Is Pakistan Becoming Afghanistan? A Lament

A realist, international approach with real leadership is required if Pakistan is to be saved and Afghanistan is not to be lost.
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The answer is not quite. Not yet anyway. After recently attending several think tank events in New York and Washington in the last month, there was much talk of the nation the Economist labeled the "Most Dangerous Nation in the World" and Gordon Brown spoke of the area as a "Crucible of Terrorism." This doomsday rhetoric does not take into account the tens of millions of Pakistanis who have more to fear from terrorism than citizens of any Western capital ever have and it wrongly condemns ordinary people who are unwitting denizens of a faltering state.

Upon looking at a map handed to me at an event in Dupont Circle of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), I became suddenly disheartened. I realized I had been to many of its (now) most notorious towns and districts. Not only had I spent time in these places doing research for a university project but I had quite fond memories of them. All of this was before 9/11 of course and everything has seemingly changed although in more complex ways than people intimately familiar with the region realize. For a once obscure lot of curious Westerners, NWFP and its capital Peshawar were the staging ground for those trying to learn about, and even attempt to engage with, a violent social and political movement understood little by the outside world known as the Taliban.

Reading today's breaking news out of the province is like a who's who of localized militancy and globalized insurgency. From Osama bin Laden alleged to be hiding from CIA drones near Chitral to a loathsome graybeard named Sufi Muhammed holed up in Dir defying the writ of Pakistani democracy and the barrels of its army, NWFP's Malakand Division has become an ungovernable contested space within Pakistan's formal boundaries. For me these place names evoke vivid memories of lush apricot orchards and afternoons spent clutching the bumper of a jeep hugging hairpin turns high above the Kunar River. The Pashtun code of honor and hospitality which is so often cited in as the safeguard of Al Qaeda has also housed journalists, backpackers, archaeologists and hapless history buffs who have traveled the region for decades before the American war in Afghanistan began in 2001. When I last visited NWFP in 2007, though strained, the generosity of ordinary Pashtuns was still there amidst all the upheaval in the last decade. A remarkable feat for a people who have been so demonized in the press and by their own government.

In the 1990's, Afghanistan was a nihilistic black hole where virtually no information flowed in or out while Pakistan's border regions, while never describable as safe, were arguably stable. Both the Pashtun Taliban and their foes, the ethnic Afghan Tajik Jamiat-e-Islami, roamed NWFP as a fairly neutral rear base while otherwise engaging in active combat across the border. The Taleban toured around in comfortable SUV's with the more than tacit support of Pakistan's intelligence services while the Afghan Tajiks smuggled Lapis Lazuli from mines they controlled in Afghanistan's Badakhshan province to sell to buy arms in Pakistan. Pakistan sanctioned the black turbaned men in white Landcruisers while the United Nations recognized the men coming over the border on foot. Hauling rucksacks full of gemstones to defend their geographically cornered government that was losing territory to the former by the year was grassroots guerrilla financing at its best. And it was being carried out by a group of guerrillas who held Afghanistan's seat at the UN.

There is now talk of a Taliban "advance" on the capital, Islamabad. When Pakistan was created in the uncertainty that was 1947, its original capital was the seaside megacity of Karachi. Ayub Khan, a benevolent dictator by later standards, moved the city north in large part for strategic reasons. It was thought Karachi was vulnerable to attack by the Indian Navy or perhaps that of the Shah. Moving the capital far north in the 1960's, the Pakistani authorities could keep a watchful eye on an area of strategic projection, Kashmir and one of strategic depth, Kabul. Now this leafy, Greek-planned city is under threat not from a conventional neighboring military but from a lethal homegrown militancy that is professing inward territorial ambitions and the implementation of a very provincial form of Sharia law.

Just as Afghanistan was left to fester in the late 1990's in the grip of a xenophobic Taliban government in Kabul, now a decade on, large patches of Pakistan have become similar no-go zones for Westerners and many Pakistani civilians alike. The Taleban and its Deobandi-inspired thought have morphed, mutated and in turned eastward on their former masters. Many Western readers may not be aware that when the group was first raised as a militia, it was under the aegis of a democratically elected Benazir Bhutto government as she held office from 1993-1996. When Bhutto returned to Karachi from exile in the United Arab Emirates in 2007, she vowed to neutralize the very movement she fostered while in power over a decade earlier. This same ideology that once had a calculated utility for Pakistan's objectives in Afghanistan would ultimately kill her as the world watched.

Now no one is quite sure how to repair the situation. Two of the most active powers in the region are in foreign policy schizophrenia. While the U.S. is launching missiles into the FATA, China is busy constructing the Arabian sea port of Gwadar in Pakistan's deep, desolate south and attempting to improve road connectivity in the country's rugged far north. China is investing substantially in what many are terming a failing state. In order for Pakistan to be a corridor eventually linking China with the Persian Gulf, massive infrastructure investments are being made with great risk. Talk of creating a north-south conduit to carry oil to China's western Xinjiang province is ultimately a long term, pragmatic assertion on Beijing's part. The Americans are bombing while the Chinese are building. Pakistan needs both massive foreign direct investment to keep the country afloat and to defeat the Taliban movement politically and militarily. It is in China's interest to defeat the Taliban in order to protect its projects in Pakistan and shore up its enormous plans for extracting copper in Afghanistan. It is in America's interest to invest in Pakistan thereby making it a viable trade partner to lift the country out of the downward economic spiral in which it is rapidly plummeting and genuinely reward it for steadfast partnership in the Cold War. It is at this intersection of commerce and militarism that a realist, international approach with genuine leadership is required if Pakistan is to be saved and Afghanistan is not to be lost. For Washington and Beijing and for Kabul and Islamabad, the time is now.

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