Pakistan's election of a civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari, earlier this week was meant to help solve the problem of former military head and president Musharraf's questionable loyalty to U.S. aims. Musharraf was increasingly believed to be supporting military and intelligence elements in Pakistan who themselves supported Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. President Bush announced his happiness with Zardari's selection shortly after it was announced.
Nevertheless, the change in Pakistan's administration is unlikely to be the key to easy resolution to the rise in Taliban and Al Qaeda's strength. Recognizing the challenge, Democratic and Republican policy makers alike are calling for an increase in troops in Afghanistan (which itself may be challenged by likely announcements in September of delayed withdrawals from Iraq).
But, as commentator Roger Cohen implies, military force in Afghanistan won't mean much while borders are porous: "The Afghan-Pakistani border cannot be sealed, although it can be better policed; the jihadi traffic across it will continue."
It is not only the physical border between the two countries that cannot be easily closed. It would also be difficult to simply paste over the long and complex history of Pakistani interference in Afghan affairs (at times with full support from the United States, as during the Afghan-Sovient war). Even more difficult: any effort to reduce all of Pakistan's regional interests to a singular interest in helping the U.S. battle militant groups in its Northwest provinces.
In an interview earlier this week, Democratic candidate Barack Obama argued that greater pressure must be put on Pakistan to use U.S. aid to defeat terrorists. Republican candidate McCain has been silent of late on Pakistan but implicitly supports some version of U.S. action in Paksistan with his claim he'll follow bin Laden to the "gates of hell" (bin Laden is assumed to be in Pakistan, with other senior al Qaeda leaders).
But both presidential candidates may be staking claims for the next administration on quicksand, if they continue the Bush habit of forging policies by viewing Pakistan as only either "for us" or "against us," or by failing to consider the role of Pakistani people in shaping Pakistan.
There are at least three problems in Pakistan that lie outside of Zardari's ability to fix: its economic situation is so dire it is producing instability now; the federal government has virtually no standing with even the middle class in Pakistan; U.S. military moves are proving counterproductive.
The first, put forward by Anatole Lieven, is that Pakistan's current economic situation is so dire for most people, right now, that desperation and anger alone may tip the balance in favor of Pakistan's insurgents.
By the time a new administration has begun to work out its plans, it will be next spring. And as the editor of a leading Pakistani newspaper said to me in Lahore last Monday, "if the government here can't do something serious to help the population economically within six months, it will be finished."
He and others have warned that mass anger at rising food prices and lengthening electricity cuts could combine with hostility to the government's campaign against the insurgents and to Pakistan's alliance with America. Sporadic violent protests against power cuts have already occurred in several cities. The resulting instability could wreck any hope of Pakistan continuing its tough campaign against the insurgents....
Limited American financial help can tide Pakistan over its immediate crisis. At the same time, the United States should urgently craft longer-term aid programs intended to strengthen resistance to the spread of insurgency.
These should be focused on the North-West Frontier Province. The planned $750 million for the tribal areas is a good idea in itself, but given the security situation and lack of basic infrastructure in these areas, it will be many years before this money can be spent effectively. Meanwhile, the North-West Frontier Province itself is in grave danger from the militants.
Second, the Pakistani central government has limited control over its people. They do not feel a sense of symbolic allegiance to a national identity, nor do they have ties to a national government that has done little for them.
M. Junaid Levesque-Alam writes eloquently on this point:
Today, American leaders surveying options in the region display even less prudence than a child in an unfamiliar marketplace. They openly speak the language of violence, fail to ask necessary questions, and evince little concern about the costs of their decisions....
. . . .in pressing and prodding Pakistan to take greater military action alongside America, U.S. leaders reveal just how little they know about the country and the path to lasting peace.
Does the civilian government - whose "cooperation" we seek in the intensified fight - possess any real authority? What are the priorities of Pakistan's perennially-looming institution, the army? Why should ordinary Pakistanis back an escalating war against some of their own?
But, in addition to having basic development problems on its hands, the U.S. cannot count on the support of an enlightened middle class, as Lieven demonstrates with respect to his own family, for "the scene is so dispiriting that much of the middle class simply ignores politics altogether. My mother's side of the family, all educated and solidly middle-class, have to my recollection never evinced interest in any of the parties in light of the transparent hankering for power displayed by the politicians."
Against this backdrop, the government's cachet among its people is limited. The notion that such a fragile institution, beset by incompetence, invisibility, and cronyism, can simply wave its hands in the air and convince its citizens to become an appendage of the U.S. "war on terror" is a wild fantasy.