Pakistan must be saved from collapse

by KEVIN Rudd
April 29th, 2009
KEVIN Rudd rightly linked Australia’s increased troop commitment to Afghanistan with a desire to ensure the viability of the Pakistani state. He identified this as a vital interest for Australia. Like US President Barack Obama, Rudd has appointed a special envoy — in this case former Defence Department head Ric Smith — for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That Rudd questions the viability of the Pakistani state should alert Australians to the perfect storm of trouble in Pakistan today. It is the worst and most dangerous security situation in the world, albeit with strong competition from Iran and with North Korea putting in a serious effort. Don’t think I’m being alarmist. Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress that the security situation in Pakistan “poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world”. She added: “The Pakistani Government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists … we cannot underscore the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan.”

Bear in mind that Pakistan is a nation of 170 million people and possesses 75 to 100 nuclear weapons. The Pakistani state is under assault from the Pakistani Taliban, allied with the Afghan Taliban and with al-Qa’ida. It is also under assault from other Islamist and terrorist groups, many of which it originally created or funded (just as it was involved in the founding of the Afghan Taliban) in order to harass India.

In the past few days the Pakistani military has hit back at the Taliban who had taken control of the Swat Valley and moved to within 80km of the capital, Islamabad.

This is not entirely removed from a situation of civil war. The fighting has been pretty indiscriminate and 30,000 Pakistani civilians have fled their homes, many taking shelter in camps that once housed Afghan refugees.

One of the finest analysts of South Asian security, Gopalaswamy Parthasarathy, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, told me this week: “There is a serious concern about whether the Pakistani army is going to defend the state apparatus of Pakistan.”

This profound doubt over the intentions and capabilities of the Pakistani military is widespread. Another renowned analyst of the region, Anthony Cordesman of the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies, writes in the latest issue of The National Interest: “Internal divisions in the Pakistani army and its intelligence services over whether Pakistan should fight al-Qa’ida and Afghan jihadists or support them in an effort to win influence and control over Afghanistan and the Pashtuns in the border area have shaped the military’s actions.”

In other words, even now, with the Pakistani state on the rack in every way imaginable, the intentions and even basic loyalty of the Pakistani military are utterly unclear. Parthasarathy and Cordesman’s judgments are borne out in the latest fighting. The Pakistanis have driven the Taliban back for the moment. But it is extremely unclear that they can hold those gains or rebuild long-term security for the civilian population. Most of the on-the-ground fighting has been carried out by Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, which is a kind of paramilitary border guard force.

Most of the formed units of the Pakistani army, which Cordesman characterises as “largely an inept flatland army”, want nothing to do with counterinsurgency. In fact they have been promoting the Frontier Corps as the counterinsurgent arm of the Pakistani military.

This is dismaying if not downright disastrous for many reasons. It shows that even today the Pakistani military does not take the threat of Islamist extremism to the state seriously. The Pakistani military is very bad at counterinsurgency. At the moment, it is relatively popular with the Pakistani people. It maintains this popularity in part through constant nationalist sabre-rattling towards India, which it is designed to fight in conventional war.

Despite the extreme unpopularity of the Pakistani Taliban and associated Islamist extremist groups – which never score significantly in Pakistani elections – the military believes if it gets involved in deep counterinsurgency work, this will involve it killing large numbers of fellow Pakistanis and fellow Muslims. This is bound to diminish its popularity. Therefore it hands that task off to the Frontier Corps and even continues to play its influence-peddling games in Afghanistan and in Kashmir with the very forces that now threaten to consume Pakistan.

Australia is doing everything it reasonably can to influence the situation for the better. Canberra has substantially increased its aid to Pakistan. Although much of this aid notoriously disappears down the black hole of Pakistani corruption, this is an emergency situation and there is no alternative but to try to enable the Pakistani state.

Australia is also a founding member of Friends of Democratic Pakistan. The group, which involves more than a dozen nations – including several European states, China, Saudi Arabia and others in the Muslim world – has mobilised billions of dollars in aid for Pakistan, as has the International Monetary Fund. At the same time the Friends are trying to engage the Pakistan Government politically, to show it that it has indeed got friends, and indeed friends beyond the US. Canberra has also invited Pakistani soldiers to come to Australia for counterinsurgency training. Washington is rightly alarmed by the Pakistan crisis and has pledged $US1.5 billion ($2.09billion) a year in new aid.

At the moment, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are judged to be safe. The nuclear cores are separated from the weapons systems. The Americans have helped install a special system of locking and unlocking that would be extremely difficult for an outsider to operate. And the warheads are separate from the missiles. But what would happen in the case of total regime collapse?

The character of the Pakistani military has changed fundamentally in recent decades. It is much more penetrated by Islamist ideology. The whole country is awash in anti-Americanism, so that even while the Islamists are generally unpopular, every government action against them is easily portrayed as Islamabad bowing to Washington’s will.

The civilian Government is pathetically weak. The military chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has increasingly directed President Asif Ali Zardari’s critical actions from behind the scenes. The economy is in free fall, with growth collapsing. No one in the West would welcome a military coup, but the task of rebuilding Pakistan’s democratic consensus and government institutions is herculean.

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