A Foreign Dilemma: Pakistan’s Militant Woes

Last week, the Obama administration hosted Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in Foggy Bottom, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., for talks and friendship-building fun-tivities. Usually, the mutual failure to deal with the Taliban and its associates is a source of tension between the two countries. But on this trip, Pakistan could not deny that it was the primary architect of its latest problems. Luckily, the solution lies within as well.

Recently, Islamic militants openly broke the terms of a much-criticized peace agreement between militants and the Pakistani government, seizing districts that Pakistan had not ceded and imposing their version of Shari’a law in certain areas of the country. The embarrassed government initially responded by trying to restart negotiations with the militants, but instead, the military found itself fighting guerillas numbering in the thousands; thus, it was like a bear wasting its energy to chase off a raccoon.

For most of the Western media, Pakistan’s ongoing war against militants is a fragile display. Will Pakistan finally collapse? Could it be taken over by the Taliban? What of its nuclear weapons? These fears are all exaggerated; the Pakistani state has survived worse. The Islamists’ control of such an area stems from its ability to gain support because of their Pashtun ethnicity, the corruption and sloth of the Pakistani justice system and the fact that people there were adversely affected by Pakistan’s portion of the “War on Terror.”

If Pakistan’s major urban centers were to fall, it would be a different story. But despite the fact that the Pakistani army has clearly been lackadaisical in dealing with the “miscreants” on the peripheries of the country, there is no reason to believe that they would cede urban centers to the Islamists. While the army has certainly dealt questionably with the militants, only a very slim minority among its leadership truly sympathizes with their ideology.

As for the country’s nuclear weapons, there are few analysts who seriously believe that they are insecure at this point, and the American government itself has stated that it believes that they are safe.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all is well. Pakistan faces bleak economic prospects and, despite the fact that the Taliban isn’t about to hoist its flag over Islamabad, the country’s urban centers have proven to be vulnerable to attacks. The Pakistani leadership has proven relatively incapable of producing stability as they bicker among themselves.

Zardari is viewed unfavorably domestically and faces relatively strong opposition from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), a moderately conservative party that has strong support in the Punjab, Pakistan’s most populated and developed province. This party launched a successful protest movement to reinstate Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who was fired by former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in the crisis which eventually led to Musharraf’s political demise.

Between this issue and the slow response to the audacity of the Islamists, Zardari lost most of his already moth-eaten reputation. As the Senate votes on the Kerry-Lugar bill to award Pakistan roughly $7.5 billion in non-military aid over the next five years, there are doubts as to whether Pakistan is capable of using the money effectively, especially given the number of problems it needs to solve. More importantly, there are concerns about the Zardari government’s corruption. In a country where bribery and nepotism are the norm, Zardari acquired an especially infamous reputation, earning the epithet “Mr. 10 Percent.”

Can the United States trust a government headed by this man and the party that supported his ascent based solely on his marriage to the late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto? The answer is that it has little choice. Despite the fact that Zardari’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party, and his opponents in the PML-N are widely recognized as corrupt and tainted by the past, one cannot rob them of the fact that they won elections that are regarded as the first fair ones ever. The U.S. must resign itself to hoping for the best, and expect that Pakistan can continue to hold fair elections that eventually see new leaders rise. Not too long ago this logic would have had a flaw from the American perspective, as the majority of Pakistanis were skeptical of the U.S. and even more so of the war against the Taliban, who were perceived as fellows.

But, auspiciously, Pakistani attitudes have undergone a rapid change after the militants broke the peace deal and videos circulated recently of what life was like under the rule of the Taliban and their cohorts: A woman was flogged repeatedly for being seen in public with a man to whom she was not married. The video provoked outrage throughout Pakistan, and people, somewhat surprisingly, demonstrated against it openly.

The Pakistani government called the video’s circulation a plot to destroy the peace deal, which only further upset human rights activists and liberal pundits. As the Islamist militants spoke of implementing their laws throughout Pakistan and labeled the country’s carefully Islamicized constitution un-Islamic, even conservative religious groups began to speak openly against the violent tactics of the Pakistani Taliban and their associates.

One can’t say with certainty, but it’s likely that it was the public outrage over the militant activity, not any command from the government, that eventually compelled the Pakistani Army to re-enter the fray. The U.S. can feel a little better about giving aid to Pakistan now. It would be premature to say that Pakistan is moving from being a plutocracy to a liberal democracy, but its leadership seems to at least recognize that the battle against Pakistan’s Taliban is its own.

Samier Saeed is a first-year international studies major. He can be reached at ssaeed@uci.edu.