Pakistan's geopolitical position has also been its greatest problem -
located between south, west and central Asia,
the country has consistently served as a platform from which foreign interests
were played out and defended. Consequently Pakistan's domestic destiny has
often been hostage to the foreign policy priorities of other, mostly western
governments. Most notable, and at the origin of today's instability was the
American involvement in the region during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The rise of the Taliban to fight the evil of the day, namely communism - was
supported and funded by the US.
In the long run, the Soviet empire might have thus been defeated, however the
remnants of this conflict have caused havoc in Afghanistan ever since. Pakistan, the
neighbouring state has been drawn further into this problem, as in the shadow
of Islamic insurgencies its border has become the theatre of the ‘war on
Pakistan's challenges today are numerous - a weak civilian government - seen by many as utterly accountable to the West, a crumbling economy, a war on Pakistan's western border and a domestic conflict with hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDP). The primary threat emanating from this situation is the wider radicalization of the ordinary Pakistani population. Many analysts and policy makers focus on Pakistan's western educated and English speaking elite, yet ignore the 80% of the population that are the rural and urban poor who have little in common with the governing classes. Western policy - led by the US and followed by the EU is utterly inadequate largely due to a lack of understanding of the realities on the ground.
The anti-insurgency operation in Swat has created a domestic crisis of IDP. Most of these people are angry at having had to leave their homes, but have experienced Taliban rule and are supportive of the Pakistani army's endeavours to rid the region of insurgents. This window of support is however unlikely to last very long. As living conditions in camps deteriorate and the government is not seen to be doing much to alleviate the suffering, the youths especially are likely to radicalize. It is now time to make sure that the living standards of the IDP do not deteriorate any further - especially given the summer heat and the arrival of the Monsoon - and that they are able to return home quickly. Government support with regard to re-building destroyed schools and other public services is essential. Yet the government has no money due to the deteriorating economic situation.
Pakistan's economy has been in free fall for a number of months. Inflation is so high that the majority of rural and urban poor have had to cut at least a meal a day in order to survive. The government is not seen as addressing these issues. Again radicalization is more likely amongst people who are hungry and who perceive their government to have forgotten them.
The war on the western border against the Taliban has created a true identity crisis for many more conservative, mostly rural Pakistanis. Fighting Muslim brethren in alliance with the United States discredits the government, increases radicalization and raises support for islamist groups.
In times of trouble Pakistan should be able to expect support from its allies and friends. However, despite being an ally of the west in the ‘war on terror', western policy towards Pakistan seems intent on making things more difficult rather than easier. This has been compounded by the new Obama administration:
- The new term ‘AfPak' points towards a vision whereby the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan are put into the same bag. Not only is this deeply offensive to the Pakistani people and government - whose state, unlike that of Afghanistan was never a failed state - but it also glosses over the fact that both sets of problems are very different. The fact that there is a Pashtun tribal system on both sides of the border is not a sufficient reason.
- The continuous drone attacks on Pakistani soil have killed many civilians and few insurgents. It is a strange war where one ally bombs the other. The weak civilian government aside, the wider Pakistani population sees these attacks as a casus belli against Pakistan and nothing has fuelled anti-American and anti-western feelings more.
Western policies seem to have been oblivious to the sentiments of the wider Pakistani population. However a deeper understanding of the views across Pakistan and a radical policy shift is needed if the ordinary people of Pakistan are to be brought on board. Investments in order to stabilize the economy is one way forward. Pakistan needs aid to develop its state education and health systems. Institutions for good governance also need support. At this juncture however the western priorities seem to lie with the war - not with helping Pakistani civil society. Therefore it seems that continued western involvement is more likely to fuel an anti-western reaction and increase the fault lines within Pakistani society, rather than stabilize Pakistan.
Dr Marie Lall is a South Asia specialist, a Senior Lecturer at the IoE, University of London and an Associate Fellow at the Asia Programme at Chatham House
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