Is Pakistan about to melt down?

By Jan Adams
Jul 7, 2012

Journalist Ahmed Rashid has been at his project for much of his adult life. He knows we just don't seem to get it. He's determined to explain war-ravaged Afghanistan and his loved homeland of Pakistan to Western English-speaking readers. First there was Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (2000) which became a best seller after 9/11. Then there was disillusionment chronicled in Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (2008). (More here.) Now the engulfing war and social and political collapse has crept yet closer to home as he explains in Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

This volume is unstinting in its examination of U.S. failure in Central Asia. The arrival of the Obama administration did nothing to turn the tide in Afghanistan.

If anything undermined President Obama's entire Afghan deployment, it was the failure to develop a comprehensive political strategy that the U.S. military could not delay or even hold hostage. … The Obama formula for Afghanistan failed to do several things: encourage Pakistan to change its policy of harboring the Taliban, build up an indigenous Afghan economy, start talks with the Taliban parallel to the military surge, and persuade Karzai to improve governance and end corruption. … Before Obama was elected president, his admirers viewed him as a practical visionary who had seen the world, knew how it worked, and promised to move U.S. policy away from the ideological blinders of the Bush administration. … So what happened? Obama was utterly trapped by the Bush legacy of failures in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2008 and by the power and authority of the U.S. military establishment after September 11: it became arbiter, driver, and decider of U.S. foreign policy. Obama's cold sense of reality could not free itself from the Pentagon's way of thinking or doing. …

That is -- the inertial energies of an empire always confidently expecting to make its own reality won the day. Rashid is a clear eyed observer, but also often seems the ultimate Pollyanna who hopes beyond reason that the U.S. empire's better angels will somehow override the demons it looses on the world.

As a U.S. and NATO withdrawal from the region becomes inevitable (the war without purpose is lost, whether we admit it or not), there remain more questions than answers.

By both action and inaction, the United States has contributed significantly to the region's dangerous instability. The Obama administration has failed to detail its aims in the region beyond 2014, thereby giving rise to speculation and conspiracy theories. … What are Washington's geostrategic interests in the region, and to what extent is it willing to deploy troops to pursue those interests? Does the United States want to stabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan, or would it rather try to contain or even challenge Iran and China? Or would it prefer to leave the region in the hands of trusted allies like India and Turkey -- a surefire way to antagonize Pakistan? Moreover, while the United States has other strategic priorities now, such as the Arab Spring, a greater commitment to East Asia, and containing China, it has far fewer resources than it once did to playa global role.

What distinguishes this book is its attempt to offer a kind of "Pakistan for beginners." Considering its size, importance and complexity, in the U.S. we usually allow ourselves to be vague about Pakistan. It has the sixth largest population among nations and the seventh largest army -- an army armed with nuclear weapons. It is the world's second largest Islamic country (Indonesia is the largest). Ostensibly a developing democracy, it seems very close to sinking into the chaos of a failed state.

Four factors have prevented Pakistan from stabilizing and becoming a cohesive state. First, its political elite has failed to establish a coherent national identity capable of uniting the nation. The very subject remains deeply contentious: Is Pakistan an Islamic state, or is it a state for Muslims that has space for other religions and ethnic minorities? Is it not a democratic state as envisioned by its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah? Are its people Muslims first, Sindhis or Punjabis second, and Pakistanis third? Or are they Pakistanis first and foremost? …

The second factor dividing the country is Pakistan's national security paradigm: Is it to remain India-centric [structured around fear of India], as determined by the military? Or is it to adopt an alternative vision, as advocated by civil society and the progressive political elite? The long-running civilian-military rift that underlies these two views has contributed to the army's rule of Pakistan for nearly half the country's existence. Whenever the army feels that its control over national security is being challenged -- usually in the midst of a political-constitutional-economic crisis, when an incompetent and corrupt civilian government is at the helm -- it invariably overthrows the government and imposes military rule. This has happened four times in Pakistan's history, and military rule has often lasted a decade or more. …

Third, Pakistan has become an abnormal state that uses Islamic militants -- jihadi groups, non-state actors -- in addition to diplomacy and trade to pursue its defense and foreign policies. These non-state actors have deeply antagonized its neighbors, all of whom have, at one time or another, felt their pressure. …

The fourth factor perpetuating Pakistan's fragility is the inability of its ethnic groups to find a working political balance with one another, and the failure of Pakistan's political system, its parties, and its army to help them do so. …

Whatever else a reader may take away from this book, it makes it impossible to doubt that dealing with Pakistan requires knowledge, subtlety and patience. U.S. forces blundering about in Central Asia since 9/11 have showed none of these attributes. Rashid has written a cri de coeur, an anguished cry from his heart, describing the dangerous instability of his country. If U.S. policies contribute to collapse and horror in Pakistan, U.S. authorities will likely claim we couldn't have known things would get so bad. Rashid has done his best to make that claim unsustainable.

Cross posted at Can It Happen Here?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Jan Adams has worked with WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras since its beginning, coordinating distribution during the three years when the organization published an antiwar tabloid newspaper. She is a lifelong political activist who has worked for justice in Central America (Nicaragua and El Salvador), in South Africa, in the fields of California with the United Farmworkers Union, and for racial and economic equality with electoral and advocacy campaigns in many areas of the United States.

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