Friday, May 08, 2009

Pakistan: still collapsing after all these years?

Pakistan's flag

Manan Ahmed of the University of Chicago in Legends of the Fall The National (UAE) 05/07/09 argues that the notion that Pakistan is on the verge of collapse is a long-standing script among the American foreign policy community:

Times are bleak for the state of Pakistan, if the international media is to be believed. For the past six weeks, the world’s newspapers have charted the apparently unstoppable march of the Taliban toward Islamabad – with daily reminders that their forces are “only 100 miles” and then “only 80 miles” and then “only 60 miles” from the capital. That Pakistan is a “failed state” or “on the brink” no longer even requires elaboration: it is the universal consensus among pundits and "area experts" alike.

In the United States, the news articles have begun to game out the fall of the regime: the New York Times, hardly alone in its hyperventilating, has run two stories in as many weeks about America courting the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif as a replacement for Pakistan’s prime minister, Asif Ali Zardari. The counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen, a former adviser to General David Petraeus, has suggested in print that the state could fail within six months, while Petraeus himself warns that the next two weeks will be decisive, and that the army may have to return to power to prevent a total collapse.

The notion of Pakistan as a "failed state" has roots far deeper than the last few years; it was first deemed to have “failed” in the early 1960s, and this framework has dominated discussion of Pakistan in America from the days of the Cold War to the War on Terror. The surprisingly long history of the rhetoric of failure reveals that America’s engagement with Pakistan has rarely, if ever, transcended narrow strategic aims – and that, for the United States, the solution to Pakistan’s problems has always been, and will always be, the strong hand of a military ruler. [my emphasis]
Meanwhile, the Pakistani army's drive against the Pushtun tribal militants ("Taliban") has produced up to 300,000 refugees. Military campaigns, even ones based on serious threat inflation, have real effects that are not always beneficial.

Tom Hayden in Understanding the Long War (Part 1) The Nation 05/07/09 reminds us of a major element in the South Asian situation that much of the American reporting and commentary seems to ignore:

The likelihood of the United States' convincing Pakistan to view the domestic threat as greater than that from India is doubtful. Pakistan has fought three wars with India, and views the US as supporting the expansion of India's interests in Afghanistan, where the Pakistan military has supported the Taliban as a proxy against India. The Northern Alliance forces of Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks were strongly supported by India in 2001 against Pakistan's Taliban's allies, and the fall of Kabul to the Northern Alliance was a "catastrophe" for Pakistan, according to Juan Cole. Since 2001, India has sent hundreds of millons [sic] in assistance to Afghanistan, including funds for Afghan political candidates in 2004, assistance to sitting legislators, Indian consulates in Jalalabad, Heart and Kandahar, and road construction designed, according to the Indian government, to help their countries' armed forces "meet their strategic needs."

Polls show that a vast majority of Pakistanis view the United States and India as far greater threats than the Taliban, despite the Taliban's unpopularity with much of Pakistan's public. While it is unlikely that the Taliban could seize power in Pakistan, it may be impossible for anyone to militarily prevent Taliban control of the tribal areas and a growing base among the Pashtun tribes (28 million in Afghanistan, 12 million in Pakistan). [my emphasis]
In comparison to the all-round disaster that was the Cheney-Bush foreign policy, Obama's is almost indescribably better. But on the "AfPak" War, he's pursuing a bad course that's going to end up badly. The only redeeming virtue I see so far is that the administration seems to be operating at the moment with some sense that the Russian experience in Afghanistan if very relevant and is dubious about escalating troops levels beyond the numbers the Russians had there.

And, as Hayden describes the situation with Pakistan, "No one on the [official] US side acknowledges that this spiraling disaster was triggered by US policies over the past decade."

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