A Washington mesmerized by the dawn of a new domestic political era may not recognize it, but Pakistan should now be the major — certainly foreign — preoccupation for U.S. policymakers.
• U.S. security is directly tied to Pakistan, not only as a possible sanctuary for terrorist operations, but increasingly because of recruitment of home-grown terrorists in the West.
• Islamic radicals, traditionally a tiny minority, are running amok, openly proclaiming their assassination of a provincial governor and using it as a tool of propaganda.
• Growing instability in Pakistan directly impinges not only on neighboring Afghanistan, but has enormous implications for the nuclear and missiles arms race with India, India's huge Muslim minority and Islamabad's "all-weather" China alliance.
• Despite massive foreign assistance, Pakistan remains one of the world's poorest economies, failing to meet the basic needs of its 180 million people.
The assassination Jan. 4 of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, where 60 percent of Pakistanis live, is epochal. Mr. Taseer, a quintessential member of the ruling feudal elite since the 1947 bloody partition from India, nevertheless represented "modernism." He had campaigned against an anti-blasphemy law — originally part of the devil's compact Saudi Arabia demanded for its financial and moral support. Accommodation to Saudi Islamic fanaticism went so far as to outlaw dissident worldwide Islamic sects. That included ostracism of Pakistan's — and the Muslim world's — Nobel Prize laureate in physics and the founder of its nuclear weapons and missiles program. But a frightening new element to the Taseer killing has been the widespread support for the killer by lawyers while the government's prosecuting attorney did not dare turn up for the preliminary hearing.
Pakistan's history, beginning with its martyred first prime minister, is long on political violence. But that Mr. Taseer was fatally shot by a member of his own bodyguard unit, a man ousted from other security posts for acknowledged fanaticism, with no return fire by other guards, will lead to endless conspiracy theorizing. The Taseer slaying reflects loyalties, and therefore allegiances, crossing all lines. The almost daily terrorist attacks come even as U.S. drones routinely take out targeted jihadists in the tribal areas abutting Afghanistan. Despite frequent government official denunciations of the U.S. strikes, Pakistani intelligence itself helps pinpoint these "miscreants."
But the ease with which the federal government's chief Punjab representative was eliminated dramatizes a political system near paralysis. Unreality prevails: In the midst of continuing crisis, parasitic justices and lawyers are trying to wrest "judicial supremacy" from the inheritance of British "parliamentary supremacy." A representative vignette: The leader of one major party presides over political powwows digitally from London because he dare not reside in Karachi. But one of his leading deputies was recently slain in the U.K.
All this takes place in an economy where more than a quarter of the population officially lives below the poverty line. Corruption is an economic issue, with only 2 million Pakistanis — mostly professionals and government workers — paying taxes. Rich landowners, who with the military are the regime's backbone, are exempt from all agricultural taxes. The International Monetary Fund last year withheld $3.5 billion from its $11.3 billion loan to Islamabad to meet a balance-of-payments crisis to pressure for reforms. But when Pakistani officials finally moved last month, the shaky coalition collapsed and the decision to reduce petroleum subsidies immediately was rescinded. Most economists agree subsidies benefit the wealthier, not the vast subsistence economy hit hard last year by record floods.
U.S. policy is caught in this jumble. There has been a constant harangue by experts over not only the size, but also the nature, of American aid, what mix of carrots and sticks would work best. Unfortunately, the transparent American system requires public discussion, informing the enemy and feeding the always present paranoid anti-Americanism.
Islamabad last fall increased its defense budget by about $1.28 billion, partly for flood relief, with the U.S. pledging $150 million. But Washington also has been pressuring its ally to get on with rooting out tribal-area strongholds in the remote Afghanistan border regions. Failing that, strategists think that American and NATO success and a timely departure from Afghanistan will not be possible. Since 2005, Pakistan has received more than $1 billion a year in U.S. military aid — nearly $2 billion in the last fiscal year. A $7.5 billion package of civilian aid over five years was approved in 2009. But repayment of earlier assistance meant no real civilian aid transfers took place for 25 years. In 2008 net disbursement amounted to $204 million, or about $1.10 per Pakistani — in part explaining why 40 years of U.S. aid is pooh-poohed.
Washington's headaches could get worse at any moment. The Bush administration fatuously pushed for "a return to democracy," helping oust the able (if wily) Gen. Pervez Musharraf for the notoriously corrupt, incompetent but secularist Bhutto family, including assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband, current President Asif Ali Zandari, whose reputation for corruption and self-dealing earned him the nickname "Mr. 10 Percent." Calls have already begun for a new round of martial law and military rule. A largely irrelevant debate between human rights advocates and realists is in the cards, while more chaos, and possibly even disintegration, wait in the wings.
• Sol Sanders, veteran news correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the intersection of business, economics and international politics. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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