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Pakistan in Ten Years: The Optimistic View

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This past week, Foreign Policy listed Pakistan as # 10 on its list of failed states. Factors receiving particularly high scores were factionalized politics, group cleavage, security apparatus and foreign intervention. Not everyone agrees. Christine Fair, at Georgetown, gives a more positive view, emphasizing recent moves toward a relaxation of the military's role in government and increased democratization.

So is Pakistan a failed state, or on its way out of the morass in which it presently finds itself? This is the first of two posts. In this one, I want to mention three reasons that I see for optimism in Pakistan - the second post will describe some reasons for pessimism, although even mentioning such a topic has the feel of applying for a contract to truck coals to Newcastle.

Any discussion of Pakistan's political future should start with Balochistan. Balochistan is the central focal point for many of Pakistan's problems, including some that might seem unrelated. In truth, Balochistan may be Pakistan's biggest problem of all, and it is one to which I am not sure American observers pay nearly enough attention. Balochistan is the largest province in Pakistan, comprising more tan 40% of the nation's total land area. It is also the poorest, and the most sparsely populated, with only 8 million people ... and enormous wealth in natural gas, copper, and other minerals. The country's hold over the province has been challenged literally since its inception: in the 1947 partition, Balochistan was not included in the new state of Pakistan. A few months later, Balochistan joined Pakistan through a referendum. Deepening on whom you ask, that referendum was fair and transparent or manipulated by the Pakistani Army. What is uncontested is that within a very few years, an established pattern of the national government withdrawing mineral wealth and putting nothing back into the province in the way of investment had resulted in enough resentment to give rise to an organized separatist movement. Since that time there have been five separatist campaigns (including the present one, dated from 2005), of which the most important of these was in the 1970s. The conflict lasted four years, and was ended when the Pakistani government led by Sulfiqar Ali Bhutto, initiated a brutal military campaign with the direct assistance of Iran (the precise extent and nature of that assistance is the subject of dispute, like almost everything else in this story.)

Balochistan's continuing separatist movement is a festering problem for Pakistan. For one thing, the Pakistani government and many Pakistanis are convinced that India is providing support to the movement, through a series of consular offices along the Iranian-Baloch border and by more direct means such as training and the provision of equipment through RAW, India's intelligence service. These claims are not only a staple of Pakistani politics, they are a central element in Pakistan-India relations, and a complicating factor in the effort to secure Pakistan's cooperation in combating the Taliaban and other jihadist groups.

The most significant assertion of Indian involvement was made during a meeting of the non-aligned states in Sharlm-el-sheikh in 2009. At that meeting, the Pakistani government announced that it had delivered a dossier of evidence to its Indian counterparts, and at various times Pakistani government and military spokesmen have made dark statements about photographs and captured operatives. But none of this supposed evidence has ever been made public. One can also turn to the equally non-specific October 2009 allegations by Major General Salim Nawaz, inspector general of the Frontier Corps paramilitary force in Balochistan, or this statement in March 2010 by Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik claiming "solid evidence" in the form of the discovery that Balochi separatists were found to have weapons manufactured in India. These allegations are invariably the response to calls for greater cooperation in clamping down on the groups responsible for the "11/26" attacks in Mumbai, for example.

And these are only the respectable, government-issued conspiracy theories; in the popular press the stories become lurid, indeed, involving allegations of Indian, British, American, and Israeli support for the separatists (as well as foreign sources for all terrorist activities in Pakistan, generally.) What is certainly true is that leading figures in the separatist movement have said that they would welcome assistance from India, most notably in a 2009 interview of Bramadagh Bugti, a Bugti tribal leader and primarily leading figure in the separatist movement. There was also a statement by a leader of the Balochi movement in exile (in the United States) explicitly calling on India to assist the cause. Of course, the fact that such assistance was requested does not mean that it was forthcoming - one might even think that the repeated calls for aid indicate the absence of that very aid. Moreover, the fact that Balochi separatists might seek outside assistance, including assistance from India, is hardly surprising. In general, separatist movements will accept assistance from anyone, and given Iran's track record and Afghanistan's current condition it is difficult to think where else the Balochis might turn.

