America's image of Pakistan is of a nation on the brink of total chaos. While there is certainly a great deal of instability in Pakistan, a more serious problem is the severe disconnect between the emerging crises in Pakistan and U.S. foreign policy toward the country. Unresolved, this disconnect could have tragic consequences for the security of people in both countries.
According to Washington, the crisis in Pakistan has to do with extremist elements in the northwest region abetting Taliban-friendly forces in Afghanistan. The United States is concerned that these extremist elements could help weaken Afghanistan as well as destabilize Pakistani politics by fanning the flames of anti-Americanism. The Bush administration is also focused on supporting Pakistani President Musharraf, though both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have become increasingly critical of this erstwhile ally. In such a fear-based environment, the United States has conducted several unilateral military strikes within Pakistan, undercutting the country's sovereignty. The most recent strike killed 11 Pakistani soldiers several weeks ago and drew heavy criticism from military and political leaders in Pakistan.
The U.S. characterization of the problems in Pakistan is not accurate. There certainly are extremist elements within the population. These groups and individuals are willing to use violence to achieve ideological goals that go against the grain of human rights and social justice. The day I left Islamabad, for instance, a bomb exploded at the Danish embassy. Just a few days ago, a suicide bomber killed 11 police officers by the Red Mosque complex, a few blocks from my aunt's home. The substantial rise in violence, especially bombings, over the past few years is very real. These groups are also probably aiding Taliban elements in the northwest region of the country, and are attempting to use violence and coercion to destabilize Pakistan.
However, these activities are being done on a very small level by a very small segment of the population. These extremist elements aren't taking over power anytime soon. While Pakistanis are religious, they are, oddly enough, equally secular. It is hard to imagine any scenario in which an "Islamist" group has a chance to sweep into power. In fact, much of the support for the religious groups comes because they are one of the only real voices of opposition to the government.
The U.S. and Pakistani governments have responded to this problem with military means. Meanwhile, they are ignoring several major crises of greater importance. This major disconnect between the U.S. approach and the Pakistani reality holds great potential for tragedy - but therein also lies a great opportunity for transformation.
The Four Crises
On my recent trip to Pakistan, every conversation veered toward one of four issues. These topics also fill most news broadcasts and top the headlines in every newspaper. Pakistanis talk about these issues on the streets, in the markets, and at the masjids.
These issues - the economy, the electricity load sharing, the water shortage, and the political instability - cut across social class, gender, and geography. Hardly anyone talks about extremism. You might catch a mention of extremist actions in the last few minutes of a news broadcast - if you have electricity to watch the news, that is. Although heavily covered in the Pakistani media, these four topics receive virtually no coverage in the U.S. press. U.S. journalists might mention the challenges to Musharraf, but they pay little attention to the flaws of the opposition parties or the Pakistani public's skepticism toward their politicians' abilities. Instead, U.S. coverage has focused almost exclusively on extremist violence. It would not be shocking if the average American thought Pakistan was a lawless war zone filled with terrorist training camps.
The greatest threat Pakistan faces is perhaps economic. The rather miniscule - and shrinking - Pakistani middle class makes perhaps 20-30% of its counterpart in the United States. Most Pakistanis live on much less - the annual GDP per capita is under $3,000. In spite of this, over the past few months, prices for seemingly everything except pirated DVDs have risen sharply. I paid the exact same for meat and vegetables in Karachi as I do in Washington, DC. Consumer products, clothing, apartment rental fees, cars - everything costs virtually the same as it does in the United States.
On their substantially lower salaries, Pakistanis are therefore struggling to make ends meet. Every person I spoke to agreed that this was the worst economic crunch they could recall. Fuel, wheat, and sugar prices keep rising, while the Pakistani rupee has hit record lows. The government recently withdrew subsidies, so food prices rose over 30% for the month of June - a new high. Overall inflation has climbed to over 20%, another record high. Foreign investment is staying away, making an economic recovery even more challenging. The plummeting stock market seems to be on the verge of collapse, even though government-imposed regulations have artificially limited its fall. Simply put, the economic downfall is causing substantial suffering for all Pakistanis, and there seems to be no end in sight.
On top of the economic woes, there is a shortage of both electricity and water. While always an issue in Pakistan, these shortages are substantially worse now. Usually, electricity would be out for an hour or two in some areas, at most once a day. This time, however, power goes out several times a day for anywhere between 5-12 hours, as part of nationwide power load sharing. In Islamabad, the load sharing was on a precise schedule, so people could prepare for it. The shortages were more frequent, but shorter in length - 6 outages a day, all for about an hour. Karachi was far less predictable, and power would usually go out for at least 2-3 hours at a time. As an increasingly industrial country, Pakistan will need more and more power. This point, however, has been lost on the government, which has conducted little research into power generation. Maintenance of current power plants has been delinquent, resulting in many plants running well under 100%. And new power plants were not built at a pace to accommodate the increasing electricity usage.
