Moving Pakistan back from the brink
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.