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Sol Sanders Archive
Friday, November 9, 2007

Pakistan's 'perfect storm' a history test for policymakers

Flashback: Oc. 22: Bhutto’s vanity, NATO's test and Pakistan’s future

The turmoil that has overtaken Pakistan presents American policymakers all the diverse elements of a critical foreign policy conundrum with great portent for U.S. national interest. That American decision-making must be based on a rich historical context which can be ignored only at the peril of further inflaming the situation.

Although it is one of the largest Muslim majority states with enormous prestige and influence on the rest of the Islamic world, Pakistan is a creature of the post-colonial world with little state history and a national identity still in the making.

Its creation in 1947 – however valid in London’s pursuit of a rapid exit from the increasingly burdensome problems of empire – threw up artificial boundaries from which it, and its twin at birth, India, has never recovered. An impoverished population has not found that magic formula which lifted the West from dire poverty for those who do not have the wherewithal to overcome, at least partially, adversity.

Also In This Edition

U.S. policy toward Islamabad, blowing hot and cold, dictated by Pakistan’s critical location and influence but with an inability to separate bilateral issues from those plaguing Washington’s relation with India, has left a heritage of suspicion and bitterness.

Nuclear weapons in both Pakistan and India dramatize the loss of control in Islamabad — or any attempt to exploit its weaknesses by New Delhi, a situation which could lead to an implosion of a failed state from which its neighbors would be the first victims.

The all too familiar phenomenon of Western media [and sometimes yapping talking TV heads] piling on, feeds the hysteria overtaking local participants too often representing camouflaged vested interests, and adds to the complications of making policy, in Washington and Islamabad.

Ironically, in its early years before the advent of the Petrodollar Age, Pakistan with its British Indian heritage — not the least its proud army – was influential in the nearby Arab world. Pakistani forces saved more than one Persian Gulf state from tribal insurrection, sometimes Moscow-inspired. Ironically, that relationship has reversed and it is the Gulf and its resources –including the primitive call of Muslim fanaticism alas! as well as desperately needed investment – that calls today. The Pakistani diaspora, in the Gulf and in the U.K., has become a source of primitive jihad infection, largely foreign to the secularized Pakistani elite.

But today, no less than Iraq, Pakistani progress toward a truly moderate Islamic ethos is crucial to world peace and stability – and to American interests and security in a globalized world. The fact that both American and West European security forces are more and more concerned with homegrown Islamofacist terrorists, often trained in Pakistan, adds an acute element to what would otherwise appear a domestic Pakistani problem. Nor with a committed NATO’s fate dependent on progress in pacifying neighboring Afghanistan, can a Pakistan regime be regarded with less than top priority.

Pakistan’s troubled border with its northern neighbor Afghanistan is the perfect setting for low intensity conflict providing a safe haven for international terrorism. The international boundary cuts through isolated tribal areas, virtually indistinguishable on both sides of the border. Just as Britain’s Raj left the tribals to stew in their own juice after bitter and relatively unsuccessful engagements in the 19th century, the newly formed Pakistan state [then including as troubled a region to the east of India in Bengal], chose to look the other way.

But with the victory over Soviet encroachment into Afghanistan in Moscow’s old drive for the Indian Ocean, some Pakistanis to try to make a silk purse out of sow’s ear, to convert Afghanistan into “strategic depth” in Pakistan’s never-ending feud with India [three and a half wars since independence] under a fundamentalist regime, the Taliban.

The fall-out from that regime — American reaction to 9/11 — ended that Pakistani strategic daydream. It also put Islamabad back on Washington’s dancecard, abandoned in the wake of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and its subsequent implosion. Musharraf picked up where earlier Pakistani military collaboration with Washington had left off, even as Washington courted a new Indian attitude, now shorn of its Soviet ally.

One of Musharraf’s accomplishments – perhaps to be credited to his prime minister, former Citibanker Shakaut Aziz – has been to get the economy moving again, at a respectable six percent annual increase in the domestic gross product. Not the roaring nine to 10 percent of neighboring India, but at least the beginnings of attracting investment and technology necessary for its 150 millions to begin to move away from “the poverty bomb” which had seen the country grow poorer all through the 1980s and 90s. This had been happening while civilian politicians, such as two times prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and their feudal allies, were piling up millions in Swiss and Dubai bank accounts. That now the army has cut its slice of the civilian economy, as it had during past military takeovers, is one of the balls Musharraf has to balance in his juggling act.

Washington’s attempt to micromanage the internal Pakistani political scene has turned into a disaster. Bhutto may be many things. But to suggest that bringing her into coalition with Musharraf’s military base would solve problems was, to say the least, misplaced. Her sponsorship by the same Georgetown/Foggy Bottom dilettantes who have given us a return of permanent crisis in the Balkans is indicative.

Her first decision on returning after eight years exile to mount a parade from the airport inviting a predictable terrorist attack was typical of her lack of sagacity [much less probity] during her years in office. The suicide attack on her convoy, dramatizing her own demagogic pursuit of power with the loss of dozens of her own security guard, was typical of her cynical years in power when she presided over the creation of the corrupt nuclear and missiles proliferation network with the collaboration of Pakistani security and military. In a sense, it was this attack which, for better or for worse, gave the rationale Musharraf apparently saw as necessity, for his move to a limited martial law.

His balancing act, however, is not to be minimized:

His base in the army where he climbed the ladder – despite his ethnicity, not a Punjabi as almost three-quarters of the military – is a testament to his abilities. When the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tried to dump him, he pulled a successful counter coup.

In a country which has seen more military than civilian rule in its relatively short half century of existence, that was less of an accomplishment than it might have been elsewhere. But the struggle against Muslim fanatics in the country, growing as it is throughout the whole world of Islam, depends on the unity and the support of the army for any regime. The distasteful [for the military] war against tribal allies of the fanatics in the border areas has taken its toll. Personnel losses, and worse, loss of prestige has been heavy. The Pakistani army has found it no easier than the Americans and the other members of the Coalition in Iraq to fight against asymmetrical warfare. It will have to learn. And as Iraq has proved for the U.S., that learning curve under the best of conditions may be a long one.

Meanwhile, Washington pressure – and one would hope his own good sense – will force Musharraf to attempt some sort of return to at least a pseudo- civilian regime. Promises of early elections – however rigged they are likely to be – as President George W. Bush has publicly called for, may help.

For the time being, however much the zigging and zagging of Musharraf’s tactics in collaborating with Washington’s worldwide war against terrorism – and it must not be forgotten that the several attempts to assassinate him have come from those same elements – he represents the best hope for American interests in the region.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World and

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