential threat that Pakistan has faced in its sixty-one year history.

Pakistan is at risk of collapse. Increasing threats to its integrity on the economic, political, and military fronts may constitute the biggest existential threat that Pakistan has faced in its sixty-one year history.

By Azeem Ibrahim for RUSI.org

The Defence Secretary, John Hutton, has argued that the war in Afghanistan was important because the country had provided Al-Qa’ida with territory in which to train and plan attacks, and that Pakistan mattered because the Taliban were directed and supplied from across its 1,500 mile open border. Whilst that was the accepted picture, few gave any credence to the idea that Pakistan posed a bigger security challenge to the world than Afghanistan. Now, that very idea has been voiced by the top US diplomat in Kabul. According to this new understanding, allied strategy must engage with Pakistan’s fate as a matter of urgency.

The potential for disunity is written into Pakistan’s DNA. The name ‘Pakistan’ is an acronym, coined in 1933, for the names of some of the areas and groups the then-putative state might contain: Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, and Indus-Sind. The stan suffix means ‘land’. Today, two thirds of Pakistan’s 158 million people live in the province of Punjab, and this imbalance has resulted in ethnic tensions between the regions over job quotas and political representation, all of which were apparent even before the current crises.

Today, four strands feed into the threat of collapse: the potential for balkanisation, the state of the economy, the military, and the political situation. The international community must take this risk seriously; a Pakistani collapse would only increase the security threat.

Territorial integrity of Pakistan at risk

The first threat is the potential balkanisation of Pakistan. The strategic objective of the growing Pakistani Taliban in the northern provinces is to create a new ‘Sharia state’ which, unlike General Zia’s Islamisation, would supersede the Pakistani constitution in the relevant provinces: such a move would in effect challenge Pakistani sovereignty. Already, the Swat region has adopted Sharia law as a result of pressure from militants. Any Taliban military successes would likely embolden other nationalist groups which, sidelined in the Musharraf era, now see new opportunities under a weaker central government.

After the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan threatened to abandon the fight against militants in the north-west and move troops to its Indian border. If another international incident or terrorist attack shook Indian-Pakistani relations enough for the country to make good on this threat, radicals would gain de facto power in the regions bordering Afghanistan, effectively splintering those provinces from the country. Pakistan’s northern territories would become another safe haven for Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban to train and recruit. With the recollection of Iraq so fresh in the collective mind, together with a request from the American President for more troops in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the international community will have the political will to intervene: stabilising a fractious country over five times the size of Iraq would take over one million troops. The predominantly Punjabi make-up of the security services would make it especially difficult for them to secure nuclear sites in breakaway provinces. In this scenario, some of Pakistan’s fifty-odd nuclear warheads would be vulnerable.

Serious economic challenges

The second major threat to Pakistan’s stability is economic. Despite the confirmation of a $7.6 billion IMF loan, Pakistan’s economy is on the edge. There are three connected issues. Economic woes on the ground such as the 23 per cent inflation rate, negative real interest rates and food shortages are fuelling popular discontent. This is likely to worsen in the face of rumoured IMF-imposed conditions such as new taxes on farming. The currency has declined 25 per cent in a few weeks, foreign exchange reserves dropping 75 per cent over the last year: the IMF loan was the only thing preventing the government from bankruptcy. Finally, Pakistan’s long term growth prospects are worsening, not least due to an unserviceable trade deficit and a long-term brain drain.

Some countries such as Japan and America have helped, but fiscal stimuli will always be of limited effectiveness if it goes through traditional governmental routes. Money is likely to be simply siphoned back into the political parties.

Lack of central political control

The third major threat is political in nature. President Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistani Peoples’ Party (PPP) has promised to reinstate the provinces’ power to elect their own leaders. This might hinder a unified Pakistani response to terrorism by empowering governors with radically different perceptions of the problem. For example, the governor of the North-West Frontier Province, Owais Ahmad Ghani, recently asserted that Pakistan is already on its way towards overcoming terrorism.

There is also a serious problem regarding central control. Externally, the government’s command over the riskiest regions of the country is loosening, and internally, President Zardari’s government is fractious and weak. Punjab, home to two thirds of Pakistan’s population, is run by Nawaz Sharif, former Prime Minister. This threatens Pakistan’s integrity firstly because Mr Sharif is the leader of the opposition, so his leadership of the country’s most populous province drives a wedge between it and the other provinces, and secondly because he does not see terrorism as a serious threat. He has previously formed informal alliances with right-wing Islamic parties, weakening the Zardari government’s anti-terror position.

Another political problem is that the current leadership has not articulated a coherent long-term vision for Pakistan. President Zardari is seen as an instrument of American policy in a country in which America is unpopular. There is no evidence that anyone in his government has any more a developed or coherent a vision for Pakistan.

