Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Trends and Troubles in Pakistan

Current, rather bizarre, manoevring in Pakistani politics, with ex-Prime Ministers arriving and being re-deported in a matter of hours, might suggest some kind of high-stakes, top-level politics. A struggle between different leaders hoping to control the future of Pakistan. My impression is that the high-profile struggles over leadership are a lot less important than underlying trends that will, eventually, make all this Machiavellian scheming appear rather trivial.

The struggle for power in Pakistan is not as life or death as it looks. It is essentially between a political class tied up with the feudal system and hopelessly corrupt and a military leadership which has not delivered the progress to justify itself as a Chinese-style "just let us get on with it" dictatorship. None of the Pakistanis I speak to think there is much chance of a revolution, the military is too strong, but if other military leaders feel Musharraf does not have the popularity they will replace him and probably bring the democrats back to rebuild the state's legitimacy. Little of substance will change and the military will remain in the wings ready to take over if things screw up again. Like Turkey but without the Turkish army's sense of purpose. The Pakistani military prefers suspect projects like the nuclear programme and the Taleban to being a high-minded guardian of secularism.

The real change will come from the bottom up. Divide Pakistan (and this is a gross simplification, it's a complex country) into two areas. The central areas dominated by the big cities and the borders. In the borders what Gideon Rachman called Talebanisation continues apace. I have spoken to Pakistanis who suggest this might not be as bad as it sounds. The alternative is regular, venal feudalism and the authorities just need to stamp on the more violent, Al Qaeda linked elements. I think that signs of the majority being threatened into radicalism suggest storms brewing; it's a pattern we've seen elsewhere from Algeria to Palestine. There is also the ongoing struggle with Baluchistan's independence movement and the border with Afghanistan which seriously stretch military resources. This will mean that if the radicalisation of the borders turns into something dangerous, suicide bombings suggest it might, it will be very hard for the Pakistani state to do anything about it. If the state loses control an opportunity will open for a new force to come in, deliver its own form of order and claim a dangerous authority like the Taleban did in Afghanistan.

The other trend is in the cities. Again Islamist parties are doing well. They are credited with clearing up corruption where they are able to which has, for example, allowed Karachi to enjoy a quiet boom. However, the confidence I hear when I talk to Pakistanis about this: that if the Islamists go too far there will be a popular backlash seems overly optimistic to me. Getting rid of Islamists is harder than it sounds.

I worry about what is happening to Pakistan. You should too. The rise of Islamism in Pakistan is deeply connected to the rise of radical Islam in Britain. A collapse in Pakistan's cohesion could lead to a wave of immigration and radicalisation of Britain's Muslim community. Pakistan's problems should very much concern us.


Gracchi said...

Matt great points. I agree with you about the importance of it all- especially the British angle. One other angle to consider is that one of Musharref's real achievements has been the detente with India- but if some of Pakistan slipped out of control and rogue elements in Kashmir problems there things could get very hot. We ought to remember that Pakistan is a nuclear power as well which makes things very dangerous indeed. John Bolton was on Radio 4 the other day and said rightly that our chief strategic interest in Pakistan is to make sure the command and control of those weapons isn't lost, number two was the Taliban don't reassert themselves in th enorth and number three is the Indian question- I think number two is seriously threatened and any furhter collapse could cause problems for number three hwich opens up a can of worms on number one.

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