Outrageous assassination elevates Pakistan to the Numero Uno crisis

Tuesday, January 11, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

A Washington mesmerized by entering a new domestic political era may not recognize it, but Pakistan should now be the major — certainly foreign — preoccupation for policymakers.

U.S. security is directly tied to Pakistan, not only with the 9/11 example of possible sanctuaries for terrorist operations, but related to increasing recruitment of home-grown terrorists in the West. Islamic radicals, traditionally a tiny minority, are running amok, with the assassination of a high official, openly justifying and propagandizing it. Growing instability directly impinges not only on neighboring Afghanistan, but has enormous implications for the nuclear and missiles arms race with India, that country’s larger Muslim minority, and Islamabad’s “all weather” China alliance.

Despite perennial, massive foreign assistance, one of the world’s poorest economies is failing basic needs of 180 million people.

The assassination Jan. 4 of Salman Taseer, governor of the Punjab where 60 percent of Pakistanis live, is epochal. Taseer, quintessential member of the ruling feudal elite since the 1947 bloody British Indian Partition, nevertheless represented “modernism”. He had campaigned against an anti-blasphemy law — originally part of the devil’s compact Saudi Arabia demanded for its financial and moral support. [Accommodation to Saudi Islamic fanaticism went so far as to outlaw dissident worldwide Islamic sects. That included ostracism of Pakistan’s — and the first Muslim — Nobel prizewinner in physics and founder of its nuclear weapons and missiles program!] But a frightening response to this murder has been widespread support for the murderer by lawyers while the government’s prosecuting attorney did not dare turn up for the preliminary hearing.

Pakistan’s history, beginning with its martyred first prime minister, is long on political violence. But that Taseer was gunned down by a member of his own bodyguard, a man ousted from other security posts for acknowledged fanaticism, with no return fire by other guards, will lead to endless conspiracy theorizing. The Taseer murder reflects loyalties and therefore allegiances crossing all lines. Just as there are virtually daily terrorist incidents throughout the country, U.S. drones almost as frequently take out targeted jihadists in the tribal areas abutting Afghanistan. Despite frequent government official denunciations of U.S. action, Pakistani intelligence helps pinpoint these “miscreants”.

But the ease with which the federal government’s chief Punjab representative [presiding over an opposition provincial government] was eliminated dramatizes a political system near paralysis. Unreality prevails: in the midst of continuing crisis, parasitic justices and lawyers are trying to wrest “judicial supremacy” from the inheritance of British “parliamentary supremacy.” A representative vignette: leader of one major party presides over political powwows digitally from London because he dare not reside in Karachi. But one of his leading deputies was recently murdered in the U.K.

All this takes place in the world’s 50th largest economy, where more than a quarter officially live “below the poverty line.” Corruption is an economic issue with only two million — mostly professionals and government workers — paying taxes. Rich landowners, who with the military are the regime’s backbone, are exempt from all agricultural taxes. The International Monetary Fund last year withheld $3.5 billion from its $11.3 billion loan to meet a balance of payments crisis to pressure for reforms. But when Islamabad moved last month, the shaky coalition collapsed and the decision to reduce petroleum subsidies immediately was rescinded. Most economists agree subsidies benefit the wealthier, not the vast subsistence economy hit hard last year in the worst floods ever.

U.S. policy is caught in this jumble. There has been a constant harangue by experts over not only size but the nature of American aid, what mix of “carrots and sticks”. Unfortunately, the transparent American system requires public discussion, informing the enemy and feeding the always present paranoid anti-Americanism.

Islamabad last fall increased its defense budget by about $1.28 billion, partly for flood relief with the U.S. pledging $150 million. But Washington also has been pressuring to get on with rooting out tribal area strongholds in the difficult Afghanistan border terrain. Failing that, strategists believe American/NATO success and earlier departure from that country will not be possible. Since 2005, Pakistan has received more than $1 billion a year in U.S. military aid — nearly $2 billion last fiscal year. A $7.5 billion package of civilian aid over five years was approved in 2009. But repayment of earlier assistance meant no real civilian aid transfers took place for 25 years. In 2008 net disbursement amounted to $204 million, or about $1.10 per Pakistani — in part explaining why 40 years of U.S. aid is pooh-poohed.

Washington’s headaches could get worse at any moment. The Bush Administration fatuously pushed for “a return to democracy,” helping oust the more able [if wily] Gen. Pervez Musharraf for the notoriously corrupt, incompetent but secularist Bhutto family, including martyred former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband, the current president, Asif Ali Zandari [known locally as Mr. 10 percent]. Calls have begun again for martial law and military rule. A largely irrelevant debate between human rights advocates and realists is in the cards, while more chaos, and possibly even disintegration, waits in the wings.

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