The Army is killing Pakistan. But it’s the only thing that can rescue it.
Pakistan is not alone in suffering the ravages of instability, corruption and violence. But its size, location and nuclear arsenal set it apart as one of the most intractable problems facing Western policy makers.
The tragedy is, it needn’t have been so. Pakistan has plenty going for it. It has a large, youthful population and borders the booming economies of India and China. Its natural harbours should act as a hub for the Gulf and Indian Ocean trade. Its large and successful diaspora give it a ready-made worldwide cultural and business network. It is a natural transit route for the mineral riches of Central Asia and the open seas.
And yet, Pakistan is arguably the world’s largest failed state. It is a major centre for the production of heroin, opium, hashish and morphine. Militancy and Islamic extremism have always been an issue – especially in the Waziristan province that borders Afghanistan and the north-western Swat Valley, but this has worsened in recent years. Vast swathes of the country are simply beyond the reach and remit of Islamabad. Corruption is endemic and has become so deeply engrained it is doubtful it can ever be routed out.
Most depressingly of all, so much of this is self inflicted. To many of Pakistan’s elite, trade and interaction with the wider world is viewed as a threat, not an opportunity. This is especially true of the more pious elements of Pakistan, who see the outside world as offering naught but vice and heresy. A bloated defence budget starves education and infrastructure programmes. What passes for civilian politics swings between violent and farcical. There is scant difference between the Pakistani Peoples Party and the Muslim League, and a weary electorate know this. As a result, or perhaps because of this, the army has long been deeply and unhelpfully involved in every aspect of society.
The military (the eighth largest in the world) and the powerful ISI spy agency have probably been the single biggest factors in making Pakistan what it is today. Despite the obvious threat posed by domestic terrorism and extremism, the spies and generals remain obsessed with India as its principle enemy. Outnumbered by about 3-1 in conventional forces by India, the army justifies its huge share of the national budget (estimate of around 17% of GDP).
Along with the myriad of intelligence agencies, the army recruited, trained and financed terror groups that operated in Kashmir, Afghanistan, and India proper. These same groups now threaten the very existence of Pakistan itself; yet too many generals and politicians are reluctant to take on the monster they created. Half-hearted offensives by regional commanders, when they occur, are more than nullified by other commanders supplying arms and intelligence to the same groups. This schizophrenic approach is as expensive as it is futile. Although the charismatic ex cricketer Imrhan Khan is shaking the political scene with his new Pakistan Tehreek-e-insaf Party, it is unlikely to herald in the sort of deep rooted reforms the nation needs.