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Pakistan: The final frontier

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In Brief

During the last two years of ‘democratic’ rule, Pakistan has experienced a whirlwind of challenges, with signs of more to come. Everything in Pakistani has an air of uncertainty attached to it − be it cricket or domestic and foreign policy. Democracy in Pakistan has experienced many different forms and taken on many different meanings, a product of the vagaries of political failure and shifting international alliance relations.

Eight years into the Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S., the so-called ‘frontline state’ of the war on terror continues to battle for its image.


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Quelling the sceptics remains perhaps the biggest challenge. According to some analysts, the US policy of favouring personalities rather than principles hasn’t helped the situation, especially during the years following 9/11.

Any debate about Pakistan soon revolves around two questions. Will Pakistan collapse? And what is the role of the the Inter-Services Intelligence agency? News headlines featuring phrases such as ‘failing’, ‘collapsing’, ‘on the brink of’, ‘at the crossroads’, ‘weakening Pakistan’, are common epithets associated with the state of Pakistan.

So, is Pakistan on the brink? Yes. But will it collapse? No. It will endure, not on account of good governance, but because of its geostrategic location, which brings to it both chaos and stability.

The role of the Pakistani intelligence agencies has been increasingly questioned both from within Pakistan, by the domestic media, and from outside, by a number of Western countries. Incidents involving disappearances, extradition, rendition and torture outsourcing suggest a complicated scenario. As for intelligence sharing, a mutual distrust exists between Pakistan and the U.S.

Suicide bomb attacks have spiked in Pakistan, from two in 2002 to 59 in 2008, according to the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), based in New Delhi. 87 suicide attacks were recorded in 2009, according to a report released by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, an independent research group based in Islamabad.

Much has been published about the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy regarding the U.S. drone strikes inside Pakistani territory. The Pakistani parliament condemned the strikes in a resolution that was passed unanimously. Between August 2008 to August 2009 there were approximately 60 drone strikes and some 65 suicide bombings inside Pakistani territory, according to the New York Times. This suggests ineffective policy.

David Kilcullen, Senior Adviser to the Commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, believes the drone strikes have had a negative strategic effect. They have incited Punjabi militancy, which Kilcullen asserts is the biggest problem in Pakistan at the moment. A leading expert on guerrilla warfare, Kilcullen believes the hit rate on drone attacks has been ‘unacceptably low.’ The U.S. has killed 14 mid-level or lower level al-Qaeda leaders since 2006, but the strikes have killed 700 civilians. ‘That’s a hit rate of two per cent on 98 per cent collateral,’ says Kilcullen, which is just ‘not moral.’

The Kerry-Lugar Bill, promising $1.5 billion annual aid to Pakistan over the next five years, has also sparked widespread condemnation and controversy across the spectrum of Pakistan’s politics. This highlights the existence of widely differing opinions and lack of coordination between Pakistan’s military and the civilian government concerning matters of national security and interests.

Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan on issues concerning the cross-border movement of terrorists have also deteriorated in recent years. Secretary Hillary Clinton has conceded that the United States was also responsible for allowing al-Qaeda to enter Pakistan.

Currently Pakistan hosts 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees. In the last few years, more than 3,000 civilians and around 1,200 Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives in the fight against the Taliban. Pakistan also bears the burden of 2.3 million internally displaced from the Swat region and an estimated 330,000 more, fleeing the recent military operations in South Waziristan.

The Pakistani government needs to work out a viable post-operational strategy, otherwise the military effort will prove to be nothing more than ‘mowing the lawn’. Until the launch of operations in the Swat region, the military had been criticised for playing ‘whack-a-mole’ and lacking a holistic strategy to counter the militant threat. Much hinges on the outcome of this operation. Any failure might provide terrorists with an opportunity to intensify their attacks in other parts of the country. If quick results are not achieved, it might lead to political instability and the possibility of ethnic strife.

The situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan demands coordination of anti-terrorist operations. This might become more difficult, especially from within Afghanistan as the legitimacy of the Karzai government is questioned. Pakistan too has had reservations about Mr. Karzai’s policies. There is a need to ensure that terrorist groups do not re-orient themselves in the wake of the United States’ new Afghanistan strategy with the start of withdrawal in 2011. Any failure of the ‘Obama surge’ could threaten a return to a situation similar to Afghanistan in the early nineties.

In the broader context of the objectives laid down by the current U.S. administration, the best approach was presented by Vali Nasr, an advisor to U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In his recent book, Nasr uses the examples of Dubai and Turkey to explain how building vibrant new economies before instituting political reform can help to combat extremism and transform relations with the West.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan recently made possible the reopening up of cases against corrupt politicians and bureaucrats by invalidating the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance. Some analysts believe that the Court’s decision will help to shake the government out of its complacency and will force it to be more effective. But it is imperative that the recent turn of events doesn’t result in an unwanted ‘executive versus judiciary’ tension or derail the democratic process, ultimately affecting the crucial battle against terrorism, extremism, poverty and unemployment.

27 December of last year marked the second anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s death. In her book Daughter of the East, the former Prime Minister wrote:

Democracy in Pakistan is not just important for Pakistanis, it is important for the entire world… Too many people have sacrificed too much, too many have died, and too many people see me as their remaining hope for liberty, for me to stop fighting now. With my faith in God, I put my fate in the hands of my people.

The people of Pakistan still need to continue her mission − to continue the fight, and take it to the final frontier.

Hammaad Khan is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University

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