The South Asia Channel

Is Pakistan really such a basket case?

By Peter Bergen A common refrain since the spring from some of the country’s leading policy makers and defense intellectuals is that Pakistan is going to hell in a hand basket. As a frequent visitor to Pakistan since 1983 I just don’t buy this pessimism but it’s a view held by an impressive array of ...

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A Pakistani soldier patrols Mingora, the main town of Swat valley, on August 1, 2009. Schools reopened in Pakistan's restive northwest after nearly three months of being closed due to fighting between the military and Taliban militants, officials said. AFP PHOTO/ A MAJEED (Photo credit should read A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)

By Peter Bergen

A common refrain since the spring from some of the country’s leading policy makers and defense intellectuals is that Pakistan is going to hell in a hand basket. As a frequent visitor to Pakistan since 1983 I just don’t buy this pessimism but it’s a view held by an impressive array of smart folks. As the Taliban marched ever closer to Islamabad in late April Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said of Pakistan, “I think [it] poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world.” Around the same time Australian COIN guru David Kilcullen said, “We’re now reaching the point where within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state, also because of the global financial crisis, which just exacerbates all these problems.”

Now a heavyweight longtime observer of the region has weighed in at length on this issue. Bruce Riedel, who led the Obama’s administration’s rethink of its ‘Af-Pak’ strategy, writing in the July/August issue of The National Interest, makes a well-laid out case for Pakistan’s possible failure: Let’s call this the “Basket Case” scenario, the broad outlines of which can be found in the three paragraphs below:

Pakistan is in the midst of a complex and difficult transition from the military dictatorship of Musharraf to an elected civilian government. The army is reluctant to surrender real power; it is the largest landholder in the country and has created a massive military-industrial complex that benefits the officer corps. And it controls Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service. For most of 2004 to 2007-when the jihadists regrouped-the director of ISI was General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, now the army’s commander. This shows not only the critical role of the ISI but also the pervasiveness and unity of the military-industrial complex. In contrast, the civilians are divided by party and region; they spend more time infighting than governing.

The economy is dominated by almost-feudal landlords. The education system has been in decline for decades, starved of funds by the military’s requirements. The judiciary has been systematically attacked by the army and the political parties and is only now trying to achieve independence and credibility.

Thus Pakistan is both a patron and victim of terror. The Frankenstein created by the army and the ISI is now increasingly out of control and threatening the freedoms of all Pakistanis. Incidents of terrorist violence in Pakistan doubled from almost nine hundred in 2007 to over one thousand eight hundred in 2008 according to the National Counterterrorism Center. Many remain in denial, however, especially in the army. Others blame it all on the Americans and the CIA. As the mayor of Karachi, the largest megacity in the Islamic world, recently told me, Pakistan today is a country in the intensive-care ward of the global state system. Many expect it will fail to recover. All too easily it could fail completely.”

While recognizing Pakistan’s myriad problems, I am far more sanguine than those like Riedel who make the Basket Case. Pakistan’s present crisis with the Taliban is not nearly as severe as the genuinely existential crises the country has weathered in the past. Pakistan has fought three major wars with India and has lost or, at best, drawn each encounter, including the 1971 war in which one half of the country seceded to become Bangladesh. Pakistan’s key leaders have also succumbed to the assassin’s bullet or bomb or the hangman’s noose, and the country has seen four military coups since its birth in 1947. Yet the Pakistani polity has limped on.

And lost in the many discussions of the precariousness of the Pakistani state are promising tectonic shifts in the Pakistan body politic. Ordinary Pakistanis are fed up with the militants. The alliance of pro-Taliban religious parties known as the MMA secured enough of the vote in 2002 to win control of two of the four provinces that make up Pakistan. But in 2008 voters threw the MMA out of office, and it secured a miserable 2 percent of the vote. Similarly, support for suicide bombing among Pakistanis has tanked, dropping from 33 percent in 2002 to 5 percent in 2008, according to the Pew Global Attitudes survey, and favorable views of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban have steadily eroded.

These trends are considerably amplified by an explosion in independent media. Where in the 1990s there was one government-controlled television station, there are now dozens of channels most of which are largely pro-democratic and secular in their orientation.

Juan Cole, the historian and well-known blogger, shares my (relative) optimism about Pakistan, laying out his case in an essay in the Summer 2009 Political Science Quarterly which, unfortunately, sits behind a subscription wall. Some of Cole’s arguments can also be found here on his blog.

A subset of the question how stable Pakistan is is the question of how secure are its nuclear weapons. By far the best-informed and well-calibrated response (pdf) I have yet seen to this question can be found in the July issue of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center’s indispensable online monthly The Sentinel.

Shaun Gregory, a professor at Bradford University in the UK, acknowledges the great strides the Pakistanis have made in securing their weapons (with some US help he doesn’t mention) but he also points out something that was news to me (and shouldn’t have been) which is that a series of attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons facilities have already happened. According to Gregory, “These have included an attack on the nuclear missile storage facility at Sargodha on November 1, 2007, an attack on Pakistan’s nuclear airbase at Kamra by a suicide bomber on December 10, 2007, and perhaps most significantly the August 20, 2008 attack when Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers blew up several entry points to one of the armament complexes at the Wah cantonment, considered one of Pakistan’s main nuclear weapons assembly sites.”

That’s a sobering list and makes Bruce Riedel’s essay entitled Armageddon in Islamabad all the more an important counterweight to the relative optimism of Juan Cole and myself.

Peter Bergen is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know.

AFP/Getty Images

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