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How Pakistan Can Fix Itself

  • and Ayesha Khanna
May 2009 |
The Pakistani government's focus to date has been almost exclusively on military-driven counterinsurgency, but real success requires boosting police recruitment and training while deploying civilian forces to oversee the construction of roads, schools, hospitals, and government offices.
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Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari arrives in Washington this week at a tough time for his country. Gen. David Petraeus has stated that the next two weeks are crucial to Pakistan's survival, while counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen has claimed that the country could collapse within six months. Indeed, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, Pakistan's Army chief of staff, could declare martial law imminently if his military's counteroffensives in the Swat region prove ineffective against the Taliban. But irrespective of whether the Army takes over yet again from civilian authority, Pakistan has been a failure for over a decade, and the essential prescriptions to restore the state apply to both the elected government and the military -- and preferably a coordinated effort between the two.

Pakistan's hubristic and shortsighted leadership has been caught off guard by both the strength of the Taliban and virulent autonomy of militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. The current "wake-up" operations to retake Swat and Buner are crucial, but not decisive. Halting Predator drone strikes against senior al Qaeda and Taliban commanders would be no panacea either because American popularity and public acceptance of the Pakistani Army are already near zero in the tribal areas. Resentments will outlast such tactical switches. A much deeper strategy is needed that simultaneously tackles the political, military, economic, and social dimensions of Pakistan's failure.

It is now the Pakistani government that must actively, but constructively, agitate in restive provinces to regain the upper hand -- or risk losing even its nominal sovereignty over Pashtun-dominated areas forever. On the political level, the National Assembly must pass a constitutional amendment to integrate the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and mandate a fresh round of provincial elections. Only in this way can the government offer an alternative to the hands-off Frontier Crimes Regulation that has abetted the Taliban's rise in authority in the tribal regions. Zardari must also finally sign the Political Parties Act to enable the formation and campaigning of political groups. Together, these steps would constitute an assertion rather than a surrender of sovereignty -- and they would justify a strengthened presence of the Frontier Corps and police to monitor elections in the FATA while forcing the Taliban to consider secular options.

A smarter balance between military and police efforts is also needed. Pakistan should launch its own, indigenous version of the NATO-led provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) that have had some success in maintaining local order, building relationships with district-level authorities, and stimulating small-scale economic activity in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pakistani government's focus to date has been almost exclusively on military-driven counterinsurgency, but real success requires boosting police recruitment and training while deploying civilian forces to oversee the construction of roads, schools, hospitals, and government offices. For its part, the military must now focus on internal defense, disrupting militant networks that have gained strength even in the Punjabi heartland.

Under the forced apathy of ineffective governance, Pakistan's disaffected masses have developed greater tolerance for antigovernment forces such as the Taliban, no matter how intolerant they are. The silent majority is increasingly becoming acquiescent, allowing radicals to find safe haven among them rather than repelling this insidious threat. While wealthy Pashtuns flee Taliban intimidation in Peshawar and some of the elites of Islamabad and Lahore gloomily consider abandoning Pakistan altogether, what remains of the country's educational system and economic resources must be directed toward national stabilization.

Giving millions of mainstream Pakistanis a stake in the economy is the only way for the country to avert a deeper failure. A country in existential crisis does not have the luxury of separate education and labor policies. Twenty million children ages 10 to 17 are not in school, and of the almost 25 million Pakistanis ages 18 to 24, more than half have either not completed school or graduated but remain underemployed. Many in these poor and disenfranchised classes are listless young men; most suicide bombers are the 18- or 19-year-olds who come from their ranks.

The textbook approaches to supporting secondary education don't make sense unless the economy is geared toward employing the educated. So much international research and commentary on Pakistani education has focused on madrasa reform, ignoring the older portion of the population that most needs to be engaged. Vocational schools must get immediate funding to recruit and train able-bodied youth in basic engineering and construction work, and university students should be dispatched to participate in PRTs as well as "Teach for Pakistan" programs. There are many shura councils in the FATA, including even in North Waziristan, that have expressed a desire to receive outside assistance provided it works with them rather than around them.

International assistance must support each of the aforementioned strategies seamlessly, but to date this has not happened. In both Pakistan and Afghanistan, recent years have seen a USAID gravy train of contracts for U.S. and European companies and NGOs with little accountability or effectiveness. Not surprisingly, they have been outspent, at least in terms of effectiveness, by even the 100 rupees per day the Taliban will pay the families of boys from NWFP to join its campaign. The State Department, White House, Congress, and Pentagon are presently at odds over how to certify or validate that Pakistan is spending U.S. assistance on the right purposes -- to say nothing of the $5.3 billion in aid pledges that Pakistan received at the recent donors conference in Tokyo. President Zardari has to use his Washington meetings this week to make progress on spending this money right.

If the protests against the Taliban that have recently rippled across Pakistan are any indication, the elite are becoming quite vocal. Now this sliver of Pakistan's population must mobilize with the help of its government, the international community, the rest of the country, and Pakistan's extensive diaspora. Pakistan has been unhelpfully called the "most dangerous country in the world." Its citizens must now decide if that is the case.

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