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Pakistan's Riddles

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
October 23, 2007

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Serious questions loom over Pakistan’s efforts to return to a democratic form of government as its inability to rein in violent militants and its dissident security institutions grow increasingly apparent. The suicide bomb attacks targeting former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on her return from an eight-year exile merely underscore a pattern: The government appears unable to control (BBC) the extremist elements or enforce its laws within its borders.

Calling Pakistan the world’s most dangerous country, Newsweek International writes it has everything Osama bin Laden could ask for: political instability, radical Islamists, abundance of young anti-Western recruits, secluded training areas along the northern border with Afgahnistan, and access to state-of-the-art electronic technology. Blaming the government for the current crisis, the article says “Pakistani leaders created the Islamist monster that now operates with near impunity throughout the country.” In the past, the country’s intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), with the help of the CIA, played a role in recruiting, training, and arming many of the militant groups who now are threatening the stability in the country and the region. This backgrounder points out ISI has long faced accusations of meddling in its neighbors’ affairs—be it supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan or the militants in India-administered Kashmir.

Pakistan’s army, too, has frequently undermined democracy in the country through coups and executions of elected leaders. In the last eight years under Musharraf, the army has also gradually expanded its control over civil society and the private sector. Pakistan is fast deteriorating (FT) into what experts perceive as a failed state, with militants expanding their control from the tribal areas—historically out of the center’s fold—toward the gravity of power in cities such as Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi. Though Pakistan signed up as a U.S. ally in the “war on terror,” Pakistan’s army and intelligence services, given their long standing ties with the militants, are unwilling to fight a war they do not see as their own. Analysts say Pakistan’s instability is beginning to undermine U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Barnett Rubin, a South Asia expert at New York University, says (RFE/RL), “Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasingly functioning as a single, highly-closely linked political system.” U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns echoed this sentiment while speaking at CFR: “To be successful in Afghanistan, we have to have a successful policy in Pakistan,” he said.

Given the current electoral landscape in Pakistan, pinning hopes of its transition to democracy on January elections may be too optimistic. The United States has been pushing for a deal between Bhutto and Musharraf, but already Musharraf’s decision to refuse entry to another popular leader, the prime minister he deposed, Nawaz Sharif, has cast doubts on the legitimacy of those elections. The Wall Street Journal writes that even if the election were held with all three major political parties represented, the outcome may not be wholly democratic. Both Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) are “notoriously corrupt and operated like personal fiefdoms,” which might tempt Musharraf “to interfere with the voting results.”

Given its extensive involvement in the country—the United States has given over $10 billion in aid since 9/11—anxiety grows daily in Washington.  The United States also is coming under constant fire for its support of Musharraf, as this recent CFR debate points out. CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey says the American approach to Pakistan was never sewn together (NYT) as a whole. “At every step, there was more risk aversion—because of the risk of rocking the boat seemed so high—than there was a real strategic vision.”

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