Pakistan Postscript

December 1, 2008 Topic: Security Tags: Heads Of StateSindhi People

Pakistan Postscript

Mini Teaser: A post-Musharraf Pakistan faces a future that could include military coups, growing extremism, a potential collapse of the state or a move toward rogue-nation status. There is no easy fix for Islamabad.

by Author(s): Daniel Markey

ON AUGUST 18, 2008, Pakistan entered the post-Musharraf era. Eventually this new chapter in Pakistan's history may go by another name, but for now what has been discarded is far more obvious than what has taken its place. Today's Pakistan, wracked by unprecedented levels of domestic instability and violence, enfeebled by crumbling state institutions and inadequate public infrastructure, and riven by political, ethnic, sectarian and socioeconomic cleavages, faces a deeply uncertain future.

The Pakistan of 2008 is not what it was even nine years ago when Pervez Musharraf took power. It is weaker, more directly threatened by terrorism and ripe for further political instability. Important new forces that will shape Pakistan's future have emerged beyond its borders, including globalized communications and electronic media, the rise of Asia and Washington's war on terror. Other new forces are essentially indigenous: a more mobilized and politically aware civil society, a vocal media and a next generation of over 65 million under fifteen years of age. Musharraf's regime contributed to some of this transformation, but much was simply beyond its control.

In a nightmare scenario, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal could fall prey to international terrorists, threatening the lives of millions. But even without an apocalyptic attack, Pakistan faces a future that could include military coups, growing extremism, a potential collapse of the state or a move toward rogue-nation status.

Over the past decade, the United States and Pakistan have lurched from crisis to crisis, the urgent often trumping the important. Long-term-strategy creation has fallen victim to more pressing problems. It is time for the United States to recognize that the Pakistan issue is here to stay-regardless of bin Laden's al-Qaeda.

Islamabad, and by extension Kabul, will almost certainly consume the foreign-policy attentions of the next White House and may well preoccupy U.S. presidents for the next several decades. And that is only if we are lucky.


THERE ARE a number of disastrous scenarios that could turn Pakistan's politics and economics upside down in the very near future. But assuming that Pakistan's trajectory over the next decade is marked by more iterative-if rapid-shifts, rather than by radical and discontinuous change, there are a variety of plausible scenarios that capture the essential dynamics of Pakistan's state and society.

Each begins with a common starting point in the present, defined by six outstanding characteristics. The first of these is the dramatic rise of mass-casualty terrorism in Pakistan's major cities as well as its frontier west. While the megacity of Karachi has long been the victim of sectarian and ethnic violence, the latest rash of terrorist attacks in Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar demonstrates the extent to which localized militants and global terror groups now identify the Pakistani state-especially those within its military and civilian leadership who have publicly opposed Islamist extremism-as their primary target.

Second, Pakistani civilian politics is presently defined by a rekindled and unpredictable rivalry between its two largest political parties: the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz faction (PML-N) and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's widower, is now Pakistan's president and de facto PPP boss. He sits atop a PPP-led coalition government in Islamabad and currently enjoys the political upper hand. But lacking a majority in Pakistan's provincial assemblies and facing questionable enthusiasm and loyalty within his own party, Zardari's capacity to govern and stave off the populist, and increasingly popular, challenge of former-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cannot be taken for granted.

Third, since Musharraf's bout with emergency rule in late 2007, the army (now commanded by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani) has repeatedly shown an inclination to remain aloof from politics as long as its institutional prerogatives are not at stake. This inclination has offered some operating space to the new civilian government, but it may not be permanent-perhaps a temporary hangover after Musharraf's nine exhausting years in power and a pragmatic response to the public repudiation of Musharraf in Pakistan's national elections on February 18, 2008. Moreover, the army continues to enjoy tremendous operational autonomy, unfettered by significant civilian command or budgetary oversight.

Fourth, tens of millions of Pakistanis now feel more threatened by economic hardship, especially the rising cost of energy and food, than by terrorism. Over the past year, Pakistan's national economy has been dealt a body blow by global economic forces and the bursting of its stock-market bubble. National reserves have fallen to a point of crisis, and austerity measures-including the elimination of costly energy subsidies-that must be taken by the Zardari government could spark greater popular frustration and protest long before they yield tangible benefits.

