Pakistan: Myths and Realities

In the aftermath of the imposition of emergency in Pakistan, there’s a sense of acute anxiety about what’s happening there and its implications for U.S. security. Fears that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could fall into extremists’ hands, that anti-U.S. sentiments could ramp up, that there could be a regime change that leaves fundamentalists in power, and that there could be other fallout of instability, are being fanned by the media.

Although these apprehensions are far-fetched, they do not come as a surprise. Pakistan’s image in the United States has been tarnished by decades-old misperceptions that prevail in the myths about the country.

First, consider the fears. Do Pakistan’s nuclear weapons threaten the United States or Israel? In a word, no. Pakistan’s nuclear program is completely India-centric. Its nuclear capability was pursued as a response to India’s own. The Pakistani nuclear doctrine is essentially defensive and has effectively deterred India, with whom it has shared a history of conventional warfare. Furthermore, Pakistani nuclear warheads are kept under tight and enhanced security, especially since charges of nuclear black-marketing were leveled against Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr. A.Q. Khan. There is a two-man rule to authenticate access to nuclear release codes in Pakistan, a standard that is universally employed by nuclear powers. There’s no evidence suggesting that any person or group in Pakistan aspires to use nukes against the United States or its allies.

Rising Resentment

Isn’t the United States unpopular in Pakistan? Yes. The Global War on Terrorism is the most important factor that could be attributed to the rising resentment of U.S. policy. Prior to 9/11, the United States was primarily the target of the Mullahs’ wrath in Pakistan. Pakistan’s foreign policy tilt towards the United States during the Cold War was perceived as an assault on the nationalistic identity of the ultra-conservative Mullahs. The U.S. position on Israel’s occupation of Palestine was also considered controversial. Most Pakistanis, however, didn’t feel threatened by or hostile to the United States.

Goodwill toward the United States nosedived in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The declaration of the Global War on Terrorism was seen as targeting Muslim nations. President George W. Bush’s (subsequently retracted) reference to the “crusades,” created an ominous mood as it sounded warnings of a clash of civilizations of sorts. The ensuing tone and tenor of the war rhetoric against several Muslim countries including Pakistan, serve to nourish and confirm these worries.

What’s the chance that fundamentalists will take over the country in free and fair democratic elections? Highly unlikely. Historically, religious parties have been acknowledged more often for their agitation potential, rather than the capacity to govern. The Mutahida Majlise Amal (MMA), a hardline Islamic coalition of political parties, garnered only 11% of the parliamentary vote in the previous 2002 elections, their biggest win ever. Moreover the MMA’s electoral success in the North West Frontier Province, followed by the coalition’s attempts to impose hardline Islamic law, has alienated the urban middle class and disillusioned many of its followers. The MMA’s tenure has also been marred by rifts that emerged soon after its electoral victory in the province.

If elections are held in January 2008, the MMA isn’t likely to gain ground. The race for a majority in the parliament is clearly going to be fought between the Pakistan People’s Party, led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

It would be pertinent to add that both Bhutto and Sharif have enjoyed U.S. support in their stints as heads of state, and would continue a policy of alliance with the United States.

Is there a chance fundamentalists could take over the country through force, rather than free and fair elections? Highly implausible. Militant fundamentalists are a small minority in the country which is overwhelmingly moderate. The militants do not possess the resources, organizational base or legitimacy to mobilize a grassroots insurgency that could overthrow the government and seize control of the armed forces.

Not on Brink

Is Pakistan on the verge of collapse? No. Recent developments in Pakistan suggest that the current turmoil is a manifestation of the struggle for fundamental change in the system. History is replete with stories about states and their violent transitions to democracy. Indeed it is difficult to bring about radical transformation in the predominant system without conflict. It’s interesting to note also that Pakistan’s economy remains untouched by the emergency, which is a sign of its resilience. According to a report by Merrill Lynch, “fears that Pakistan might face mass exodus of foreign capital, and experience turmoil in the financial and forex (foreign exchange) markets, have not materialized.

Pakistan has, for years, been portrayed as an emerging threat to the United States by the media, think tanks, and politicians. For example, Newsweek magazine carried an article in its October 29 issue arguing that Pakistan is “the most dangerous country on earth.” Additionally the Failed States Index (FSI) sponsored by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace have termed the country a “failed state.” In 2005 Pakistan’s ranking on the FSI was below Afghanistan’s, a country whose infrastructure has been reduced to rubble through nearly three decades of war. In 2006, Pakistan’s position improved by three points on the FSI. Nonetheless, its ranking paints a picture which is far from reality.

U.S. military intervention in Pakistan’s tribal frontiers, launched in March 2004, marked a strategic faux-pas. The loss of life and devastation wreaked by the Pakistani military under pressure from the United States are a source of enormous resentment and unrest. The U.S.-led military operations and collateral damage in Pakistan have been counter-productive. The clean-up operation has drawn terrorist groups who are infiltrating from Afghanistan with the sympathy of the local tribal folk. U.S. intervention in Pakistan, albeit small compared to operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, has had a spillover effect across the nation. This is evident in the spread of suicide bombings and an increase in al-Qaeda led terrorist activities.

Abject Poverty

Fortunately, the extremist threat in Pakistan is not intractable. In the border regions it can be eliminated through swift and meaningful development work and jobs for the impoverished tribal communities. Most of the tribal Pashtuns in Pakistan live on less than a dollar a day and don’t have access to clean drinking water, sanitation, and health care, let alone adequate nutrition and universal primary education. Much of the ethnic infighting in Baluchistan province and other parts of Pakistan has similar root causes: underdevelopment, abject poverty, manipulation by feudal lords and external vested interests.

Sadly for the millions of Pakistan’s poor, its national security concerns vis-à-vis India, have constrained it from channeling its resources towards social development, which must be the top priority for any government. Annual budget allocations are heavily skewed towards debt-servicing and meeting Pakistan’s defense imperatives, including a costly arms race with India.

The United States has in the past acted as a peace-maker between India and Pakistan, and helped avert war on more than one occasion. It would serve U.S. interests now to promote stability in the region by again pushing for the resolution of the protracted conflicts between the South Asian arch rivals. A compromise on core political and territorial disputes between the two countries would bring about a sea change in the South Asian security environment. Pakistan’s priorities would shift from expenditure on arms to human resource development.

With its 164 million people, Pakistan ranks as the world’s sixth most populous country. Building the capacity of its human resource base would turn its impoverished poor, into an asset rather than a liability, for the country as well as the region.

Diplomatic Course

How should the United States respond to the state of emergency in Pakistan? It’s critical that any move the United States makes promote stability in Pakistan. The best course would be diplomatic rather than military. U.S. policymakers must not underestimate the country’s importance as a key U.S. ally in South Asia and the Muslim world. Governments in Pakistan, whether civil or military, have consistently been responsive to the United States through its 60 years of independence. The country’s geo-strategic positioning has been pivotal in advancing U.S. interests in the region.

It’s high time for the United States to adopt a policy that envisions the country as a key strategic ally in the long term. This would call for supporting the people of Pakistan through the transition to democracy. The United States must also withdraw its troops from Pakistan’s tribal frontiers and encourage the government of Pakistan to channel a portion of the millions of dollars in counter-terrorism aid towards developing and rebuilding the region. The use of fire power to eliminate rogue elements may be inevitable, but in the long run it is more important to adopt soft approaches that prevent locals from falling prey to monetary incentives and recruitment by terrorist organizations.

Saira Yamin teaches at the Department of Defense & Strategic Studies, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. She is currently pursuing doctoral studies at the Institute for Conflict Analysis & Resolution, George Mason University.