Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Losing Pakistan"


"The tragedy now unfolding in Pakistan is occurring due the pursuit of shortsighted policies by the United States as well as the Pakistan government and military. The US has pressured Pakistan into engaging in brutal military operations in Bajaur and Swat, with no regard for how this would affect its own vital interests in the region. The Pakistani rulers (bedazzled by the glitter of all those promised billions) have meekly complied in waging war on parts of their own people, again with no thought to the likely outcome for them and their country. The main impact of this has been to the civilian population, some million and a half of whom have been displaced (with many killed and maimed, although no figures for these are yet available).

Incidentally, what Pakistan is doing is little different from what Sudan did in Darfur and what the Sri Lankan government is now doing – fighting an insurgency with minimal or no regard for civilians in the area. This got Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir indicted as a war criminal, while the Sri Lankan government is the object of widespread condemnation in the West. Even Israel got a few taps on its knuckles for its indiscriminate brutality in Gaza. Pakistan, however, is being widely lauded for its resolute "war on terror". Apparently, causing avoidable human suffering while waging this particular war is more palatable than in other cases.

In a previous article (see below) I analysed the real threat that the United States faces in this theatre, and recommended what might be a rational policy for it to pursue. This was to first shore up Pakistan instead of waging a war in Afghanistan (with Pakistan forced to act in a supporting role). I warned that a failure to do this risked losing Pakistan to the Islamists, which would render pointless whatever the US could achieve in Afghanistan. The likelihood of such a policy being adopted is nil, unfortunately, since the present administration has continued the Bush practice of letting generals set national policy in this theatre. The generals are fixated on their war in Afghanistan, and Pakistan figures only as an often-reluctant subordinate player in their operations. What remains to be described is how this tragedy will likely unfold as Pakistan slides ever closer to an Islamist takeover. The current military operation in Swat (like the earlier one in Bajaur) consists mainly of subjecting successive areas to heavy bombardment from the air and the ground, behind which ground troops advance, shooting at anyone they encounter (including unfortunate civilians trying to flee). The area thus occupied is then subjected to an indefinite curfew, and again anyone seen outside is shot (often civilians trying to flee or seek food and water). The hardened Taliban militants, who had moved into Swat from the adjoining tribal area (FATA), have mostly slipped back to their own areas, leaving behind local diehards to attain the honour of martyrdom (those not so inclined merely bury their weapons and mingle with the escaping refugees).

So, even though a famous victory will undoubtedly be won, this military operation is unlikely to do much lasting damage to the Taliban. The army will, in due course, occupy much of the inhabited portions of the Swat valley (but not the hilly regions). The million plus displaced refugees will rush back to find their homes demolished or looted, and most civic infrastructure destroyed, and with it their means of livelihood. As would already have happened in the camps they came from, the flood of US and international aid dollars would dwindle to a trickle by the time it reached them after passing through so many sticky fingers. The main relief effort will be mounted by the Islamist aid organizations, just as they did after the 2005 earthquake in Northern Pakistan. They will thereby win many friends and much goodwill, unlike the Pakistan government and the US, which is even now seen as the instigator of this operation and the resulting calamity. Ultimately, the army will have to depart, and the same ineffective, corrupt and complicit civil administration will return. And so will the Taliban, digging up their black turbans and AK-47s.

Meanwhile, the US war in Afghanistan will continue, and the need to stop the Taliban from using the FATA as a base and launching pad for attacks will intensify. Washington will twist some arms and thump some tables, and the hapless Pakistan military will have to go in and clean up FATA as it did Bajaur and Swat. Another miserable wave of destitute Pashtun refugees will flood back into the adjoining settled areas, to meet the same indifferent care that the refugees from Bajaur and Swat received. The Taliban will not only fade away into the hills and caves of FATA and Afghanistan, but also infiltrate into the interior of Pakistan. FATA will become a depopulated free-fire zone, but scattered garrisons and air attacks will not be able to stop guerrillas from using it as a base to attack both Afghanistan and Pakistan (nor will magical drones manipulated from balmy Florida).

Taliban infiltration and Pashtun alienation (due to these operations by a largely Punjabi military) will likely lead to the collapse of government in the NW Frontier province, allowing an insurgency to grow in this area (low-level, but considerably worse than the one now occurring in Baluchistan). The ethnic conflict now simmering in Karachi will escalate. The Taliban militants who have infiltrated into the cities and towns will stage bombings and attacks in them. All this will intensify the many internal strains and problems already plaguing Pakistan (which I spelt out in my earlier article). Throwing US money at this mess will not make much difference, except to hugely inflate some bank accounts in obscure tax havens. Pakistan is not a very strong and stable structure as it is; under all these additional pressures and complications, something has to give.

Casual or uninformed outside observers are quick to predict the break-up of Pakistan under pressure. That is unlikely, though it remains a possibility at the end of a long chain of adverse events. What is most likely is a change in the present governance structure. Pakistan is currently ruled by one man, Asif Zardari (the facade of democracy notwithstanding). Mr. Zardari, and his policy of unlimited support for US policies in the region, is extremely unpopular .....When conditions in the country worsen due to the "war on terror", he and his subservience to the US will be blamed, and he is unlikely to be able to remain in power for long.

Mr. Zardari’s most likely replacement will either be his political rival, Mr. Nawaz Sharif, or an Islamist military junta. Mr. Sharif is currently displaying a somewhat tentative friendship for the US. But, if he comes into power on a wave of anti-US sentiment (whether through an early election, a popular movement, or military intervention), his policies will be radically different from those of the present government. This will probably cause US (and international) aid to dry up, and as this exacerbates the country’s problems, he will have to lean increasingly on Islamists (political Islamists, not the Taliban), and they will gradually take over the government.Text Color

Another possible scenario is an Islamist military coup. Though possible at any time (it is unclear how deeply they have penetrated the military, but nationalist fervour easily shades into the Islamist variety), it becomes much more likely if governance in the country seriously breaks down, or the military buckles under the combined pressures of trying to support the US war in Afghanistan, combatting insurgencies and militant attacks at home, while all the time looking apprehensively over its shoulder at the "threat" posed by an India it does not trust. A takeover of the military and the government by a group of Islamist officers could well occur in such circumstances.

Whatever the actual chain of events that transpires, the great (and avoidable) tragedy is that the policies the US is pursuing in the region greatly increase the likelihood of the loss of Pakistan to the Islamists. The frightening consequences of this, for both Pakistan and the US, are easy to imagine. Any successes the generals can achieve in their war in Afghanistan would be meaningless; military campaigns divorced from the real needs of national policy usually end up as expensive failures. The pages of history are littered with them."

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