The current issue of The National Interest contains Ahmed Rashid’s exhaustive and provocative essay on the current state of affairs in Pakistan. It’s a must-read for anyone trying to come to grips with American foreign policy in the “Af-Pak theater.” Rashid starts with Pakistan’s basket-case military, long viewed by Washington’s foreign policy elite as the glue that holds the country together:
There is perhaps no other political-military elite in the world whose aspirations for great-power regional status, whose desire to overextend and outmatch itself with meager resources, so outstrips reality as that of Pakistan. If it did not have such dire consequences for 170 million Pakistanis and nearly 2 billion people living in South Asia, this magical thinking would be amusing. This is a country that sadly appears on every failing-state list and still wants to increase its arsenal from around 60 atomic weapons to well over 100 by buying two new nuclear reactors from China. This is a country isolated and friendless in its own region, facing unprecedented homegrown terrorism from extremists its army once trained, yet it pursues a “forward policy” in Afghanistan to ensure a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul as soon as the Americans leave.
For a state whose economy is on the skids and dependent on the IMF for massive bailouts, whose elite refuse to pay taxes, whose army drains an estimated 20 percent of the country’s annual budget, Pakistan continues to insist that peace with India is impossible for decades to come. For a country that was founded as a modern democracy for Muslims and non-Muslims alike and claims to be the bastion of moderate Islam, it has the worst discriminatory laws against minorities in the Muslim world and is being ripped apart through sectarian and extremist violence by radical groups who want to establish a new Islamic emirate in South Asia. Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment, or “deep state” as it is called, has lost over 2,300 soldiers battling these terrorists—the majority in the last 15 months after much U.S. cajoling to go after at least the Pakistani (if not the Afghan) Taliban. Despite these losses and considerable low morale in the armed forces, it still follows a pick-and-choose policy toward extremists, refusing to fight those who will confront India on its behalf as well as those Taliban who kill Western and Afghan soldiers in the war next-door. An army that has received nearly $12 billion in direct military aid from the United States since 2001, and has favored-nation status from NATO, still keeps the leaders of the Afghan Taliban in safe refuge. Pakistan’s civilians, politicians and intellectuals are helpless; they cannot make the deep state see sense as long as the West continues its duplicitous policies of propping up the military-intelligence establishment in opposition to popular society while demanding that the Pakistani civilian government wrest back control of the country.
While Rashid’s cataloging of the country’s problems is enough to depress any observer, he tells us that hope is not lost for Pakistan’s democracy:
Despite the incompetence of the government, the groundwork is now being laid for a genuine democratic dispensation through provincial autonomy, decentralization and the rebuilding of democratic institutions—theoretically making it more difficult for the army to seize power again. If these steps are matched with equivalent advances in restoring economic stability, reviving local and foreign investment, combating terrorism and Islamic extremism on a nationwide basis, and modernizing the judicial and police systems, Pakistan has a far brighter future than is currently portrayed.
He goes on to note that Pakistan’s substantial, well-educated middle class provides a stable foundation upon which democratic institutions can be developed. Moreover, tactical errors made by the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups have caused a shift in the center of Pakistani society—the threat that these groups present to the nation’s safety and prosperity is now much more clearly understood.
Rashid’s manipulation of the pieces of this vast puzzle is consummately skillful, and his identification of potential threats is quickly followed by ideas about alleviating them. His writings remain a unique resource for those trying to understand Pakistan.
This article was penned before the recent floods which have ravaged roughly a third of the country, perhaps constituting Pakistan’s most serious natural disaster since its founding. The Pakistani military’s floundering response could have been readily predicted by any reader of Rashid’s essay—it marks a confluence of corruption, incompetence and stubborn concentration on an imaginary threat from India just when Pakistan is consumed by far more acute dangers. But it leaves me wondering about the American response and how Pakistanis will react to it. At first they will surely be thankful for whatever help is shown. But over time, some Pakistanis will wonder why, while their country struggles with a massive catastrophe, Americans seem more concerned about the construction of a mosque on the site of a former discount clothing store in downtown Manhattan, generating enormous anti-Muslim rhetoric in the process. Whereas Americans opened their hearts and pockets for Haiti, no similar generosity has been directed towards the Pakistanis. The American government can muster tens of billions to support a war effort that rains death down on villagers in Pakistan’s northwest, but when the relief of their flood-ravaged compatriots is a question, the American effort amounts to a piddling fraction of that sum. These facts demonstrate America’s dark view of Pakistan–as a theater of war, and not a sister democracy or ally.