The Real Problem With Pakistan: Fareed Zakaria's Jaundiced View

The Real Problem With Pakistan
By Fareed Zakaria: Newsweek

June 25, 2007 issue - Movies usually tell a story powerfully, emotionally—and simply. But "A Mighty Heart" is notable for the nuance it manages to convey. The 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl wasn't itself complicated: a group of jihadists kidnapped him and then brutally beheaded him. But its setting, Pakistan, is awash in gray tones, which the movie paints skillfully. To fully understand this story, we must recognize the utter ruthlessness of Pearl's killers but also the complexity of where they came from. Now, with Pakistan undergoing its greatest crisis since 9/11, the United States would do well to take that complexity into account.

There is a simple story line: Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has abused his authority; he faces massive street protests and should be nudged out in favor of a civilian government. It's a tempting view. Musharraf is a dictator, and his regime has not been wholly committed to fighting Islamic radicals. The Taliban has reconstituted itself in Pakistan's tribal areas, and Al Qaeda's top leaders appear to be ensconced along its border. If there is a central front in the war on terror, it is not in Iraq but in Pakistan.

Now, the complications. Musharraf has, on the whole, been a modernizing force in Pakistan. When he took power in 1999, the country was racing toward ruin with economic stagnation, corruption, religious extremism and political chaos. It had become a rogue state, allied to the Taliban and addicted to a large-scale terror operation against neighboring India. Musharraf restored order, broke with the Islamists and put in place the most modern and secular regime in three decades. Under him the economy has boomed, with growth last year at 8 percent. Despite the grumblings of many coffeehouse intellectuals, Musharraf's approval ratings were consistently high—around 60 percent.

Until recently. Like many dictators, Musharraf has gone several steps too far. His recent actions—dismissing the chief justice of the Supreme Court and attempting to change the Constitution so he could remain president and still run the Army—were wrong and foolish. Though not unprecedented. Musharraf's predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, the elected prime minister, dismissed his chief justice in 1997 and tried to amend the Constitution in equally egregious ways in 1999. But Musharraf failed to recognize that perhaps as a consequence of his success, ordinary Pakistanis were becoming less comfortable with military rule. As Indian commentator Shekhar Gupta has suggested, he would have been wiser to give up his uniform and run as a civilian in a free and fair election, which he would have won.

The danger is not that radical Islamists would come to power if Musharraf goes—as several American presidential candidates have claimed. Islamic fundamentalists have never gotten more than 10 percent of the vote in Pakistan. The country's two main political parties are secular.

The real problem in Pakistan is dysfunction. "A Mighty Heart" accurately shows that Pakistan's national police forces were trying to find Pearl's kidnappers. But the central government can claim only limited and divided authority over the country. Provincial governors, local commanders and rich landlords are powers unto themselves. Elements in the government can drag their feet and subvert official policy. Large swaths of the country are badlands where the state's writ doesn't run. This is a far more backward country than South Korea or even the Philippines, where the United States helped usher in democracy in the 1980s.

The only institution that works in Pakistan is the military. The Army is mostly professional and competent. It is also vast, swallowing up approximately 39 percent of the government's budget. In a book published last month, author Ayesha Siddiqa details the vast holdings of Pakistan's "military economy"—including banks, foundations, universities and companies worth as much as $10 billion. And with or without Musharraf, as Daniel Markey ably explains in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, the military will continue to run Pakistan's strategic policy.

Deeply ingrained in the Army's psyche is the notion that it was abandoned by the United States in the 1990s, after the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan. The generals are worried about Washington's warm overtures to India and fear that soon they will be abandoned again. One explanation for why the military has retained some ties to the Taliban is because they want to keep a "post-American" option to constrain what they see as a pro-Indian government in Kabul. If Washington were to dump Musharraf, the Pakistani military could easily sabotage American policy against Al Qaeda and throughout the region.

Musharraf may be doomed—though were he to choose between the presidency and his Army post, and reach out to the mainstream opposition, he might well survive. Still, it does the United States no good to be seen forcing him out. We cannot achieve our goals—or help Pakistan gain stability—by turning our back on the military. Back in the 18th century, Frederick the Great's Prussia was characterized as "not a state with an army, but an army with a state." So it is with Pakistan. A complex reality.

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