Fifth, in recent months the Pakistani army and paramilitary security forces have engaged in major offensive operations against militants and terror cells based along the border with Afghanistan and near the provincial capital of Peshawar. Bloody and disruptive, these moves have forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. All evidence suggests that while the army is able to punish populations, it cannot implement a counterinsurgency approach that coordinates political and economic carrots with military sticks.

Finally, starting in late summer, U.S. forces based in Afghanistan have accelerated the tempo of cross-border strikes on suspected compounds in Pakistan, actions many Pakistanis see as violations of their territorial sovereignty. Most of the recent strikes have come from Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, but one reported case of a U.S. helicopter-borne commando raid in South Waziristan sparked a national outcry among Pakistanis and sharp rebukes by army-chief Kayani as well as Islamabad's top civilian leadership. In the weeks since that raid, several other tense interactions along the border suggest that Washington's unilateral efforts to eliminate al-Qaeda and Taliban safe havens in Pakistan are bumping up against the limits of Pakistani tolerance.

Together, these features paint a picture of a fragile civilian government still in flux, a military under heavy stress and an unpopular, divisive relationship with the United States.

Pakistan can plausibly head in a variety of different directions. Three are especially illustrative of the enduring (and changing) dynamics that will define Pakistan's future.


1990s Redux

Long-time observers of Pakistani politics cannot help being struck by the country's history of recurrent alternation between civilian and military rule. The latest reprise of elected civilian leadership is especially evocative because the leaders of Pakistan's two main political parties, discredited and exiled by the end of the 1990s, were exactly the same ones who rode back on a wave of anti-Musharraf sentiment at the end of 2007. If two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had not been assassinated in December 2007, she might easily be occupying her husband's place today. Under these circumstances, it is easy to imagine a combination of partisan skirmishing, ineffective governance in the face of daunting socioeconomic challenges and an overweening military sooner or later inspiring another army chief to seize control of the state in a military coup. Lest we forget, Musharraf claimed his place under eerily similar circumstances.

At the moment, this past-as-prologue scenario is eminently plausible. Partisanship has already trumped national unity in the relationship between the PPP and the PML-N. Ongoing national economic and security crises offer ample opportunities for opposition politicking that could bring down any coalition government. And although General Kayani's army may be inclined to stay out of the political limelight, no one really questions its underlying disdain for the messy free-for-all of civilian democracy or for the men who have climbed to the top of Pakistan's greasy pole. More important, Kayani is unlikely to accept civilian meddling in the military's affairs and might respond violently to a challenge to his authority, just as Musharraf did before him.

The Pakistani public's response to another military coup is not likely to be as joyous as when Musharraf took control in 1999, at least for as long as Pakistanis vividly recall the injustices and ineffectiveness of army rule. Accordingly, any general who seizes power in the near future may be forced to rely upon ruthless authoritarian practices to maintain control. But as Musharraf learned during his emergency rule of ‘07, Pakistan's electronic-media outlets are difficult to silence and its civil society is capable of mobilization; debilitating street protests and repressive responses quickly earn international opprobrium.

A more authoritarian version of Musharraf would have even more trouble building a strong relationship with the West. Most troubling, a dictatorial Pakistani leadership lacking international support would be susceptible to extremist demagoguery as a means to distract from poor governance and weak economic performance. By this logic, the path from Pakistan's next military coup to "rogue nation" status might not be a very long one.

That said, there's also a small chance that a harsh, dictatorial regime with either a military or civilian face could deliver stability and prosperity more effectively than the relatively weak authoritarianism of Pakistan's recent past. Rather than embracing extremism, such a regime might mobilize around a nationalist message and court the patronage of China, Saudi Arabia and the like if Western powers become too squeamish. Over time, the regime's success in cracking down on terrorism and extremism might even win back Washington and London. In theory, a Tiananmen-style Pakistan holds appeal, given some of the other alternatives. But in practice, recognizing Pakistan's own historical experience, a Burmese-style dictatorship is more likely-one better at repression than disciplined, pro-growth governance. Ineffective and predatory, that sort of regime would also play into the narrative of al-Qaeda and its sympathizers, creating millions of new, violently alienated Pakistanis. Such a path is the most plausible means by which today's troubled, but not-yet-revolutionary, Pakistan could become tomorrow's nuclear state ripe for popular extremist upheaval.

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