Elements of the military are sympathetic to the Taliban

The fourth threat stems from the state of the military. Even if it has often disrupted the political process, the Pakistani military has traditionally been a stable institution in Pakistani life. It now faces two significant problems, which would compromise its ability to deal with a possible break-up of the country.

Firstly, it has now become apparent that many elements in both the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s main intelligence body, are sympathetic to the Taliban and other radicals. Many believe that it has long hedged its bets between the conflicting demands of the radicals and the Americans, on the assumption that America will eventually leave the region.

The government has no institutional checks over the military and ISI, which has become one of the largest industrial, banking, and landowning bodies in Pakistan. This lack of control incentivises corruption and profiteering from military budgets . It also allows the military to conduct operations without official sanctions. Such lack of oversight, communication and cooperation further limits the government’s central control, and hampers its ability to react to crises effectively and coherently.

Furthermore, the army is engaged in a protracted war in the tribal areas that it does not fully believe it can win. There is little evidence that it has a coherent strategy. There are reports that tactics veer between bombing FATA villages, announcing ceasefires, and offering militants compensation. Government weakness and a seemingly non-existent military strategy give the Pakistani Taliban an opportunity both to establish bases and win recruits.

The need to recognise the threat to global security

The international community must recognise that nothing less than the territorial integrity of Pakistan is at stake here. President Obama has made a good start by recognising that Pakistan and Afghanistan need to be addressed together, and had given his special envoy to both countries, Richard Holbrooke, time to listen and formulate a strategy. He should not underestimate the scale of the task ahead. Getting Pakistan back on its feet is essential not just for the security and wellbeing of its 170 million people, but for international stability as well.

A role for the international community

There are various measures the international community could take to improve the situation in Pakistan, but the country's government itself must also take action.

Obama has signalled that he will not shy away from taking unilateral action within Pakistan if necessary. In practice, the United States is faced with an impossible situation in Pakistan. Relying on the fractious and weak Zardari government to take action against terrorism has not worked, and his control over the riskiest regions of the country is weakening. However, unilateral action against terrorism (such as a continuation of the drone strikes) will further inflame anti-American sentiment within Pakistan, provoke terrorist blowback, and encourage the radicalisation that fuels terrorist recruitment. It would also rally support for balkanisation.

It is therefore essential to work with the Pakistani government and simultaneously to accommodate the current power structures in the tribal areas before they are overtaken by radical groups. Time is limited. Even the tribal system is collapsing as new forms of radicalisation take root; twenty years ago major decisions would have been taken by tribal chiefs alone, but the rise of radicals in these areas is undermining this system. It is thus essential to work with the least extreme of the radicals, and the longer the international community hold off such cooperation, the harder the task becomes.

Corruption and anti-Americanism can doubly undermine the intended impact of financial aid. However, allies would be able to provide some short-term benefit to the country by funding infrastructure such as schools and clinics via NGOs on the ground, thus benefiting from their clearer lines of accountability. The lessons from Bangladesh’s experience with the response to flooding in the 1990s is that NGOs can often be more effective and efficient than government in responding to crises.

Pakistan's responsibilities 

Firstly, the Pakistani political elite must accept the principle that it must negotiate with extremists. This is not because it is desirable to do so, but because there is no other choice. There are no potential modern democrats in the tribal areas. The choice is now between working with those who have power in the area, who are the least extreme, most effective and most influential; or losing the opportunity to exert influence over the tribal areas altogether. Military action both motivates radicals and radicalises the apolitical population in the northern regions.

Secondly, government should be restructured. Currently the lines of control and accountability are too long and confusing. Pakistan needs a stronger Presidency, not a weaker one, with stronger accountability and the formal powers to exert its authority over the army and intelligence services.

In the medium term, if this is achieved, an economic stimulus is necessary to jump-start Pakistan’s economy by increasing purchasing power on the ground. New leadership is also necessary. With a president who has the position by virtue of being the husband of Benazir Bhutto, and a leader of the opposition who has the position by virtue of being the prime minister before Musharraf’s coup, the political elite is insulated from new ideas, resulting in drift and stagnation.

In the long term, it will be essential to recognise that democracy means more than elections. Pakistan also needs an informed public. Currently, half the population is illiterate, school enrolment is at 20 per cent below the world’s average, and bad public schools give parents an incentive to send their children to madrassahs where they often radicalise. In the absence of education, people will continue to vote along tribal and feudal lines, exacerbating political divisions. Over decades, improving the country’s educational structures will be the key to a better-informed electorate.

This is a grave period for Pakistan. But having recognised that our own security depends on denying terrorists safe haven, we should follow the argument to its logical conclusion and help to prevent a Pakistani collapse. It is not too late for Pakistan, if we act now.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Fellow at the International Security Program, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a Member of the Dean’s International Council, Harris School of Public Policy and Diplomacy at the University of Chicago.

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