In addition, water shortages are quite severe right now. Numerous sections of Karachi are getting by with no water at all. Residents of these water-less areas go to nearby neighborhoods in the early morning to steal water. The electricity and the water shortages have combined to cause great health hazards to Pakistanis. They have also made everyday functioning exponentially harder. Additionally, the scale of these problems and the lack of any long-term solutions and short-term relief have greatly increased the population's frustration with the government.
Finally, there is the political instability. This unstable climate is scaring away foreign investment and hurting the economy. The inability of the political parties to work together is also adversely affecting the government handling of the economic, water, and electricity crises. Most Pakistanis I spoke with believed the coalition government would soon collapse, necessitating new elections. Indeed, the two opposition parties, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Although party leaders Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) and AsifZardari (PPP) have met frequently to discuss a wide range of issues, their main point of cohesion has been their opposition to President Musharraf. They have been unable to resolve the status of the judges Musharraf dismissed last November. The president's fate in office is also still up in the air. Sharif has threatened that the PML-N will quit the government if the judges aren't immediately reinstated. He has also been far more adamant about impeaching Musharraf.
Pakistanis are growing more impatient every day as the PPP, PML-N, and PML-Q (Musharraf's party) continue to squabble. None of the leaders is particularly popular. Musharraf's approval rating has slipped into single digits. Pakistanis look at Zardari and Sharif with great skepticism, too, as both have been long attached to corruption and criminal charges. Zardari, or "Mr. 10%" as he is known in Pakistan for his corrupt side-dealings during his late wife Benazir Bhutto's time in power, was accused of masterminding the mafia-style murder of his brother-in-law. These murder charges were only recently dropped when Musharraf granted amnesty to all politicians for these types of charges. Sharif is strongly supported by people in Punjab, Pakistan's richest region and his home. But nationwide, Pakistanis do not remember fondly his days as prime minister. So even though the February elections were a clear indication of public disapproval of Musharraf, the ineffective, uninspiring, and questionable leadership of the opposition parties leaves great doubt as to whether the coalition government can do any better.
An Alternative to Militarism
Although Pakistanis are rather pessimistic these days, these crises in theory present a great opportunity for America to help stabilize Pakistan and alleviate the great suffering of the population. A redistribution of America's resources and manpower in Pakistan could certainly make a big difference in resolving these problems. However, despite the dangerous potential consequences of these crises and Pakistan's geopolitical importance to the United States, Washington is pursuing a military policy in one region of the country instead of addressing the crises that affect the entire country.
Because of the close relationship, currently and historically, between the United States and Pakistan, most Pakistanis hold America somewhat accountable for the current situation. They are all aware that Washington supported military dictators who shunned democracy, freedom, and investment in civil institutions for much of Pakistan's history, just as it does today. While the United States gained a staunch ally to thwart communism and its current cousin, religious extremism, the people of Pakistan gained little, if anything. They view the U.S. focus on extremism in the northwest, as opposed to the four real crises directly affecting all Pakistanis, as myopic and ill-conceived. Current U.S. policy will not stabilize Pakistan. Increased U.S. military aggression will likely have the opposite effect, sweeping Pakistanis already angry at Musharraf and the government into a nationalist, anti-American wave.
At this dark moment in Pakistan, the United States could make a huge difference by pursuing a different policy in the country. A smarter foreign policy would include efforts to stabilize and boost the Pakistani economy by giving Pakistan easier access to U.S. markets and encouraging other allies to increase trade and investment in the country. Additionally, America could provide technical assistance and help finance water and electricity projects to help ease those shortages.
Washington could also take a step back from Musharraf, and support instead the rule of law and the process of democracy in Pakistan. For such efforts to be credible, the United States must also pull back on military operations and vastly increase its non-military aid to Pakistan. The United States bears some responsibility for Pakistan's appalling lack of institutions and infrastructure, for it supported a chain of dictators who neglected building civil institutions in favor of military spending. Such non-military aid could help mitigate the abject poverty that has been exacerbated by the four crises currently crippling the country. A functional welfare system would give Pakistani families some relief, reducing the incentives driving child labor. Aid should also be directed at building a functional national public school system. A quality education in Pakistan requires a lot of money. Schooling in the radical madrasas, which certainly are not all the madrasas, thrives because they are the only place where poor children can receive a free education. An effective public school system would draw children away from these radical madrasas.
Not only would all these steps help alleviate significant suffering within Pakistan, they would also go a long way toward repairing America's image in the country. As it stands, Pakistanis have constructed the United States as a threat. They have responded to that threat by balancing against it whenever and however possible, often through violent means. No matter how many militants the United States strikes down, more will rise up until and unless Pakistanis see the United States as something other than a cruel neo-colonial or neo-imperial power. America's current Pakistan policy, focusing on military action in the northwest region while neglecting the real crises ravaging the country, will only strengthen this perception. If nobody steps in to help soon, Pakistan could collapse. The consequences of that would be grim for everyone.
Fouad Pervez is a writer, actor, policy analyst, and contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). His creative work has focused on racism, youth violence, the prison system, and post-9/11 America, and has been performed on NPR and Pacifica radio, and at the Hip Hop Theater Festival. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2008, Institute for Policy Studies.