Getting our act together

WASHINGTON DIARY: Getting our act together
by Dr Manzur Ejaz, USA
January 27th, 2009
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In neglecting to protect the Pakhtuns and establishing law and order, the Pakistani state failed Pakhtuns miserably. It is this failure of the state that has led to the violation of its sovereignty, first by the Taliban and now by the US.

In summoning Swat’s VIPs to his court, Maulana Fazlullah has thrown an open challenge to the Pakistani state to prove that it has an iota of writ over the district. If it still fails to protect those summoned and their families, and to reopen schools, its protest over strikes by US drones will be understandably ignored. Hard pressed to show success in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama will be quick to note such developments and to react robustly.

The US president has already raised the level of US monitoring of the area by appointing Richard Holbrooke as special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mr Holbrooke’s appointment also restores civilian supremacy in diplomacy, conducted during the Bush era mostly by the Pentagon and its military commanders.

Given that it may be a significant departure from the Bush doctrine, it is not clear how Mr Holbrooke’s shuttling between Kabul and Islamabad will change the ground realities of war. Some in Washington believe that Mr Holbrooke will subject the Karzai government to even closer scrutiny and engage Pakistan’s political players.

President Bush’s conservative ideology was seen as one of the main hurdles in putting together a workable government in Kabul. Most of the Afghans having governance skills and experience were linked with the Khalq or other similarly progressive parties. They were displaced after the Mujahdeen takeover of Kabul. The Taliban era proved an even worse nightmare for them.

After the US invasion of Afghanistan, several efforts were made to bring back the experienced and skilled people to run the government. However, the Republican lot in Washington could not tolerate those who had ever been associated with the Communists. Many women leaders and liberal groups were similarly kept out of power despite their willingness to join the government.

The question is: will the Obama administration, acting through Mr Holbrooke, try to broaden the anti-Taliban ruling coalition?

Rampant corruption, cronyism and ineptitude are the major reasons of Karzai government’s failure. If the governance apparatus is not reconfigured, the US and its allies will remain bogged down in Afghanistan for a long time to come. Mr Holbrooke’s biggest challenge in Afghanistan, therefore, is to put up a competent government.

In Pakistan, where the state seems to be working but is not actually delivering, Mr Holbrooke faces a somewhat different problem. The new political set-up, put in place in 2008, has not brought credibility to state institutions. Symbolically, the lawyers, who started the winding down of the Musharraf era with their sustained protest, are still in the streets demanding the restoration of the chief justice and some other judges of the superior courts.

In other words, the contradictions that led to the downfall of the previous regime remain unresolved. Instead of making a break with the last regime, the new rulers have chosen to follow in its footsteps. As a result, countrywide political stability remains as tenuous as it was before March 2008. To make Pakistan’s state institutions credible, the Obama administration will have to get over Musharraf-like conduits and encourage the resolution of basic contradictions.

When it comes to dealing with the Taliban and the US, the people of Pakistan seem to have a schizophrenic mindset. The average Pakistani rejects the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam but does not approve of the US strikes on them. He dislikes US influence but praises the rulers who can get more economic aid from Washington. He knows that Pakistan’s security forces have not succeeded in halting the Taliban advance so that in many areas the state has no writ; and yet he does not want the US to violate the country’s ‘sovereignty’.

Unfortunately, such self-contradiction is not limited to lay masses. The most powerful institutions of the state are either afflicted with the same malaise or have chosen to encourage a mindset prone to it.

One of the fallacies is the characterisation of the Taliban as a Pakhtun phenomenon. The conflict is thus seen to be between the US and a (Pakhtun) segment of Pakistani population. But if recent elections are any indicator, Pakhtuns prefer secular parties to the religious ones. The Taliban may be better organised and armed but they lack democratic legitimacy.

The fact is that in neglecting to protect the Pakhtuns and establishing law and order, the Pakistani state has failed Pakhtuns miserably. It is this failure of the state that has led to the violation of its sovereignty, first by the Taliban and now by the US.

Mr Holbrooke will be facing a very complex situation in Pakistan. He has a hard sell on his hands to convince Pakistanis that Talibanisation can no longer be controlled by negotiations alone; that there is no non-military solution to this problem. Of course, the Obama administration has to stabilise the Pakistani economy before any new initiative can be fruitful.

The bottom line for Pakistani policy makers is that the US cannot walk away from Afghanistan and the Talibanised Pakistani areas. Unlike the Iraq war, there is broad consensus in the US as well as in the international community on uprooting the Taliban. The US and Europe are genuinely worried about Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Therefore, irrespective of whether Mr Holbrooke succeeds or fails in his mission, the strength of US forces along the Pakistan-Afghan border is going to increase. With higher causality figures, pressure is going to mount on the Obama administration to push and/or punish Pakistan for not doing enough. Pakistan’s policy makers must get over their self-contradictory stance and move quickly to protect the Pakhtuns as well as the rest of Pakistan.
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