While attention is focused on violence in the Swat Valley and the tribal areas of the northwest frontier, the real threat to Pakistan may be shaping elsewhere.
The Taliban and their allies, including drug barons and bandits, are incapable of offering a coherent political project let alone making a bid for power in Islamabad. Though fragile during this period of transition, the Pakistani state remains strong enough to hold its own against the mad mullahs of the mountains.
There are three real threats to Pakistan’s stability.
The first is a sense of unease in Punjab, the most populous of the four federal units and home to more than 70 per cent of the population.
It is too early to talk of secessionist sentiments. However, there is no doubt that many Punjabis feel they have been excluded from power for a decade. The ban, imposed by President Pervez Musharraf on Punjab’s best-known political figures, has now been partially lifted. Nevertheless, Punjabis feel that they are getting a rough deal from the central government.
A disaffected Punjab might not master the determination needed to defend the nation against the threat from the northwest.
The second threat comes from the perception that the US, Pakistan’s principal ally along with China, no longer appreciates the country’s geo-strategic importance.
Richard Holbrooke, the man named by President Barack Obama to oversee relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan has angered many Pakistanis by coupling their country with its northern neighbor. Holbrooke speaks of “Afpak”, an acronym that twins Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single “trouble zone.” Pakistanis resent that because they feel their country is in a different league than the much smaller and devastated Afghanistan.
The feeling that the US may no longer be a dependable ally has persuaded some of Pakistan’s political players to look for friends and protectors elsewhere, especially in the region. That, in turn, introduces regional rivalries into domestic politics, further weakening the nation’s ability to deal with the Taliban.
To make matters worse, the Obama administration has tried to by-pass President Asif Ali Zardari by establishing direct links with powerful political and military figures. This means a weakened central authority precisely at a time when the Pakistanis need to unite behind their government to defeat the terrorists.
Holbrooke’s “divide and rule” approach may have been efficacious in normal times when Pakistan was not facing an existential threat. Today, it may amplify that threat.
The third, and by far the biggest threat, is the possibility of a split in the army, the state’s key institution since its inception.
The Pakistani military elites have always been divided between religious and secular officers. In late 1970s and early1980s, religious officers ruled Pakistan under General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Secular officers got their chance in the 1990s under General Musharraf.
Despite that division, the military elites remained united by a common fear of India, a shared desire to seek influence in Afghanistan to make it a corridor to Central Asia, thus giving Pakistan the geopolitical depth it lacks, and a determination to keep the army’s dominant position within the state.
Those factors have been eroded.
Fear of India is no longer as acute as it was in the 1980s. Few still believe that India harbors a secret agenda to dismantle Pakistan in an act of punishment for its “original sin” of partition.
The fall of the Taliban, because of American intervention in Afghanistan, has all but destroyed the network of influence that the Pakistani army and intelligence services had built north of the border throughout two decades. Instead, the US, Iran and India have become key players in Kabul.
Finally, the return of democratic rule means an inevitable reduction in the military’s political influence in Islamabad.
As if all that was not enough, there remains the fact that President Zardari has had little success in building the stature needed to lead in these dangerous times. Zardari became president because of an accident: the murder of his wife Benazir Bhutto during the election campaign that eventually led to Musharraf stepping down.
To be sure, Zardari has tried to highlight his achievements, including the 11 years he spent in prison on corruption charges. Some of his friends compare him to Nelson Mandela, the long-term prisoner who became South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president. Mandela is unlikely to feel flattered by the comparison.
Zardari has failed even in uniting his natural constituency.
The Bhutto clan, his original power-base, is divided, with some family members regarding Zardari as a usurper.
In Punjab, Zardari is seen as an outsider because he is from Sind and has never mastered the Punjabi language. However, in Sind, his native province, he is also regarded as an outsider because his family originated in Baluchistan.
Several urgent steps are needed to prepare Pakistan to crush the Taliban.
Punjab must be helped to regain its confidence in Pakistan by the full transfer of power to an elected provincial government led by the local leadership elites.
At the center, a broad coalition government with a larger provincial base is needed. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s wing of the Pakistan Muslim League may decide to stay in opposition. Nevertheless, it could still be associated with a national strategy to protect the state.
The United States needs to develop a serious policy toward Pakistan by understanding the country’s sensitivities and acknowledging its political military and economic weight.
More importantly, perhaps, Pakistan needs to cure itself of its fear of India. This does not mean focusing on the mirage of an immediate solution to the problem of Kashmir. That problem could be kept on the backburner where it has been for almost a decade. Instead, Pakistan should focus on developing a new defense doctrine in which the Taliban, and not India, are perceived as a clear and present danger.
This would mean a massive reorganization of the nation’s estimated 600,000-man military machine. The kind of army and the hugely costly nuclear arsenal that Pakistan has are designed to protect the country against India in the context of all-out war. What Pakistan needs, however, is special units trained to fight and win a guerrilla war. Pakistan is spending a quarter of its national budget preparing for a war that may never happen but lacks the resources needed to fight the war that, in April, came to within 100 kilometers of Islamabad.