Q: Pakistan seems increasingly central to U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world. Why is the current U.S. administration so focused on Pakistan?
A: Pakistan has indeed received heightened attention from the U.S., and for good reason: it shares a border with both Iran and Afghanistan, it has long been a moderate leader in the Muslim world, it has nuclear weapons and it is in a state of crisis. Instability in Pakistan creates a huge opening for extremism in the region and puts the country’s political future — as well as its nuclear arsenal — at risk.
Pakistanis are angry about U.S. foreign policy, especially the unmanned drones that have been bombing inside of Pakistan and killing unarmed civilians. They are also suspicious about the nuclear accord between the U.S. and India, the country they consider their chief enemy and most serious threat to their security. Many Pakistanis also retain the negative perception that the U.S. has targeted Muslims worldwide.
However, while many external factors contribute to Pakistan’s difficulties — particularly the global economic meltdown and U.S. pressure for stepped up measures against Pakistan’s Taliban — these are not the primary forces behind the situation Pakistan finds itself in today. The core of Pakistani anger is impoverishment, unemployment and lack of education; the roots of Pakistan’s crisis are indeed deeply internal.
The biggest problem is that the government in power does not have the capacity to tackle the critical issues confronting the state today. The current president Asif Ali Zardari (widower of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007 when campaigning for election herself) has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to follow through on his own agenda.
GOVERNMENT BY CAPITULATION
The Zardari government is a weak government, unable to ensure the authority of the state throughout the country; it has been characterized instead by capitulation.
One of Zardari’s campaign vows was to reinstate the Supreme Court Chief Justice and members of the judiciary who had been ousted by the previous president, General Pervez Musharraf. But once elected (perhaps fearing the Chief Justice would reopen corruption cases against him), Zardari failed to follow through on this promise until the activist Lawyers’ Movement launched a nationwide “Long March” protest in March 2009. Just at the point where it appeared there would be significant reverberations throughout the economy and a united political front emerging against Zardari, he capitulated and reinstated the ousted Chief Justice, claiming he had been waiting for the standing Chief Justice to retire.
Another significant instance of capitulation is Zardari’s agreement with Islamist militants in April of this year, which allowed the imposition of sharia, Islamic law, in the Swat Valley. With increasing extremist violence in this former idyllic tourist area, it appeared the Zardari government felt powerless to otherwise control the situation in Swat and so gave in to the militants’ demands.
A FAILED TRUCE
The agreement was supposedly a truce to stem the violence, but the real agenda soon became apparent and thus further exposed the weakness of the state. The bloodshed continued unabated, with waves of incidents like a convoy replete with men brandishing arms and weapons terrorizing the towns of Swabi and Buner without being stopped. Where else in the world can armed militias visibly contest the writ of the state without being confronted?
Harsh tactics by supposedly Islamist groups — such as destroying girls’ schools and publicly brutalizing women — have become commonplace. But sharia law itself did not close the schools. There is actually limited consensus in Pakistan on what interpretation of sharia should be imposed. Islam very strongly supports not only male education but also female education. There is a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad that says, "Seek knowledge even if you have to go to China." The idea of closing schools of any kind is anathema to Islam, but not to the particular interpretation of Islam by these extremist militants.
Which brings us to the crisis in education as a core element of the current imbroglio. The country’s public education system is severely underfunded and lacks resources at all levels to prepare the next generation to participate in the global economy. Less than half the adult population is literate, and these numbers are appreciably lower in the western parts of the county.
Schools hold the greatest potential for effective community mobilization and thereby strengthen participatory democracy. Without question, investment in education must remain a top priority. But too often, funds are mismanaged or wasted in the bureaucracy, and teachers are poorly paid while technocrats dispute what the curriculum should teach.
SYSTEMS OF PATRONAGE AND POWER
Most importantly, Pakistan’s economy is in a shambles — acute shortages of electricity and water occur daily, and 85 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. The cornerstone of the government’s poverty alleviation strategy is the Shahid Benazir Bhutto Income Support Fund (BISF), but this appears to be subject to all of the hallmarks of the “systems of power and patronage” endemic in Pakistani politics. Basically, these systems are characterized by individuals ascending to a position of power and then exploiting the position for short-term and self-interested goals for as long as they can hold the position. To the extent that these systems remain in place, the democratic process will never realize its full potential.
A case in point is the BISF: instead of strengthening the bureaucratic infrastructure, or even strengthening political parties, the distribution of funds is based entirely on the personal largesse of politicians who hand out application forms to “the poor” — without any viable accountability. Already, millions of dollars have been doled out under the BISF, which has come under criticism as significant funds are already not accounted for properly.
It is vital that the 168 million inhabitants of Pakistan (the world’s sixth largest country) find a way to build a country that is politically stable and economically thriving, a scenario woefully out of sync with current realities. Pakistanis are frustrated with a government that appears confused as to what it should actually do to solve the country’s problems, and which lacks integrity at the local level of government, the foundation of participatory democracy.
The U.S. must be extremely strategic in how it provides aid. Aid efforts must include grassroots community members, who are in the best position to identify their challenges and facilitate specific projects, if we are to claim Pakistanis are living more productive, richer lives because of U.S. support. Valuing local opinions, and following through by acting on their suggestions, would go far in changing perceptions, so that the U.S. could be seen as less judgmental and more collaborative. But as long as the drone attacks continue, this effort to build Pakistani self-sufficiency will be continually undermined.
— Anita Weiss, Department Head, International Studies