Saturday 25 April 2009

Pakistan, explained

So what’s going on in Pakistan?

The Taleban are trying to widen their footprint in Pakistan, imposing their will on a wider area in northern Pakistan. The locals, even conservatives, don’t want the Taleban or their medieval ideas – they even tried to fight them, but the government wouldn’t back up the locals. The government is appeasing and negotiating with the Taleban. They have neither the will nor the strategy to fight the militants.

So people are asking: what is Zardari doing? It makes no sense.

The answer: it ain’t Zardari. And it makes perfect sense.

Pakistan is ruled not by Zardari but by the army and its intelligence arm, the ISI. Zardari tried to assert himself by disbanding the ISI’s political wing, and then sought to send the ISI chief to help India with the Mumbai attack, but the army blocked that move.

The main tool the army uses to maintain power is the national siege mentality, based on the notion that Afghanistan and India are colluding against them; Kashmir is central to this idea. This is the tool they use to control national politics and budget, and to keep their army in a frozen stalemate over on the eastern border with India – a perfect excuse not to tackle terrorists along their western border. The army and the ISI throw gasoline on the flames by sponsoring the Taleban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, to make mischief in Afghanistan and India. They allow those groups and al-Qa’ida to use the FATA area for safe havens and staging areas for attacks into India and Afghanistan, pretending that the FATA area is outside army control (which it may well be at this point). They also fan the flames through the legal system which is embracing more Shari’a, and through tolerance of fundamentalists who attack sellers of CD’s and DVD’s, and even juice bars where the young may meet.

Zardari wants to neutralize that weapon by resolving the Kashmir issue, reaching out to India and scaling back support for Kashmiri separatists. Currently India manages the rich part of Kashmir while Pakistan manages the poor part, a formula which is unlikely to change; Zardari’s predecessor, Musharraf, proposed making that permanent, with a “soft” border. But there may be limits as to how far the army will let Zardari go on the peace track.

America can assuage the siege mentality by letting the Pakistanis know they will be protected, by being careful in its dealings with India and with the Afghan Northern Alliance which is seen as pro-Indian (the Pakistanis see us as part of the India-Afghanistan alliance against them too, which is why our military presence makes them nervous). They probably want the same nuclear deal that India got, and IMF money.

With the help of the Pakistani army, the Taleban possibly can be split – separate the hardliners from the weekend hackers -- and then neutralized. Things which the Taleban might want: a voice in government, the departure of the hated Karzai. Of course what they may really want is to get in the face of the new, untested U.S. president, at least once. We would want them to stop protecting al-Qa’ida and launching attacks against our forces, girl’s schools and other targets. For the Taleban diehards, we will need the Pakistani army to cooperate on their side of the border (as well as a crackdown on heroin, which funds the Taleban) – making that happen might make it easier to talk to the non-hardliners.

Without the help of the Pakistani army, little progress is likely in Afghanistan. Things are already hard enough there. Afghanistan is the puzzle which defeated the empires of Britain and Russia. There is little tradition of strong central government, and the Kabul regime will need much more propping up than the one in Baghdad; longterm funding for their army and police will be needed. It will not be resolved in a quick U.S. surge. Add to that the fact that our NATO allies are overdue for a spanking, for their lackadaisical efforts in Afghanistan.

This is one of the many areas in which China might help. China wants a route to transport its goods from under-developed western China to the Indian Ocean; they helped build the Pakistani port of Gwadar, which India countered by building roads to facilitate transport through the Afghan ring-road system to Iran, thus bypassing Gwadar. China is also Afghanistan’s largest investor, spending a pack of money on a copper mine near Kabul. Of course China has its own interests in the area: among other things, they are not thrilled to see U.S. forces in the region (Iran, Russia and India are also nervous).

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