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ORG Liddite Conversation: Pakistan on a Precipice?

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Oxford Research Group
1 May 2012

Pakistani Army, Source: Firstpost.com Pakistani Army, Source: Firstpost.com

The ongoing instability and declining security situation in Pakistan was the subject of our latest ‘Liddite Conversation’ on 21 March 2012. 

 

Our Liddite Conversations bring together prominent journalists, academics and policy-makers in off-the-record discussions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Key points:

  • While not yet on a precipice, Pakistan is facing serious difficulties, which could, if left unaddressed, reach a point of no return in the next few years. The next two electoral cycles are key.
  • For the UK, Pakistan is of far greater strategic concern than Afghanistan. It could become the top UK foreign policy issue from 2014/5.
  • The effect of the war in Afghanistan and its overflow into Pakistan is key to understanding Pakistan’s instability.

Britain has a long term strategic interest in Pakistan given the large Pakistani community in the UK - some 1.2 million people - who are very concerned about the future of Pakistan, and whose lives are often impacted by events in that country. British engagement in Afghanistan was supposed to assure UK security. However it is clear now that, the UK military presence in Afghanistan is a more temporary interest. Therefore, the UK shouldn’t make its relationship with Pakistan contingent on events in Afghanistan because the UK’s relationship with Pakistan is of greater importance, particularly regarding issues such as immigration, terrorism and security. Moreover, were Pakistan to become a “failed state”, something which was still reckoned by a majority of discussion participants as unlikely, waves of Pakistani refugees would, in all probability, make their way to the UK. It is, thus, in the UK’s interest to base the UK-Pakistan relationship on more pressing issues of mutual interest, which don’t hinge on events in Afghanistan.

Pakistan-US relations are dysfunctional. The US Congress and the National Assembly are pulling bilateral relations between the two nations further apart.  It is likely that the US-Pakistan relationship will deteriorate even further after 2014. Already, opinion-leaders in Washington, such as Christine Fair and Bruce Riedel, have already started to resort to terms, such as “containment”, as a future policy for the relationship, and Afghanistan is seen as “a proxy war between NATO and Pakistan”. Following withdrawal from Afghanistan, Western military reliance on Pakistan as a supply route will be sharply reduced, and suppressed tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan might then come to a head. There are a number of worst-case scenarios.

  • If Iran were to attain a break-out nuclear weapons capability, it could be a fundamental “game-changer”. The dangers of proliferation are very real, for example, were Saudi Arabia to obtain nuclear technology from Pakistan. While Pakistan would not necessarily sell Saudi Arabia such a weapon, they would come under immense pressure to relent, if Iran decides to weaponise. Similarly, an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could wreak havoc in the region, which could in turn spill over into Pakistan.
  • Another potentially explosive scenario would be an attack by LET (Lashkar-e-Taiba) on the Indian Parliament. Now, compared to 2001 and 2008, the time of the last attacks, the government in New Delhi is relatively weaker; this could lead to an Indo-Pak war, especially given persistent Indian accusations on the role of ISI (Inter-Services Inteligence) in assisting LET.
  • A nightmare scenario would be any attack by a Pakistani group on US facilities, or worse still, on the US mainland.
  • Given the strength of anti-Americanism in Pakistan, any ground operation by US troops into Pakistan would cause the country’s feeble institutional structures to collapse and turn the army against the West. It could take Pakistan over the precipice.
  • One key factor will be how well the international withdrawal from Afghanistan goes –if it goes badly, it will inevitably impact on U.S.-Pakistan relations.
  • Another key unknown is who will succeed General Kayani as Chief of Staff; he is the last of the generation of Pakistani generals, who has personal engagement with western militaries through western military cooperation - agreements that were cut as part of sanctions in the 1990’s. The worst-case scenario would be a figure playing the Islamic fundamentalist card (like ex-General Zia ul Haq.)
  • In the long term, with the population projected to reach 335 million; this will put an incredible strain on an economy, government and infrastructure already struggling to cope in a country of 180 million – all in the context of intensifying climate change.

Some 10-15% of Pakistan is not under control of the Pakistani military. Pashtun areas of Pakistan have been the most adversely affected, since the Durand Line continues to be thought of by Taliban and by successive Afghan Governments as an artificial colonial imposition dividing the Pashtun people. With some 18 million Afghan Pashtuns and a further 30 million Pakistani Pashtuns, the potential for greater instability is very real, as long as instability and conflict remain unresolved.

Pakistan will play a key role in any sustained peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. The question is whether Pakistan is prepared to co-operate in reaching a negotiated settlement, given its risk-aversion, and in particular, whether the ISI is willing to apply pressure to the Taliban. The Pakistani military does not want a complete and undisputed Taliban victory and government in Afghanistan. It is prepared to see a power-sharing scenario unfold in Afghanistan. While previously, the Pakistani military might have wanted India out of Afghanistan entirely, they are now willing to accept a limited presence. Distrust remains deeply entrenched on both sides. On the one hand, the U.S. is suspicious regarding the ISI and Pakistani military’s attitude toward Taliban, and Pakistan feels that the U.S. is insincere in its calls for a solution, and is in fact attempting to weaken the Taliban and split the insurgents.

