Pakistan's Passing Grade

Pakistan's Passing Grade

Despite all the fuss from the Obama administration and the media, Pakistan is far from being a failed state.


On the late afternoon of Wednesday April 29, I went to interview a local leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party in Karachi, and spent a couple of hours at their headquarters. From there, I went on to Zeinab market to look for presents for my family, and spent another couple of hours haggling over textiles and looking for a new suitcase. Then back to my hotel, where I had a shower and a bite to eat, called my wife, and contemplated going out for a drink with some friends (yes, Karachi is officially dry, but you wouldn't always know it).

I thought I'd better check if anything was happening, and turned on the television-to discover that over the previous few hours thirty-two people had been killed in shootings and gun battles between two ethnic groups in various parts of the city; and no one whom I'd met had known about it, or if they had, thought it worth mentioning.


Which is a long way of saying that Karachi is a big place, with a remarkable capacity to live without too much disruption through episodes of great violence. The city contains some 17 million people, sprawling over an immense area. Even in the areas affected by the violence, which I visited in the following days, the occasional burnt shop or minibus could easily have been missed among thousands of little shops and hundreds of intact minibuses. While people were certainly worried, the shops were also open and the minibuses plying their trade-if only because their owners have no choice given how poor they are.

Karachi demonstrates as well as anywhere else the fact that while Pakistan is a troubled state, it is as yet very far from being a failed one. Only in its northwestern fringe has state power collapsed-and state power there wasn't always very real anyway. Calling Pakistan a failed state is a bit like saying that Russia has failed as a state because it has lost control of parts of the northern Caucasus. Anyone who, like me, has lived and worked in truly failed states will know the difference immediately. Cities in failed states do not have Karachi's great industries, road and sewage networks that have improved radically in recent years, a clean, well-functioning modern airport, or a highly effective-if rather ruthless-municipal administration.

And what is true of Karachi is true of Pakistan as a whole. It is also worth remarking that the Taliban were not involved in this particular clash, which took place between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which represents the local Mohajir ethnic majority, descended from people who moved from India after partition, and members of the local Pashtun minority, made up of migrants from northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The MQM have alleged that the Taliban have greatly increased their power in Karachi, but most observers suggest that these warnings are really only a cover for their hostility to the Pashtuns in general, who thanks to migration and a higher birthrate have been increasing their numbers and influence at the expense of the Mohajirs. The Pashtuns of Karachi are in fact represented by the vaguely "secular" and moderate nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) who form the government of the North West Frontier Province and have been among the Taliban's principal victims there.

The Taliban have about as much chance of taking over Karachi as I have. Here, the threat is not of Islamist revolution, but rather that major terrorist attacks by the Taliban-which are all too likely, alas-will increase local ethnic tensions to the point where Karachi returns to the dark days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when political killings were a daily occurrence and the city really did begin to suffer as a result.

The threat from the Taliban to Pakistan as a whole has also been exaggerated in the western media and even by elements of the U.S. government. The talk of the Taliban being within a hundred kilometres of Islamabad ignores some rather high mountain ranges in between-and still more importantly, the crucial factor of ethnicity.

The Taliban so far have been overwhelmingly an ethnic Pashtun force, and mass insurgency has been restricted to the Pashtun areas-and only the tribal and mountainous ones at that. There have been warnings that serious trouble is about to spread to southern Punjab, but so far this has not occurred, and when I visited that region in January, it still seemed to me far from certain that it would. So far, as in Karachi, the Taliban threat in Punjab has consisted of terrorism, not revolution. Much publicity has rightly been given to the two major terrorist attacks in Punjab's capital, Lahore. But Lahore, too, has a population of some eight million people; and when I was there for a fortnight in January I did not feel in danger from them.

Finally, the Pakistani state-or rather, the Pakistani army, which is not quite the same thing-is now demonstrating its ability to fight back hard. In recent days, fierce counteroffensives have driven the Taliban back from many of the positions they seized in recent months in Swat and adjoining areas.

It is true that the army has little real desire to fight the Taliban, and would much prefer to leave the Afghan Taliban, at least, strictly alone. At the same time, as the army chief General Ashfaq Kayani emphasized in a speech after the Taliban penetrated into the district of Buner northwest of Islamabad, the army would fight to the end to defend the Pakistani state. As long as this remains the case, there is no chance of a successful Taliban revolution in this country.

In my view, however, there is also not much chance that the army will go the extra mile to crush the Afghan, as opposed to the Pakistani, Taliban-not, at least, unless the United States can bring about a settlement between Pakistan and India which removes the deep fear that the Pakistani High Command has of encirclement by India via Afghanistan. Such a settlement, alas, seems extremely unlikely; and so the army will go on regarding the Afghan Taliban as a form of insurance policy. This will make the Obama administration and the U.S. Army extremely unhappy-but they should remember that saving Pakistan is a very much more important goal than preserving the existing regime in Afghanistan.


Anatol Lieven, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor in the War Studies Department of King's College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation. He is writing a book about Pakistan and has just returned from research in the south of that country.