Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Darkening Horizon

A perfect storm is brewing in Pakistan, a storm that will have regional and international implications of great consequence. In the immediate, Pakistanis themselves suffer. The war in Afghanistan has not abated, despite 9 years of fighting. In fact, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have become a particularly dangerous battleground for a war that has now spread into Pakistani territory and threatens a fragile civilian establishment. The Obama administration continues to pursue a policy of measured response to insurgents within Pakistani territory, relying principally on unmanned drones to conduct raids in the tribal regions. However, there are few within Pakistan’s security apparatus that could rightfully deny the presence of US military assets operating from within Pakistan’s borders, fueling deep mistrust and resentment of the rulers in Islamabad. Rather than containing the Taliban to their homeland in the southern provinces of Afghanistan, a new front rages in the FATA that now threatens Pakistani stability. By and large, there has been a concession by the Pakistani security establishment that its long-held strategy of covert support for Islamist groups (including the Taliban) has backfired. The basically institutional view that Islamist proxies could be used by the ISI to exert influence in Afghanistan and thus provide a counter to Indian influence and strength has collapsed.

The floods in Pakistani defy description. The sheer scale (an area the size of England affected) of the tragedy must give us pause. The international community has pledged aid, and this will likely provide a modicum of relief. However, as is so often the case, those affected by this tragedy were among the poorest of Pakistani society, so while international relief may ease the transition from disaster to some semblance of normalcy, ordinary Pakistanis will return to the equilibrium state of an overall lack of development. Even prior to the floods, the amount of spending on education and health was woefully insufficient. Islamabad has not implemented any long term planning strategy for the agriculture or manufacturing sectors, and Pakistan is now importing wheat. The booming IT sector in India – a vital factor in that nation’s rise in global prominence – is all but non-existent in Pakistan. The overall lack of economic activity within Pakistan has resulted in a meager tax base, and continued dependence on foreign aid.

To be sure, these are massive challenges for any government. However, as if adding fuel to long burning fire, Pakistan may soon be faced with a Parliamentary crisis. The ruling PPP-PML(N) coalition shows signs of fragility, and it’s hard to imagine that Nawaz Sharif will expend efforts to repair the breach rather than shore up support for his own coalition should a no-confidence vote be held against Zardari and the PPP. However, the greater threat to Zardari may be from within his own party. There is virtually no debating Zardari’s cronyism, and recent events seem to find Zardari tightening his inner circle while excluding competent and respected senior PPP officials. Naheed Khan was recently quoted as stating that the PPP is becoming a “one man show.” Both she and her husband, Safdar Abbasi are senior officials in the PPP, and its Khan’s assertion that Zardari is closing ranks and surrounding himself with people that lack competence in governance. The PPP’s Executive Committee recently convened to discuss current matters of state, and Abbasi’s absence was conspicuous. Zardari does himself – and ultimately Pakistan – a great disservice by denying capable technocrats access to the levers of power at such a critical time in Pakistan’s history.

Perhaps most alarming is projecting what may happen in the case of a no confidence vote in Parliament. PML-N would emerge as the default ruling party. However, given the current composition of the Parliament, creating a coalition that could withstand a further no-confidence vote poses a significant challenge. In such a case, a general election would be required. The time frame for an election will be crucial, as maintaining security will become an absolute necessity. The announcement of a general election will undoubtedly inspire Taliban action. The worst case scenario is that the security situation deteriorates to the point where a legitimate vote cannot be held, and the military must intercede to provide continuity of governance, a familiar narrative in Pakistani history. While most accounts of General Kayani paint him as a mostly apolitical figure, he did once preside over ISI, an institution that believes that they alone should determine Pakistan’s destiny. Furthermore, military rule in Pakistan may be well received by a US administration desperate for a competent and capable partner in Pakistan. Previous administrations certainly were not squeamish about supporting military rule, and the most cynical view in Washington has long believed that it’s exactly what Pakistan requires.

The stakes are incredibly high. For the poorest Pakistanis, the fragile middle classes in Lahore and Karachi, and for the ruling elites, the moment dances on a knife edge. The dream of Jinnah remains deferred. The only question left is for how much longer?

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