This background is how we get to the present situation in which Taliban and Al Qaeda influence in Balochistan is said to be growing. Tha main city of Balochistan is Quetta, which is widely regarded as one of the primary command and control centers for Taliban forces fighting in Afghanistan; their support draws on both Pashtun tribal ties and anti-Pakistani government attitudes. The U.S. has been pressuring Pakistan to send its army into Balochistan. One reason the Pakistani government resists the idea is that they recognize that such a move would not simply be a matter of moving into friendly territory to find the enemy, it would be an invasion of a separatist province in order to go after a sub-group within that larger population. It is understandable, perhaps, that the Pakistani government is not inclined to undertake such an operation.

So what's the good news? The good news is that, instead of launching what would undoubtedly be a bloody and destructive military campaign, the government of Pakistan may finally be paying serious attention to Balochistani complaints. Tie 2010-2011 national government allocates twice as much money for Balochi development as was in this year's budget, with emphases on roads and schools. With Chinese assistance, Pakistan is building a modern port at Gwadar (in Balochistan). And the much-discussed plan for a natural gas pipeline from Iran into Pakistan would further spur development in the region. A network of affordable private schools is emerging,
prominently featuring the City Schools system whose efforts in Balochistan are directed by a retired Brigadier General of the Pakistani Army.

None of this is likely to provide any comfort for American forces or policymakers in the short term. In the medium term, however, perhaps there are signs that the government of Pakistan, after 60 years, is finally going to make some kind of serious effort to persuade Balochis that they have some reason to want to be part of the country. If that were possible, it would be a very good thing, and the mere fact that the current government - I might say even the current government - is undertaking a serious program of development in the province is a reason for optimism. And in the long run, American and American-supported Afghanistan's interests are at stake here, as well. An awful lot of observers - myself included - believe that any stable outcome will include areas of Taliban control in Afghanistan, for example. The key in that scenario is to separate the Taliban from Al Qaeda and similar jihadist groups. By the same token, the key to any long-term stability in Balochistan - with all its ramifications - lies in creating a sufficient incentive for the people of Balochistan to want to be part of a stable Pakistan rather than seeing their only hope in separation achieved by force of arms with any help that they can get. "Hearts and minds" is a tired phrase, but a government that cannot capture the hearts and minds of the residents of its own largest province has a serious problem. The Pakistani government's moves toward addressing that problem are a very good sign. There is no guarantee of success - this may be too little, too late after 50 years of accumulated resentment - but as a policy direction, I repeat, it is a very good sign.

Another reason for optimism regards relations with India. The Pakistani government, and Pakistanis generally, are showing signs of finally becoming exhausted by the strain of making every policy, budgetary decision, and political conversation in terms of fearing India. True, as recently as 1965 Indian and Pakistani forces fought pitched battles within the city limits of Lahore (after Pakistan's disastrous attempt to infiltrate Kashmir). The Lahore Museum features a piece of a fuselage from an Indian plane and a display of rifles in use in the 1960s, along with a frankly bewildering assortment of other things (the museum deserves a description in a separate post.) But 1965 was 45 years ago: to put that in perspective, that's like looking at World War II in 1990. This is not to say that there are not genuine conflicts between India and Pakistan. The Kashmir issue is real, and it is partly about control over water sources, as is the conflict over Siachen glacier. Presently, high-level meetings are currently underway between Pakistani and Indian government ministers. As usual, Pakistan is accusing India of involvement in Balochistan and India is denying the claim, while India is claiming that Pakistan has been slow to move against the perpetrators of the Bombay attacks. Which brings us back to where we started, but a more productive attitude toward Balochistan could easily point toward a more productive attitude in dealing with India. Which in turn improves the willingness and ability of Pakistan's government to crack down on non-Balochi extremist groups, and so on. It's a logjam, but that means that progress in one key place could loosen the mass and break the logs apart into separate, manageable problems.

