Monday, April 20, 2009

When Will Pakistan Collapse?

With the newly-released Pakistani cleric Sufi Mohammed seemingly taking the lesson from the Swat cease-fire not that working with the government is good but that it is weak, the inside-the-Beltway consensus seems to be that Pakistan will collapse and become an Islamic theocracy sooner rather than later. Page one of the Washington Post declared that an "Extremist Tide Rises in Pakistan." The Washington Times quotes Bruce Riedel, one of President Obama's South Asia advisors, as saying that the Administration is turning toward Nawaz Sharif as the last hope, since Zardari is on his way out. Jim Arkedis declares that "Pakistan is the new Afghanistan" and says the United States is caught between doing too much (like escalating air strikes against militants) and further alienating the population and standing back and watching the militants take over.
Call me naive, but I'm a little more hopeful about Pakistan's chances. Sure, I've been pretty hard on the country and all the challenges it faces--incompetent leadership, aggressive Islamic militants, a hurting economy, a military rivalry with India, a collapsed neighboring country with an active insurgency, a superpower placing huge demands on it, and a population that resents that superpower--but enough positive signs exist for me to be optimistic.
1) The population doesn't really want Islamic law imposed, it just wants some semblance of order restored. What polls exist show that the United States is extremely unpopular, but so are the militants. Even in the Swat valley where sharia was imposed in the most recent election the 1.5 million residents voted overwhelmingly for the two main secular parties. Islamist parties have never received more than single digit support in any election, and I don't expect them to this year either.
2) Some people are actually standing up to the militants. While neither of the two main leaders, Zardari or Sharif, has shown any courage in this department, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has called out both the government and the militants for their actions in Swat. Next door the courageous women of Afghanistan marched last week to protest the impact of sharia. Hopefully the moderate majority in Pakistan can start making similar statements.
3) Pakistanis know what they would be getting into. In the 1980s General Zia-ul-Haq ruled a military dictatorship and began imposing Islamic laws throughout Pakistan. While young Pakistanis won't remember the era their parents will, and they can contrast it with the comparatively moderate and prosperous 1990s and 2000s.
4) The military has not truly been a major player lately. While I know this statement scares many of my more liberal friends, the Pakistani military is one of the more moderate, stable, modern, and respected sectors of society. It's intervention into politics is seen as the norm in Pakistan. While a coup is a possibility if things start to get too far out of hand, General Kiyani could intervene in subtler ways, as he did in the recent heated exchange between Zardari and Sharif. Additionally, it is important to note that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are in the military's hands, which should help people in the region and all over the world sleep a little bit better as militants creep closer to Islamabad.
5) Pakistan is squarely in the sights of the Obama Administration. It recognized Pakistan's importance, and is working hard to figure out a solution. It hasn't come up with a perfect plan yet, but at least it has its top people on the job. The additional $1.5 billion per year in civilian aid should only help.
It will be an interesting next few months in Pakistan to be sure, but I think the momentum of the Washington commentators describing Pakistan's eminent collapse may be greater than the momentum of the collapse itself.

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