One of the key areas of difference on any sustained talks on peace and reconciliation is the very meaning of the word “reconciliation”. As far as the U.S. government is concerned, in any reconciliation, the Taliban must accommodate the status quo and receive an amnesty in return. Thus far, there has been no serious thought dedicated to the possibility of a renegotiation of the status quo. Some argue that any talks between the Afghan government and Taliban are unlikely to succeed as long as the U.S. continues to insist on maintaining military bases after its withdrawal from Afghanistan. This point is a non-starter for the Taliban. U.S. insistence on bases could exacerbate the drift towards civil war, and yet the U.S. insists that it needs military bases for the purpose of training the Afghan army and to continue to project into Pakistan by means of drone bombing campaigns.

In Pakistan, the ISI has been cooperating with the U.S. on terrorism – the level of cooperation is apparently unaffected by the ongoing bilateral tensions in public. The ISI is cracking down on groups which might consider launching attacks abroad, because they fear severe repercussions and condemnation in the event of any terror attack in the U.S. being traced back to Pakistan. The Pakistan army has also stationed some 40,000 troops in Waziristan in order to bring back a semblance of stability to a region. Sectarianism is on the rise. As a result of severe repression, the insurgency in Baluchistan has moved from demands for human and civil rights to demanding independence, provoking further disillusionment with the Pakistani military’s handling of the situation. The Pakistani army is unsure of how to proceed, and has realised that extra-judicial killings will not solve this long-standing issue.

The Pakistani military and the ISI are not monolithic entities and are themselves riven by various different ideological tendencies and strategic priorities. Some elements in both the ISI and regular army, for example, were greatly angered by the purges of Islamists and Islamist sympathisers in the two institutions. Senior ex military figures appear in public at rallies organised by the anti U.S. Difa-i-Pakistan Council (Pakistan Defence Council). General Kayani’s reaction after the killing of Bin Laden to the anger felt within the Pakistani military by immediately visting the major military centres to engage with senior officers to try to defuse tensions shows his keen awareness of the acute sensitivities with the military.

International engagement may not be working, but there are no alternatives. Engagement by external actors will not be able to alter the strategic orientation of Pakistan. Engagement such as DFID’s primary education programme - the largest in the world - is an example of a focussed limited external intervention. U.S. economic aid is dwarfed 7:1 by remittances from Pakistani expatriates in the Gulf. The U.S. does play a role in terms of influencing World Bank and IMF policy towards Pakistan.

While relations between China and Pakistan remain important and China continues to be seen as an “all-weather partner,” China doesn’t wish to step in and replace the U.S. as Pakistan’s key strategic ally. China’s own Muslim population is vulnerable to radicalisation as a result of the war in Afghanistan and thus regards stability as its prime objective. China has even gone as far as to advice the Pakistanis to mend their relationship with the U.S.

Pakistan’s many domestic crises are the result of a lack of political will by the political elite. The decline in security will likely continue - as will the fall in living standards. Militancy will also continue to spread unless basic issues such as employment, job creation, economic development, and the state school education system are seriously tackled. The Islamic movements provide purpose, social mobility, social networking and jobs.  

For too long, the military and the political parties have neglected their one single task, which is to make life better for their people,

Ahmed Rashid concludes his book “Pakistan on the Brink”. He highlights the failure of the Pakistani elite - both civil and military - to take advantage of the end of the Cold War resulting in a 20-year lag to reforms. Pakistan is a weak state, but at the same time a strong society - those very kinship bonds make reform very difficult.

The military, well funded by US assistance and from the Pakistani budget, are the only respected institution. But to address the country’s profound structural problems, resources from the military would also need to be diverted towards public services. This, however, seems extremely unlikely and is not even a subject of public debate. A standing of army 750,000 cannot be maintained in the long-term. Until Pakistan develops a proper system of revenue collection, the public coffers will always be unable to fund public services. The collection of tax revenues are the lowest in South Asia at 55%. Time is not on Pakistan’s side and the possibility of decline and further deterioration is acute. Is there a parallel with the Soviet Union whose excess military spending led to its economic collapse?

Imran Khan at World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2012, Source WEF Imran Khan at World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2012, Source WEF

Meanwhile, a progressive decline in the domestic standard of living has been witnessed by the urbanised middle classes. Disillusionment with the military has fuelled the rise of Imran Khan and his Tehreek-e-Insaaf party. Since the civilian PPP government replaced General Musharraf in 2008, there has been a greater demand for “democracy”, against an “ineffectual” landed class and “corrupt” political elite. Imran Khan has been able to gain some traction because he was seen as anti-establishment, but nonetheless he has been compelled to cooperate and work with some members of the political elite and feudal dignitaries, because electoral politics in Pakistan continues to be defined in accordance with longstanding patron-client networks. He has also been forced to flirt with Islamist groups from time to time.

The next election in 2013 is a key safety valve. The most likely scenario at present is a coalition government. The next two electoral cycles are critical for Pakistan’s democratic future. However, there is no obvious appetite now by the military for political engagement – a point General Kayani has made clear. The fear is of a progressive decline - the falling quality of life, standard of living, and a worsening security situation - neighbourhood by neighbourhood over the next decade.

 


For further reading, as well as listening, see our 'ORG in Conversation' interview with Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani Journalist and Author, about Pakistan's ongoing instability and what, according to his book, looks like a gloomy prospect ahead for a country already in decline.


 

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