Pakistan’s ‘bleakest moment’

Pakistan’s ‘bleakest moment’

Guest columnist Ahmed Rashid says Pakistan is facing its bleakest moment, months after getting a new democratic government.

Stock broker in Karachi

‘Pakistan’s economy is in a meltdown’

Just when Pakistanis thought they had a new democracy, ushering in a new civilian government, a new president and the end of eight years of military rule, they are faced with the bleakest moment in the country’s history.

Proverbially listed as a failing state, this precariously poised country could now be in a downward spiral towards becoming a failed state.

Internationally isolated and condemned by the world community due to its Afghan policy, Pakistan’s tribal territories have become a free-for-all firing range for US troops even as the domestic threat from the Pakistani Taleban multiplies.

Pakistanis also face runaway inflation of over 25% and an economy in virtual meltdown as foreign exchange reserves dwindle and industry grinds to a halt.

There is a lack of electricity, an unresolved judicial crisis and ultimately an uncertain political future with the army still waiting in the wings.

The civilians and the military need to develop a partnership that works, where decisions are jointly discussed and made and burdens shared. So far that has not happened.

When newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari travels to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, he will be desperately trying to shore up Pakistan’s crumbling international reputation, discuss new policy options towards the Taleban with President George Bush and beg for fresh aid from donor countries in order to avert a default on the country’s foreign debt.

Double game

It’s a tough order for a man who barely knows his way around the corridors of power.

Much of the present crisis has to be laid at the doors of former President Pervez Musharraf, the army and the Interservices Intelligence (ISI) – who, since 11 September 2001, have played a double game not only with the Americans but also with their own people.

A militant attack in Peshawar

There has been a spike in militant violence

Promising democracy, economic development, moderation and an end to training jihadi fighters who had become the army’s front line in projecting its foreign policy and fuelling the wars in Afghanistan and the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir, in reality the military continued to pursue the same old games.

By allowing the growth of Islamic extremism and the mushrooming of thousands of new madrassas in the country, the military considered economic and political stability an afterthought.

In his last years, Mr Musharraf presided over a rotten system that was just waiting to implode. Neither the army nor the Americans were prepared to see that but the people of Pakistan certainly were – as they poured on to the streets to protest at this or that foible of the regime.

Out of control

Just as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government took over, all the chickens came home to roost. The Afghan Taleban – which still has a safe haven in Pakistan – no longer listens to its military mentors.

The Pakistani Taleban are out of control. Once serving as the protectors and facilitators for al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taleban, the Pakistani Taleban have now developed their own political agenda – turning northern Pakistan into what they call a Sharia (Islamic law) state.

The key to remedy the present crisis lies in how Mr Zardari and the civilian government conduct their relations with the military and how successful they are in bringing it on board when adopting a new national security doctrine that does not depend on Islamic extremism and makes friends rather than enemies of Pakistan’s neighbours.

The civilians and the military need to develop a partnership that works, where decisions are jointly discussed and burdens shared. So far that has not happened.

Anti-US protests in Pakistan

Anti-American feelings have risen

Confrontation – such as when the government tried and failed to force the ISI to report to the Interior Ministry just before Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani visited Washington – will not work.

The incident showed up the government to be immature, inept and unversed in how state institutions operate.

By the same token the army cannot carry on with its military campaigns against the Pakistan Taleban, refusing to share information and intelligence with responsible civilians. Nobody in government has a clue as to what the military strategy is, while many doubt there even is one.

The army’s lack of transparency only further damages the military’s reputation and creates unnecessary conflict with parliament and the government. Moreover it fuels conspiracy theories about the army’s intentions.

It cannot be over-emphasised: to get over this present crisis the army and the civilians will have to sit down together.

But the problem for the government is that in its discussions with the military so far, it has been shown to know next to nothing about national security or foreign policy.

It is not trusted by the army and Mr Zardari has to find the right people to fill the key positions where interaction with the military is paramount.

Gradually through a maturing working relationship, the army must learn to accept that the elected government has the right to control foreign policy, although not without consulting the military first.

Only civilian rule can deliver greater trade and co-operation with Pakistan’s neighbours rather than more confrontation.

It is the resolution of disputes like Kashmir with India and the Durand Line with Afghanistan that will give Pakistan securer borders.

It will also make the military less paranoid about India and place civilians more firmly in control. Failed statehood can still be avoided.