Mov­ing Pak­istan back from the brink

The Pak Banker - - Editorial - Har­lan Ull­man

Pak­istan needs con­crete signs of US sup­port. The US needs con­crete signs of Pak­istani com­mit­ment in tak­ing on the Afghan Tal­iban and mak­ing the govern­ment more func­tional.

To many ob­servers, Pak­istan has long been at the brink of an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis, much of it due to a grow­ing in­sur­gency ex­ac­er­bated by the war in Afghanistan. But now the econ­omy is in cri­sis too. The cat­a­strophic floods have im­ploded the strug­gling econ­omy, rais­ing the spec­tre of fright­en­ing con­se­quences. Com­pound­ing that cri­sis is un­cer­tainty over IMF loans needed to sus­tain the econ­omy. Mean­while, par­lia­ment is dead­locked over a sales tax to raise desperately needed rev­enue for the govern­ment.

Last week's loss of a small part­ner (JUI-F) in the coali­tion for al­most comedic rea­sons un­der­scored the se­ri­ous­ness of these crises. More shocks and warn­ings are bound to fol­low, es­pe­cially af­ter the re­lease of the White House Afghan re­view last week. Elim­i­nat­ing so-called Tal­iban sanc­tu­ar­ies in western Pak­istan was a cen­tral con­clu­sion of that re­view. The Chair­man of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ad­mi­ral Mike Mullen, re­it­er­ated that point in his lat­est visit to Pak­istan. The White House will in­crease pres­sure on the Pak­istani govern­ment to act. Pak­istan has a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent as­sess­ment, one that could put both coun­tries on a col­li­sion course.

The game clock is tick­ing for Pak­istan and the US. A po­ten­tial po­lit­i­cal cri­sis is likely to reach a head in the com­ing months in Pak­istan with the prospect of top­pling the govern­ment coali­tion headed by the Pak­istan's Peo­ple's Party (PPP). And the fail­ure or suc­cess of NATO and the US in Afghanistan re­mains very de­pen­dent on Pak­istani sup­port, which may not be sus­tained by a dif­fer­ent govern­ment.

By late sum­mer or early fall, Washington will be­come ob­sessed with the 2012 elec- tions. At that stage, and with eco­nomic con­di­tions in Pak­istan de­te­ri­o­rat­ing, the PPP could lose a no-con­fi­dence vote and/or the Pak­istani Mus­lim League-N (PML-N) headed by twice Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif could call for a mid-year elec­tion. An elec­tion may pro­duce a hung par­lia­ment sim­i­lar to what hap­pened in Iraq. A PML-N vic­tory means a PML-N prime min­is­ter and PPP pres­i­dent - a recipe for dis­as­ter. The win­ning cam­paign slo­gan for the PML-N (and Nawaz is no friend of the US) re­in­forc­ing the pub­lic's re­sent­ment of Preda­tor strikes and the bur­den the war on ter­ror has im­posed on it as well as re­dress of acute short­ages of food, potable wa­ter and elec­tric­ity will be: 'Preda­tors, PPP and the US out'!

Mak­ing mat­ters worse, Washington-Is­lam­abad re­la­tions are filled with po­lit­i­cal IEDs. The most re­cent IED ex­plo­sion was the exit of the CIA sta­tion chief in Is­lam­abad af­ter his name be­came pub­lic. Ex­pect more to fol­low.

Clearly, the White House has le­git­i­mate griev­ances over Pak­istani re­luc­tance to con­front the Afghan Tal­iban, end en­demic cor­rup­tion and im­prove weak gov­er­nance. Pak­ista­nis re­gard Washington as un­re­spon­sive and in­sen­si­tive to their needs and sac­ri­fices. Since the top­pling of the Afghan Tal­iban nine years ago, the US's war on ter­ror has cost Pak­istan more than 35,000 civil­ian and mil­i­tary ca­su­al­ties with nearly 12,000 dead - far more than the num­ber of Amer­i­cans killed on Septem­ber 11th and in Iraq and Afghanistan - and has de­prived its econ­omy of many bil­lions of dol­lars. The Kerry-Lu­garBer­man Act has, so far, sent only a tiny frac­tion of the promised to­tal of $ 7.5 bil­lion, miserly com­pared to what the US has given to oil-rich Iraq and Afghanistan. Add to this a highly sus­pect, ag­gres­sive and of­ten ir­re­spon­si­ble me­dia and the Supreme Court's Chief Jus­tice with grandiose views of his role; the dangers of Pak­istani in­sta­bil­ity are hard to un­der­state.

These con­di­tions can be re­versed. But this re­quires dra- matic, bold, sweep­ing and prompt ac­tion by both sides. First, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Pres­i­dent Asif Zar­dari need to meet and meet soon. That meet­ing can­not be a stroll around the Rose Gar­den. An in­ti­mate and suf­fi­ciently lengthy ex­change to reach an agree­ment on the steps to be taken is es­sen­tial. Pak­istan needs con­crete signs of US sup­port. The US needs con­crete signs of Pak­istani com­mit­ment in tak­ing on the Afghan Tal­iban and mak­ing the govern­ment more func­tional. Tex­tile tar­iff re­lief and im­me­di­ately be­gin­ning the trans­fer of 100 or so com­bat he­li­copters and other mil­i­tary equip­ment to Pak­istan will show Amer­i­can bona fides.

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