Friday, May 15, 2009

Pakistan faces the abyss

Guest post by Hamid M. Khan

Hamid M. Khan is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Colorado Law School and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

Leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan met in Washington last week, stoking hopes that greater cooperation between the two nations would facilitate a united front against the increasingly powerful Taliban. Afghanistan's weakness in this partnership is long-standing, but it is Pakistan's new instability that is catching the world's attention. Once a stable nuclear state, Pakistan's future is now far from predictable. How it will respond in the months ahead remains to be seen, but one thing that is clear is that Pakistan cannot face this constellation of existential challenges without the United States.

Pakistan's current fever-pitch
battle with the Taliban cannot be resolved by armed force alone. Instead, the present conflict finds its causes in the vacuum of an episodic democracy; a state ravaged by military rule, the cancer of corruption, and the nation's inability to deal with its Islamic origins.

Founded as a democratic state and predicated on the British system of rule, Pakistan has suffered from intermittent episodes of democracy in which civilian governments were often inept and military rule was unwilling to cede power. More troubling, however, is that the current civilian government appears so helpless that it almost reflexively seeks a negotiated end to violence, but without securing any compromises from the extremists.

Equally troubling is that the military which created and trained many of the extremists it is now fighting has seen its morale erode, even while it maintains control over Pakistan's sizeable nuclear arsenal. Should military morale erode even further, one wonders if the military will follow the path of the ISI (Pakistan's intelligence service) and undermine U.S. efforts in the region, especially by relaxing control over portions of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

Pakistan's failures at governance have begotten one of the most
corrupt nations in the world. In fact, Pakistanis have become so accustomed to the self-serving interests of bureaucrats on every level – military or civilian, religious or secular – that they are simply unwilling to invest in their social and governmental institutions. The abysmal of failure of Pakistan's social institutions have left this much of its enormous population without electricity or drinking water, let alone education or health care.

Pakistanis have become increasingly restless for institutions which may act as a check on entrenched power. When the former president, General Pervez Musharraf sacked the chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court in 2007, Pakistanis took to the streets and helped to bring down his government. When Pakistan's current leadership failed to reinstate this same chief justice, popular protest nearly toppled the government once again.

Finally, there stands Pakistan's inability to deal with its Islamic roots. To begin, Pakistan was founded on the strident belief that a Hindu-dominated India could not adequately represent the rights of Muslims who lived within the subcontinent. Consequently, West and East Pakistan were created in 1947. Pakistan was unique because the nation itself was predicated on the religious -- rather than on the cultural or lingual -- character of its citizenry.

Less than two decades later, however, Pakistan could not preserve its national integrity and civil war led East Pakistan to become Bangladesh in 1971. Today, after sliding between secularism and religiosity, Pakistan ostensibly finds itself in another civil war. Will Pakistan's Islamic identity tip more towards democracy and moderate Islamism, or will it descend into extremist ideology? This is the question that sits at the center of the battle for the soul of Pakistan.

The problem is the allure the extremists offer. They promise honest and robust institutions to a population that deals with rampant corruption everyday. That is why the fight in Pakistan
cannot be won through arms alone. The U.S. must partner with the Pakistani military to root out extremists. We cannot allow Pakistan and its nuclear weapons to come under the control of a theology that relegates women to servitude, forestalls education, decimates tolerance, and encourages violence.

Yet there is a limit to how long Pakistanis will tolerate civilian casualties and refugee camps for the sake of a corrupt government. If you build a sand castle on the water line, it doesn't matter how well it's built: high tide will sweep it away. We can partner with the Pakistani military to sweep away insurgents, but unless we help Pakistan build credible institutions, extremists will rush right back in. Until we make that happen, the abyss Pakistan is perched upon will only grow deeper.

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