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Which way Pakistan?

At the end of a turbulent week in Pakistan, there are two questions to ask about the nation’s return to a state of emergency. First, how should we interpret it? Second, what, if anything, should Western powers and aid donors do? This blog focuses on the first.

Pakistan has a seat at the UN and has all the trappings of democratic government, including elections, political parties, a parliament and a president. In that sense it is a nation.

But Pakistan is far from being a nation in the formal sense: it does not control its borders and it hasn’t a monopoly on the means of violence within its territory. On the ground people tend to identify themselves as Sindhi or Balochis, Pushtuns or Punjabis. Attempts to create a national identity through shared religious views – being Muslim – break down because intra-Islamic sectarianism is strong and often violent. ‘Talibanisation’ is sweeping the country, dividing families and communities. Outlying provinces feel colonised by Punjabis, who dominate the administration and are accused of pursuing their own ethnic agenda. The western border (Durand Line) is not agreed by its neighbour, and tensions are increasing on both the eastern and western frontiers over water.

Warlords are strong in much of the west, where the rule of law is weak. Indeed, in some areas of the tribal belt, different law prevails altogether, though in fact, whole areas are lawless. Only now is Balochistan being absorbed into the country fully, and that is mainly a result of the fact it has become the focus of lucrative economic initiatives and competition between the East and West. It also has a seacoast that faces the oil-rich gulf. In the north is Kashmir, its tensions still unresolved, even though the region is currently relatively calm. Meanwhile Karachi is the site of destitution, armed gangs, and crime that is accused of funding Islamic militancy.

Sitting at the centre of this maelstrom is a man with an army, well-funded by the West, whose task is about as complex as any can get. First, he and his government must develop the country and end poverty – an agenda that is necessary because two out of every three Pakistanis (some 57m) earn less than US$2/day. Illiteracy (at 54%) and infant mortality (at 70/1000) are high, both symptomatic of significant economic and social inequality. Politicians have done little to address the basic needs of the masses, and have shunted off their agenda one of the main drivers of change, land reform.

President Musharraf and his army are also on the frontline of the so-called ‘Global War on Terror’– the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamists, including Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who move back and forth across the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. Fighting this Western-funded war has led to the government making strange alliances and peace agreements with warlords in the tribal areas, agreements that hold for a while before collapsing and creating chaos once again. In these areas the local population has been bombed, forced to flee cross-border incursions and raids by the Pakistani military, and pushed into taking sides by militants and soldiers.

The Pakistani government is also a global player in a very dangerous neighbourhood. Armed with nuclear weapons, it faces India (with whom it has fought three wars), China, Iran, and of course Afghanistan. To the north and west are the various central Asian ‘-stans’, and to the south and west, the Arab states, with all the instability they bring to the region. The whole area is a hot-bed of extremism.

Inside Pakistan strong political forces are at play: democratizing liberals like the lawyers we are seeing rounded up and thrown in jail, Islamist politicians using mass politics and the party system to gain and retain power, and old-fashioned patronage politicians, who can bring onto the streets supporters in their thousands.  We mustn’t forget the military itself: it has become a potent economic force, but remains, as we have observed, a weapon that can be aimed at any sort of enemy and that seemingly – at least for the moment – responds best to one of their own.

So, the question might as well be posed: ‘Which Pakistan?’ for the country is not yet a single entity. It is being pulled in several different directions by Islamists, tribalists, democrats, sectarian forces, and proto-nationalists. What we are watching is a fierce battle for ‘hearts and minds’ – not simply a fight between Musharraf and the democrats. The outcome of this current struggle will affect all the others – in Swat, Balochistan, the tribal areas, Kashmir, etc., as well as the Global War on Terror. It is the latter that puts Western nations in such a difficult position, advocating democracy while continuing to fund the military and President Musharraf.

Diana Cammack
Programme Leader, Politics and Governance, PPPG