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Is Pakistan a Failing State?

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 16, 2009

    In recent months the international media has focused on the issue of Pakistan becoming a failed state soon. A top US counter terrorism expert David Kilcullen who advised David Petreaus in Iraq on counter terrorism strategy has opined that Pakistan may fail within six months. Concerns about stability in Pakistan became more acute when Taliban began their advance out of Swat towards Punjab earlier this year. The media highlighted the fragility of Pakistan by pointing out that the Taliban had come within 100 miles of Islamabad. Since then the Pakistan army has launched massive military operations and recaptured Swat and a few towns that had been taken over by the Taliban earlier.

    President Zardari has repeatedly said that Pakistan is facing an existential threat from the radicals. He wants Western countries to recognise that Pakistan is fighting to make the world safe. He wants more Western assistance to fight radicalism. He has warned that Pakistan is not a failed state but may become one if the West does not help, though he has discounted the possibility that Pakistan will fail immediately. He says that a 170-million strong nation cannot be defeated by a few thousand radicals.

    Noted Pakistan experts like Ahmed Rashid have long argued that Pakistan is failing. They point to a number of reasons for that. The government’s writ does not run in about 11 per cent of territory, most especially in NWFP and Balochistan. Ethnic and sectarian tensions are rising. The Taliban’s influence in Punjab is on the increase. Provinces are at loggerheads with the centre. The country’s economy is in a mess. The mishandling of the current refugee crisis created due to military operations in Swat will further raise ethnic tensions.

    However, many Pakistanis have pooh-poohed the idea of a failing Pakistan pointing out that experts have been talking of a failed Pakistan since the sixties. They say that the Taliban will never be allowed to take over Punjab and Sindh where there are strongly entrenched elites that will resist the numerically inferior Taliban. The strong and professional army, recent successes in restoration of democracy, the growing strength of the media and civil society are cited as proof that the notion of a failing Pakistan is exaggerated.

    The truth of course lies somewhere in between these two extreme views. Pakistan has not failed in the sense in which Somalia has. Nor is it in such a danger of collapse, as for instance North Korea is. Pakistani institutions of governance are still functioning but they are under stress. Pakistan suffers from several weaknesses which could lead to its further weakening.

    The fact is that Pakistan will not be allowed to fail. The US is fighting a war in Afghanistan but it is dependent upon Pakistan for doing that. Obama’s AF-Pak strategy will pour billions of dollars into Pakistan in the next few years to save it from collapsing. A collapsed Pakistan will be a nightmare for the US and the region. The US fears that Al Qaeda could launch attacks against the US from Pakistani territory. An even greater fear is that Pakistani nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of radicals. Thus, it is imperative for the US to stabilise Pakistan. It is a different matter whether Af-Pak strategy ends up stabilising Pakistan or it makes Pakistan even more unstable.

    In 1999 when Musharraf came to power through a military coup, the Pakistan economy was at the brink. After 9/11, Musharraf, in a spectacular about turn, made Pakistan the frontline state in the US war on terrorism. Once again Pakistan is the centrepiece of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy. Bush poured $11.9 billion into Pakistan, of which nearly 80 per cent was in military aid. Some of this money was used to buy military hardware which can be used only against India. The aid did not help in making Pakistan more stable. Under Obama, the US will give $1.5 billion every year for the next five years in civilian aid. This is three times the amount Bush gave as civil aid to Pakistan. In addition, Pakistan will get several billion dollars in coalition support aid. It remains to be seen how this money will be used by Pakistan.

    Musharraf went after Al Qaeda but did nothing to restrain the Taliban with whom he did controversial deals. The recent military operations in Swat have been carried out under US pressure. The operations are suspect as the Taliban were the creation of the Pakistan army and government. The operations have resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis. Some 3.5 million people have been displaced from their homes. Pakistan will use the refugee crisis to elicit more international sympathy and assistance. Musharraf used to tell the West that he had gone after the Al Qaeda. Zardari will tell the West that he has taken on the Taliban. Musharraf got Western attention and assistance. Zardari will also get Western assistance and sympathy. Thus, Pakistan might be saved, temporarily at least.

    Despite military action against the Taliban, Pakistan’s attitude towards terrorism remains ambiguous. It has done precious little to bring to book the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks. Hafeez Mohammad Saeed, the leader of Markaz ud Dawa, the parent of LeT, has been released. Terror groups from Punjab and PoK are regarded as assets against India. Moreover, Pakistan continues to regard India and not the Taliban as the major security threat.

    The seeds of long term instability in Pakistan have been sown. The military has once again become stronger after the Swat operations although it is not certain how its internal cohesion has been affected. The army has about 20 per cent Pushtuns. The operations against the Taliban who are also Pushtuns may affect the morale within the army.

    Taliban may be on the retreat in some areas. But they are not defeated. The Pakistan army may get bogged down in fighting a long term insurgency. Already there has been a sharp increase in terror attacks within Pakistan. The Taliban have staged spectacular attacks in Lahore, Peshawar, Nowshera, Dera Isamil Kahan and other parts of the country.

    The internal crisis in Pakistan could not have come at a worse time. The Pakistan economic survey for 2008-2009, released recently, shows that the economy is in recession. Inflation is still at a high 22 per cent. GDP has grown by only 2 per cent. GDP growth has been helped by a 4.7 per cent growth in the agriculture sector. But the Industrial sector shrank by 3.3 per cent while the Services sector grew by only 3.6 per cent. Revenue collection has been below the target. Pakistan’s balance of payments, current account deficit and trade deficit have deteriorated, though the IMF assistance has helped. External debt has gone up to $51 billion. Pakistan is expecting $2 billion from the Friends of Democratic Pakistan (FODP) group and about $550 million for refugee rehabilitation in the next fiscal year. FODP has promised Pakistan over $5 billion in assistance. Pakistan is also contemplating to approach the IMF for an additional facility of $4 billion if FODP assistance does not come through. Pakistan seems to be getting dependent upon external aid and assistance for survival.

    The US cannot afford to openly describe Pakistan as a failed state. Richard Holbrooke in a congressional testimony sought to underplay the “failed state” description, though he used words that conveyed a similar meaning. He said, “We do not think that Pakistan is a failed State. We think it's a State under extreme test from the enemies who are also our enemies and who have the same common enemy -- the United States and Pakistan." Holbrooke seems to accept that Pakistan is under severe pressure. That could test its strength in the near future. If Pakistan has not become a failed state it is because it has always been saved by the West from becoming one. How long will this continue remains to be seen?

    Obama in a public speech had described Pakistan as “fragile”. That sums up the situation quite accurately. The outlook for the near, medium and long terms seems bleak. Pakistan may not become a failed state as yet but it remains in danger of becoming one. It is an epicentre of terrorism and unstable. The Pakistan army may get bogged down in a long drawn Taliban insurgency. This situation is likely to continue into the near future. Much will depend upon how the US and Western assistance flows into Pakistan and how the government handles the multiple crises it is facing.