News of Pakistan’s demise is premature

The Daily Star

Beirut, Lebanon
May 22, 2009

A friend called from Lahore, Pakistan, and asked if I could put up his family in my home in the Washington suburbs. “Most welcome!” I said. “When are you all coming?”

“As soon as Pakistan begins to collapse!” replied Abdul Wahid Qureshi, a retired college professor.

Qureshi was responding facetiously to David Kilcullen’s forecast that Pakistan would “collapse” within “one to six months” from a financial crisis and an “extremist takeover” of its institutions. Kilcullen served as the top adviser to General David Petraeus, chief of the US Central Command.

You can’t blame Pakistanis, beset with myriad problems, for having a little diversion over the Americans’ curious words and deeds about their country. I bet many of them were amused by the outcry in Washington for a military “defeat “of the Taliban, which has driven Islamabad into a de facto war against the movement that has cost 700 lives so far.

The army had tried but couldn’t defeat the Taliban. And the Pakistani prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, is now promising to “flush [them] out” of the Swat area, not end their widely supported movement. Most Pakistanis know their army just can’t do it. Yet most also know why their government waged the campaign, which opposition politicians are denouncing as “America’s war.” The offensive was launched on the eve of President Asif Ali Zardari’s trip to the United States, made when the Obama administration and Congress were considering a substantial aid package to Pakistan. It will likely continue until the money is in the pipeline.

With Zardari at his side, Obama announced that he and his guest had agreed to “meet the threat of extremism with a positive program of growth and opportunity.” The House Appropriations Committee approved $1 billion in emergency aid to Pakistan, more than half of it economic. A five-year, $7.5 billion Pakistan aid package was subsequently introduced in Congress: a big chunk of it would go into funding education, building infrastructure and promoting other programs for public good.

Since 9/11, Pakistan had received $12 billion in US assistance. More than 90 percent of it had gone to the military to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Obama aides say the Bush administration aid couldn’t halt the Taliban march because it was focused exclusively on use of the stick. They believe their use of the carrot could do the trick by winning Pakistanis’ hearts and minds and thus alienating them from the marauding guerrillas.

This reminds me of a Pakistani student’s prognosis of Islamism (I had been invited to Karachi University to talk about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict). I had asked the female student why Islamists had never done well in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections, despite their huge public rallies and strong organizations. “Islam inspires Muslims on the big issues,” she said, “religious issues, social suppression, foreign invasion … issues over which people die and kill. Elections are about building schools, lowering prices, and so on, for which people turn to practical politicians. [Such politicians] maybe not be good Muslims and may even be corrupt, but voters think they can get things done. “

I had heard the argument before and share it to an extent. In any case, I don’t think the administration’s goodies for Pakistanis and courtship of the notoriously corrupt Zardari would derail the Taliban movement. Many Pakistanis resent the Taliban drive to introduce Islamic law. Many criticize their confrontation with the army that has displaced tens of thousands of Pakistanis. Yet, as I found out during my two latest trips, most Pakistanis support the Islamists’ struggle to rid Afghanistan of US and NATO forces. It’s a “big issue” for them.

The news of Pakistan’s impending demise seems premature. Pakistan is used to “extremism.” The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis can live on $2 a day and weather the economic crisis. And I’ve learned reliably that Pakistan’s nukes are very secure under the vigil of its 600,000-strong armed forces. If Pakistan should “collapse,” however, that would result from a civil war that its army, under brutal American pressure, would set in motion in the name of fighting extremism.

I hope America isn’t turning Pakistan into another Iraq. To spare the troubled nation further instability – and me the trouble of putting up the Qureshis! – the administration should explore a new Pakistan strategy, beginning perhaps with an exit strategy from Afghanistan.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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