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The Pakistan conundrum


Everything about Pakistan from its very beginning has been anomalous.

It was dreamed up by romantic poets but survival has depended on a stolid military drawing on British Indian Army professionalism. Its parameters were defined by Islam but its secularist elite sought a nation-state where none had ever existed. Its ethnic and linguistic diversity matches the Indian subcontinent’s endless array of races and cultures. Originally it grouped noncontiguous areas – East Bengal [Bangladesh], 1500 miles across India, seceded in 1971. From the beginning disputed borders included the world’s bitterest dispute, Kashmir.

Pakistan survived the first decade’s chaos after the 1947 British Indian Empire Partition with a million deaths and 25 million “population swaps” and began to modernize. Laissez-faire economics and signing on American anti-Soviet military pacts contrasted sharply with India’s Moscow alliance and catastrophic Soviet planning. But grasping feudal elites intertwined with repeated military takeovers brought on by near breakdowns — plus three and a half wars with India — generated a descending spiral.

Still, although among the world’s poorest, Pakistanis have produced brilliant entrepreneurs and talented professionals, many prospering in a 10-million diaspora [now suffering jihadist infiltration, particularly in Britain.] They remit more than $10 billion annually helping keep the country afloat.

But now, for all the U.S.’s satisfaction and strategic and tactical gain in ending Osama Ben Ladin’s career, one outcome is further erosion for Pakistan. Whatever your favorite conspiracy theory, Islamabad looks weak, incompetent and conflicted to its own people and the world. A fanatical jihadist minority had already been murdering its most popular secular politicians – including former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, wife of President Asaf Ali Zardari. Xenophobia arising from poverty and instability grows. [Only hours after the American raid, Karachi, Pakistan’s megapolis port-city of 20 million – and pivot for U.S. Afghanistan logistics — was paralyzed by political assassination only tangentially related to Ben Ladin.]

Nothing so characterizes these problems as “a victim syndrome” dominating Pakistan’s collective psyche — as it does the rest of the Muslim world. With some justification, Pakistanis see themselves used by Washington during the early Cold War [including as a base for U2 spy Soviet Union overflights], abandoned until time came to scotch Russia’s age-old drive to the Indian Ocean through Afghanistan, abandoned after the Soviet Union’s implosion until Islamabad’s cooperation again became essential to blowing al Qaeda’s Afghan Taliban sanctuary.

Current American withdrawal speculation feeds this old complaint and, although whispered, emphasizes Islamabad’s reliance on its “all weather” alliance with China. From Pakistan’s perspective, even the purportedly unofficial A.G. Khan nuclear proliferation network, a major friction point with Washington, bought Chinese missile technology [much of it “borrowed” from the U.S.]. That gives Pakistan at least a temporary advantage facing much larger, better armed India, always at the heart of Pakistan nightmares — and strategies. It’s reciprocated: before the Abottabad blood dried, Indian Chief of Army Staff V.K. Singh publicly claimed India could replicate the American raid. Pakistan’s Chief of General Staff Pervez Kayani’s immediate rejoiner: further American incursions would not be tolerated. Others threatened an Indian foray would be “catastrophic”; Pakistan recently talked of tactical nuclear weapons deployment.

Not only has Washington waffled, but it has fantasized. In the Bush II years, Sec. of State Condoleeza Rice announced henceforth Washington would treat each country separately without regard to their relationship. But when the Obama Administration named Amb. Richard Holbrooke as the essential coordinator for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, Washington caved immediately after New Delhi demanded his purview exclude New Delhi.

These complications show why Capital Beltway blather about Pakistan is not only irrelevant but dangerous. Yes, it would be satisfying to end massive U.S. aid — $7 billion in non-military since 1951, $1 billion arms and training annually since 2005. But then what?

Conspiracy theories – ranging from top level Pakistanis having safehoused Osama Ben Ladin to complicity of those same officials in the raid – will continue to proliferate. Soon Pakistan’s vast population [250 million] could again retreat to the edge of the U.S.’s consciousness. Yet Pakistan would be sidelined only at the world’s peril as the long-arm of 9/11 and other terrorist events, many including Pakistanis, have proved. Washington policymakers must help formulate how to prevent a nuclear-armed Pakistan turning into a failed state, threatening everyone — not least India’s 1.3 billion and its own Pakistan-size Muslim minority.

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