Danger Ahead for the Most Dangerous Place in the World

By Sumit Ganguly
Sunday, October 12, 2008

Here's an alarming thought: Pakistan is in even scarier shape than most of the so-called experts are willing to admit.

This nuclear-armed state of 168 million is no stranger to political upheaval, of course. But this time, things are different. Today's ongoing crisis -- marked by a rash of suicide bombings, the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto last December, inflation as high as 25 percent and a resurgent Taliban movement -- could spell doom for the Pakistani state itself. The global financial crisis has only made matters worse: Pakistan's foreign-exchange reserves are collapsing, and credit markets are worried that it could soon default on its debt payments. The grim truth is that Pakistan is becoming something alarmingly close to a failed state. And that could have disastrous consequences for the United States, NATO and Afghanistan's struggle to hold back its own Taliban insurgency.

True, Pakistan does have a newly elected president, Asif Ali Zardari, but let's not kid ourselves about his ability (or even desire) to turn his country around. During his last stint in office (as minister of investment in the government led by his late wife, Bhutto), Zardari became known as "Mr. Ten Percent" for his alleged propensity for skimming funds from lucrative government contracts. And Zardari's probable replacement, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, may be even more corrupt and incompetent.

Simply put, Pakistan is facing an existential crisis -- on its streets and in its courts, barracks and parliament. American pundits and politicians might be hoping for the best for the country whose lawless border regions are widely thought to harbor Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. But I don't see much chance of a happy turnaround. If, as both John McCain and Barack Obama have claimed, a strong, dependable Pakistan is the key to winning the war in Afghanistan, then we are waging an unwinnable war.

I have studied Pakistan for nearly 20 years and have traveled throughout the country several times. Yes, I am ethnically an Indian, but I am a U.S. citizen and harbor no animosity toward Pakistan or its citizens. After spending so much time studying the place, I've grown rather fond of it. But I worry that many Pakistanis -- and Americans, for that matter -- don't want to hear the bad news.

Look, for example, at the reaction to the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad last month, which may well have been designed to kill Zardari and decapitate the Pakistani government. For a few days, a sense of urgency filled the airwaves; the attack was called "Pakistan's 9/11," a wake-up call to a society facing grave security threats from Islamists and other radicals. But like most wake-up calls in Pakistan, it was soon drowned out by nationalist bombast. Pundits began to argue that it was U.S. pressure on Pakistan to "do more" about al-Qaeda that had gotten the tribal militants and mullahs riled up in the first place. "Now after helping create this chaos," Ayaz Amir, one of the country's most influential columnists, wrote several days after the bombing, the Americans "are expecting the battered state of Pakistan to bestir itself from the ashes and perform miracles." Amazingly, the Marriott attack is now considered the United States' problem, as if that crater in the center of Pakistan's capital magically belonged to another world.

The source of Pakistan's problems can be traced back to the failure of the state's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, to plant deep democratic roots and create a tradition of compromise. After Jinnah's death on Sept. 11, 1948, his successors proved incapable of dealing with the myriad challenges facing the new country.

Confronted with millions of refugees, rising ethnic and sectarian tension and material shortages of every sort, Pakistani leaders quickly turned to the military to restore order. In 1958, the military seized power and set in motion a long string of coups, distracting the country from the crucial task of building a strong state and weakening the civilian governments that occasionally managed to take the reins.

The military has dominated the nation ever since, with disastrous results. The generals helped spark the 1971 civil war that resulted (partly because of Indian intervention) in the creation of Bangladesh. In the 1980s, the military ruthlessly suppressed fratricidal violence in Karachi, the capital city of the southern province of Sindh. Not surprisingly, such moves left deep ethnic fissures in Pakistani society. And the military played with fire again in the 1980s when, following the disastrous lead of dictator Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, it brought more and more Islamist sympathizers into its ranks.

The United States was fully aware of this ugly history when it partnered with the military's intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to launch a holy war to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. That policy funneled billions of dollars to the Pakistani military and greatly expanded its reach -- and its willingness to stoke tensions with Pakistan's old nemesis, India. Starting in 1990, the ISI helped fuel a full-blown, religiously charged insurgency inside the Indian-controlled region of Kashmir. And with India to their east, Pakistan's leaders were eager for a quiet border to their west. That led the ISI to become the leading ally of the Taliban after that band of Islamist zealots came out on top of the nasty civil war that followed the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989.

Nor has the ISI cut its ties to its Afghan friends in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that al-Qaeda plotted from its Taliban-granted haven in southern Afghanistan. Despite Pakistan's angry denials, both India and the United States have now fingered the ISI as the principal instigator of the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul in July.

The ISI's leaders and the generals who run the Pakistani military have been playing a duplicitous game with the United States for nearly two decades. The country's former dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, supposedly chose to break with the Taliban after 9/11. But in fact, the ISI has been against us as often as it has been with us. Pakistan has been accepting vast amounts of U.S. funding and weaponry for supposedly helping the West rout the forces of bin Ladenism even as the ISI has been fueling those very forces in its ongoing drive to gain a strategic foothold in Afghanistan and get the upper hand in the conflict with India.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company