Pakistan, the state that refuses to fail
By David Pilling
Published: October 20 2010 22:54 | Last updated: October 20 2010 22:54
Just 18 months ago Hillary Clinton declared there was an “existential threat” to Pakistan. The Taliban had occupied the picturesque Swat valley and imposed sharia law only 100 miles from Islamabad. With militancy on the rise in almost every corner of the country and bomb blasts thundering across its cities, the nuclear-armed state did indeed appear to be in peril.
Only weeks after the US secretary of state’s intervention, Pakistani troops poured into Swat. Several hundred militants were killed and more than 2m refugees fled in the biggest internal displacement of people since the Rwandan genocide. The Swat campaign was “a watershed moment”, according to Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab and an ally of the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari. “It was a battle for life and death. If we hadn’t survived that, who knows?”
Who knows indeed. Yet watershed moments are hardly a rarity in Pakistan, a state that lurches from crisis to crisis like a bus stuck in first gear (and lacking brakes and headlights to boot). Since the army imposed a tenuous order on Swat, Pakistan has been buffeted by the mother of all floods, a fresh wave of suicide bombings and what Maleeha Lodhi, former ambassador to the US, calls “layer upon layer of economic crises”.
Yet Pakistan has survived. In its partial victories against Islamist militants it may even have made some kind of progress. It is all too easy to think of Pakistan as a failing – even a failed – state. But it might be better to see it as the state that refuses to fail.
To appreciate just how remarkable this is, cast your mind back to this dangerous year’s catalogue of fire and brimstone. First, following its victory in Swat, the army turned its attention on South Waziristan, bombarding militants in lawless areas bordering Afghanistan. Many considered that an important step, given the well-documented links between the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency and tribal militants, part of Pakistan’s quest for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.
Second, and partly as a result of the army’s offensives, there has been a wave of counter-attacks on hotels, mosques and police stations. Last October, militants mounted a brazen raid on the supposedly impregnable headquarters of the 500,000-strong army. That led to alarm that men with beards and a less-than-glowing feeling towards America were getting perilously close to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Third, Pakistan has had to adapt to a dramatic shift in US policy towards Afghanistan. In December, President Barack Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 extra troops, a military intensification that has sent militants scurrying across the border into Pakistan. Worse from Islamabad’s point of view, the US president has committed to drawing down those troops from next summer, a retreat, if it happens, that would once again leave Pakistan alone in a nasty neighbourhood.
Fourth, the economic outlook remains precarious. Pakistan just about avoided a balance of payments crisis which, at one point, saw its reserves dwindle to just one month’s import cover. But respite has come at the cost of being in hock to the International Monetary Fund, which has extended some $7bn in loans. With tax receipts at a miserable 9 per cent of output, it is unclear how it will make ends meet.
As if these man-made calamities were not enough, Pakistan has been drowning in the worst floods in its history. At one point, no less than one-fifth of the country was under water. Imran Khan, the cricket idol turned politician, describes seeing buffalo swept up in the engorged rivers like pieces of paper. With crops failing, millions made homeless and the threat of disease looming, many warned that the flood would prove the final straw for Pakistan.
Remarkably it has not been. Why not? A partial explanation for Pakistan’s staying power is that it has become an extortionary state that thrives on crisis. Islamabad is well versed in the art of prising cash out of panicked donors by sidling ever-more convincingly towards the abyss. Not even the most ardent conspiracy theorist could accuse Pakistan of manufacturing its own floods. But, as documents released by WikiLeaks confirmed, the state has long maintained a deeply ambiguous relationship with the very elements threatening to tear it apart.
There are more benign explanations too. The strength of civil society has helped. Many refugees from the floods, like those from Swat, have found temporary shelter with the networks of friends and relatives that bind the country together. The army’s response to the floods has also underscored, for better or worse, the efficiency of the state’s best-run institution. Even the civilian administration, weak and discredited as it is, has clung on. If, as now seems plausible, Mr Zardari can survive, power could yet be transferred from one democratically elected administration to another for the first time in Pakistan’s 63-year history.
One should not overstate Pakistan’s resilience. The world is rightly alarmed at the mayhem that rages at its centre. But, if you care to look on the bright side, you might conclude that, if Pakistan can survive a year like this, it can survive anything.