Losing Pakistan

By: Greg C. Reeson

Earlier this year I wrote an article in which I offered four steps the United States might take to prevent Pakistan from becoming a failed state. They were to strengthen the Pakistani government through targeted economic aid; to reorient the Pakistani military away from confrontation with India and toward the Islamic insurgency threatening Pakistan’s national survival; to assist Pakistan with economic and political reforms in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas; and to minimize the role of the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service that has long had ties to the Taliban. It has now become clear that anything the U.S. does will be too little, too late.

For too long the United States has viewed Pakistan as a secondary effort in the fight for Afghanistan. The primary focus has always been on rooting out the Afghan Taliban, defeating al Qaeda, and supporting the Karzai government in Kabul. Efforts directed at Pakistan were singularly focused on getting the Pakistani government to police its side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. The United States was slow to recognize that the true center of gravity was not in Afghanistan, but in neighboring Pakistan.

Pakistan has, over the past several years, become the global center of Islamic radicalism. The Pakistani armed forces are either unwilling or unable to stop the Taliban and other groups of militants, and the ISI still provides support to terrorist elements within Pakistan’s borders. The Pakistani government lacks public support and the economy is suffering greatly from the global financial crisis. Political and economic instability and military intransigence provide numerous opportunities for Islamists that promise order, stability and desperately needed social services. The conditions in Pakistan today actually make the Taliban look more attractive to the average citizen than the Pakistani government.

It’s no surprise that Islamic militants have increasingly been on the march. They smell blood and are moving in for the kill. In mid-February, the Pakistani government signed a peace deal with the Taliban that was supposed to end military operations in the Swat Valley and establish Islamic law, Sharia, in several parts of Pakistan’s northwest. The Malakand Accord, as it was called, was interpreted by the Taliban as a sign of weakness on the part of the Pakistani government. Rather than settling for the gains achieved under the peace deal, the Taliban began moving, closing to within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad, just last month. The lesson to be learned is a simple one. There is no dealing with Islamic radicals. They view negotiations as nothing more than a mechanism for gaining some sort of an advantage, and now they’re getting close to Pakistan’s nuclear facilities.

The problem in Pakistan is only going to get worse in the foreseeable future, and the world will probably witness yet another military takeover in Islamabad. This is not necessarily a bad thing, at least until the threat from Islamic extremists is brought under control. It is also not uncommon in Pakistan’s history. Since the country was born shortly after World War II, it has been under military rule for slightly more than 30 years. Just over half of its life has been controlled by the Pakistani military and not by civilian governments. The most recent military government was the regime of General Pervez Musharraf, which came to power in a coup in 1999. This time around the country could be led by General Ashfaq Kayani, the current chief of staff of the Pakistani Army. One thing is certain: the current path that Pakistan is on cannot continue. If it does, the Pakistani government will fail. A failed Pakistani state would be the ultimate nightmare scenario, with horrific consequences not just for Pakistan, but for the entire international community.

The United States has finally recognized that it is Pakistan that is the central front in the global fight against Islamic extremism. It does not appear, however, that the Pakistani government has reached the same conclusion. There have been a few Pakistani military offensives, but the effort has been half-hearted at best. Even the current operation in Buner has a time limit on it, making it clear that the Pakistani government does not intend to stay and hold the territory it is currently fighting to take back from the Taliban.

Pakistan is losing its fight against the extremists, and the world is losing Pakistan. The alarms have been sounded, but not much else is likely to happen. The simple reality is that once you get past the rhetoric, the calls for increased Pakistani action, and the pleas for international assistance, it’s not hard to see that the United States is watching from the sidelines and is essentially powerless to do anything more.

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