WASHINGTON – Afghanistan is a big problem. But if Pakistan fails we have an even bigger problem. And what can we do to prevent this large, (172 million inhabitants), disfunctional, troubled Muslim country from becoming the major incubator of anti-Western hostility, not to mention the lingering possibility of an escalating confrontation with India, due to large, unresolved territorial issues?
Sadly, probably not very much. The problems are rooted in an immature, essentially anti-democratic political culture in which religious fundamentalism and its violent appendices have found a fertile terrain. We have been told about the thousands of madrassas, the religious schools that have flowered in Pakistan. While it may be simplistic to assume that regious education equals breeding ground for fundamentalists/would be terrorists, at least in some cases this is true. But the problem is not so much religious education as lack of a vibrant, modern education aimed at preparing young Pakistanis to become protagonists in the unfolding global economy. Religious education alone, even if devoid of any hint of radicalism, does not provide the necessary skills/attitudes for enterprise nad wealth creation. On the other hand unimpeded radicalism, not seriously challenged by a weak and disorganized state is a real problem, for Pakistan itself, for the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, for stability in South Asia and, as a growing menace for the rest of the world.
Given all this, what can the West do? Not very much, at least not directly. Still, the West can at least attempt at creating an international environment that may offer more opportunities to those Pakistanis who would like to try peaceful modernization. In other words, the average citizen should be able to believe that there is a realistic way forward founded on peaceful modernization, fostered by constructive links with the international economy. It may not be much; but providing an alternative to millenarian fanaticism is better than doing nothing.
For those who had ignored the progressive radicalization of Pakistan, the recent Mumbay attacks, and their probable Pakistani origin, helped clarify the reading of what role certain groups based within this country play within the broader context of Islamic fundamentalism. As a result, Pakistan has been raised now to the status of source of world instability, as opposed to supporting character.
Now that this is noted, the question is what productive role, if any, the US, the West and others (China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Japan, India) should play in order to diminish the intensity of this threat and to create the premises for enhanced stability both within Pakistan and its neighbors and among all of them. Is there anything constructive that can be undertaken?
In Afghanistan the US, with uneven (disappointing may be better said) NATO support, is trying to defeat a stubborn (in fact growing) insurgency featuring the Taliban, plus other assorted elements. Until yesterday the reading was that Pakistan was important as an accessory player in relation to Afghanistan. Our concern about Pakistan was mostly focused on its direct or indirect role in providing sanctuary to the Taliban and al Quaida hiding in the mountainous border areas between the two countries. If only Pakistan would be more forceful in denying access to the insurgents, then our efforts in Afghanistan would have better chances.
But now the focus has shifted. Pakistan is not just a weak, unwitting or maybe partially willing accessory. Pakistan is “the problem”, or, at least “a problem” in its own right. Pakistan, we (perhaps belatedly) realized, has become a new center of jihadi radicalism with groups that have acquired the ability and willingness to engage in international operations in South Asia and elsewhere. The fertile ground for radical violence is provided by various fundamentalist factions that prosper in this large, heavily populated, backward country; affected by the added huge malady of permanent political immaturity. In Pakistan we have armed forces incapable of really leading the country to modernity but at the same time skeptical as to the ability of the civilians to accomplish the same goal. So, either military strong men rule through force or they reluctantly yield power to weak civilian governments incapable of extricating themselves from feudal politics laced with corruption. In this mess Islamic radicalism prospers, as it seems capable to provide guidance and inspiration to significant segments of an otherwise disoriented population.
The perennially unresolved Kashmir dispute with India, with nationalist and religious components, adds a huge element of constant frustration and paranoia against the more powerful and now more economically advanced neighbor. As a way to gain leverage in this dispute, the Pakistani government over time trained and enabled radicals willing to do the fight against the Indians. In so doing, however, Islamabad created violent agents who may now be beyond its direct control.
As a result, we have now the fairly popular paranoid notion of Pakistan as a country under siege, ruled by agents of America, threatened by a vast conspiracy including the West and India. This conspiratorial belief extends to at least some elements of the vast number of Pakistani who have settled in Europe or in the Middle East. This complicates matters, as we have Pakistanis holding British passports, traveling back and forth, receiving military training in Pakistan. We know that some of them have been engaged in violent plots in different continents.
In short, Pakistan is a weak country, close to be ungovernable, to the extent that too many elements within the society do not really recognize the legitimacy of popularly elected leaders. The country is poisoned by a plethora of radical, violent outfits, capable of mounting international operations. These groups enjoy at least some support; while their prestige cannot be seriously challenged by the authorities.
This country both weak and radicalized has a war on its western border with Afghanistan and believes that India is a perennially hostile stronger neighbor in the east. Add to this mix the nuclear arsenals of both India and Pakistan.
And so, having recognized the magnitude of the problem, what can the west do beyond pious exhortation to all parties to stay calm and find peaceful solutions; while encouraging the now democratically elected government of Pakistan to gain more legitimacy?
Probably not a lot, at least not directly. As we discovered in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the West has few or no credible political or cultural alternatives to offer to troubled Muslim societies. The notion that we can help backward countries become modern by imposing the “democracy therapy” through military force is not a good model. We are not doing well in Afghanistan. We are now faring better in Iraq, but only after having expended an inordinate amount of time and resources. Anybody willing to try the same medicine in Pakistan –a much larger and much more populous country?
The best that can be done –and this may still fail– is to create an international environment that would simplify somewhat the job of the fragile democratic government in Islamabad. Every possible tool should be used to ease the economic crisis, to help Pakistan modernize its economy, to help companies find export markets. While improved economic conditions are not the ultimate answer, increased poverty and more despair certainly would not help.
By the same token, the West plus China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and others should be able to create an international negotiations framework that would help manage the India Pakistan bilateral relationship. While ultimately it is all about creating mutual trust, moves undertaken under the political cover of an umbrella structured by credible international brokers may have a greater chance of succeeding.
In the end, it will be up to Pakistan to find its way to peaceful modernity. But its intrinsic weakness and the virulence of the radical malady within its society should invite actions aimed at creating an international context that may have a chance of helping the forces of modernization. Who knows if we may succeed in this or not. But if we do little or nothing and Pakistan fails the consequences will be horrendous.