Triangulating Pakistan

Two opposing figures represent possible futures for Pakistan.

The first is an urban lawyer who protests for judicial independence. After he successfully brought down the Musharaf government and reinstated Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, he is the face of the democratic Pakistan beholden to the law.

The second is a Taliban fighter who spreads his influence from his Pashtun homeland into new regions of the country like Swat and Bruner. After he successfully fought the army to a standstill in the Swat Valley, he is the face of the Islamic Pakistan beholden to fundamentalist Sharia law.

Ironically the decider of Pakistan’s future is neither of these two figures, but rather a third party. He is a high ranking officer in the Pakistani army who sees the greatest threat to his country coming from its eastern Indian neighbor rather than internal conflicts.

The major victory for the lawyers quietly passed through the news in the past few weeks, as Iftikhar Chaudhry was once again reinstated. Pakistani President Asif ali Zardari dragged his feet in reinstating Chaudhry for fear of alleged corruption charges against him. The immediate context for this was Zardari’s political maneuvering to snub opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and his party’s control of the Punjab province. This was the second time the lawyers stood up to the president and have succeeded

Apparently the army played a role by refusing to crush the lawyers and Sharif as they made their “long march” to the capital in Islamabad. This is an encouraging sign as the powerful army is lending its support to the democracy advocates. However, the army has a poor history of tolerating the squabbles of democracy. In its 62 year history there has never been a peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another. It is still uncertain what the army’s long-term approach to growing democracy movement lead by the lawyers will be.

The far more explosive issue was the violent seizure of the Bruner district by the Taliban and the subsequent military campaign to drive them out. The expansion into Bruner came on the heels of a ceasefire that ceded the Swat Valley to Taliban-style Sharia. The conditions of the ceasefire were that the Taliban would disarm in Swat, instead they went on to Bruner. After hysteria and pressure from the US the army launched a campaign to retake Bruner and it is still uncertain whether they will go on to Swat to drive out the Taliban.

The US was strongly opposed to the Swat deal from the beginning as similar capitulating deals in Waziristan have led to similarly disappointing results. Additionally, the Swat Valley is outside of the traditional Pashtun homeland and was once even a tourist destination. The people there do not welcome the Taliban or their imposition of Sharia. The advance on Bruner set off alarm bells as it is a mere 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad. Pakistanis are confident that the army would never allow the Taliban to get near either the capital or the nuclear stockpile, but Western leaders are concerned nonetheless.

Although the army campaign to roll back recent Taliban gains is welcome relief, it’s still uncertain whether it has the willpower to contain and aggressively fight the Taliban militias on their lawless western border with Afghanistan.

The first reason for this is the tightrope walk between US military aid and public approval over high casualties. Since 2001, the US has seen lawlessness in Pakistan as the main obstacle to stability in Afghanistan. The billions of dollars in military aid haven’t paid off and are often siphoned off into conventional warfare programs like jets and tanks. Many in Pakistan are reticent to fight against fellow Muslims for what they view as America’s war. The American bombings in Pakistan have added to anti-American sentiment.

The second reason is that Pakistan’s armed forces aren’t well trained for asymmetric warfare. Pakistan’s highly sophisticated and costly military is geared for battle with India to the East, not the Taliban fighters in the West. Their campaigns are inevitably heavy handed with high casualties. This usually leads to public outcry especially with very few gains to show for their tactics. There are suspicions that many in the upper ranks of the army have ties to various warlords, which they don’t wish to readily give up. The institutionalized hatred and fixation with India makes it difficult to divert attention to matters at home.

As of now the Pakistani military is the decider. Moving to address either the democratic or the Islamic movements would require major changes in the way the army functions and its role in Pakistan. To aid democratic progress, the generals must be prepared to let the people decide and they need to be willing to defer to civil leadership. This would obviously entail a loss of power that much of the military would strongly resist. In addition, to confront Islamic radicalism pushed by the Taliban, the army would need to adapt to counter-insurgency warfare. This would require less focus on the traditional enemy of India and more focus on the extremists in their midst. Both of these entail massive shifts in perspective that may not be readily accepted. However, the alternative of obstinacy seems to be leading to an increasingly unstable and volatile Pakistan. With increasing concern over the nuclear stockpile, shaky government, and ethnic tensions, Pakistan and the world community cannot afford to see substantial instability and chaos.

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