What other reasons could there be for optimism? The initial, tentative, early appearance of something like political maturity might be an answer. Psychologically this is a remarkably young country (again, that museum exhibit sticks in my mind -- it included both ancient artifacts from the Indus Valley civilization and ... a collection of all of Pakistan's stamps with their first day covers.) It is discomfiting to use anthropomorphic terms like "psychology" about a nation, but in Pakistan one gets a palpable sense that even the elites are working this out as they go along with nothing to build on from the past.

One place this shows up is in the country's politics. In the past, I have been repeatedly told, the members of the elite class (that's not my term, that's the universally employed term among Pakistanis) did not pay much attention to politics and almost never voted. Explanations vary: antidemocratic attitudes, a sense of futility, a sense that as long as they were doing all right nothing else mattered. But in general, goes the wisdom of local political scientists, the best educated, wealthiest, most established elements of civil society treated politics as something best left to others.

That may be changing. It seems there is only now a generation coming onto the stage that realizes that a national identity cannot be based solely on being the enemy of India, nor on the forcible suppression of large segments of the country, nor can "government" be reduced to a military force and some minor bureaucrats if the state and its economy are to have a hope of survival There seems to be growing awareness of the need to grow up and become a real country. More Pakistanis then ever before, I think, recognize that the generals' wars have brought neither victory nor stability, and whatever is the precise relationship between the ISI and the Haqqani network, the idea of maintaining jihadist groups as "lashkers" (tribal warriors) for use in future Pakistan-India conflicts seems to be finally wearing out its welcome, as well.

In general, moreover, there are rumblings that significant numbers of Pakistanis may finally have had their fill of autocrats and kleptocrats, and especially of dynasties. I have literally been unable to find anyone with anything positive to say about Zardari, but what is more striking is that I have been almost unable to find anyone with anything positive to say about any past or present political leader. I have spoken with college students, faculty members, journalists, drivers, tour guides, shop owners, lawyers, self-proclaimed Muslim fundamentalists who want to see shariy'a imposed on all Pakistan and with self-proclaimed liberal secularists - the unanimity is truly striking. "Mr. 10% was the name for the last term," one driver told me, "now it should be Mr. 50%." A spirited discussion ensued: is the right number 50%, or 80%, or perhaps 90%?

Against this backdrop of total and well-earned cynicism there is slowly beginning to emerge a sense that new and different forms of politics are needed. A newly formed party, "Mustaqbal" (the Future") claims to be made up of non-politicians, businessmen and community leaders and other civil society figures disgusted with the existing system and determined to find another way. The party is brand new (it has yet to field its first candidates), and some of its key policy positions are only available in Urdu. In an interview posted on-line, the party's leader Chairman Nudeem Qureshi called for an end to military operations by the Pakistan government against forces inside Pakistan. Not a view designed to endear him to NATO, to be sure, and Qureshi seemed to be dodging some tough questions in the interview. But the idea of a new generation of political figures whose concerns are specifically about Pakistan's internal affairs and who are eager to disassociate themselves from corruption, control by the military, and foreign entanglements could be yet another good sign. Whether this particular party is the real thing, or whether it goes anywhere, is of course a matter for speculation.

In the optimistic version, where might that leave Pakistan in ten years? With NATO forces gone and Afghanistan stabilized by a division between Taliban and other forces, expanding economic development in Balochistan, a restoration of stability and a withdrawal of Army forces - and an end to martial law - in other areas of the country, an emerging political leadership committed to the creation of stable civil society by delivering goods and services to underserved areas, cooperation with India in anti-terrorism operations, water distribution, and development, improved energy resources by way of importation for Iran, expanded commercial relations with China, and the 90,000-strong network of private schools expanded to 200,000 strong ... Nothing is going to make the problems go away, but it is quite possible to imagine a situation ten years from now far better than the present one. If only because it could hardly be worse.

This is not only just speculation, and not only just one view, it is only one speculative view based on views collected in one city. It may be a lot easier to be optimistic in Lahore, I suspect, than in other parts of the country