Signs of hope in Pakistan – America's prickly ally

It's difficult to make sense of Pakistan's pulsating political chaos, corruption, and instability. Yet pessimistic views of Pakistan, while endemic in the West, differ considerably from the perspective of Pakistani analysts who cautiously point to half a dozen hopeful developments.

Mohammad Abbas/AP Photo
Pakistani Shiite Muslims condemn killings of passengers in Skurdu, Pakistan, Feb. 28. Gunmen wearing military uniforms stopped a convoy of buses in northern Pakistan on Tuesday, ordered selected passengers to get off, and then killed 16 of them in a grisly sectarian attack, police and a lawmaker said.

Making sense of the pulsating political chaos in Pakistan is at times akin to peering into a kaleidoscope when the colors, crystals, and light are ever shifting, then trying to describe what you saw.

Earlier this month, an increasingly assertive Pakistani Supreme Court indicted the country’s prime minister, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, for contempt because he refuses to reopen a longstanding corruption case against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari.

Just a few weeks before that, Pakistan was swept by rumors of a possible military coup against the president and prime minister. Those rumors were followed by talk of a looming judicial coup led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s Supreme Court.

There is a national joke circulating that the Pakistani Army decided against a coup d’état this time because the generals persuaded the Supreme Court to do their dirty work for them.

Adding to the uncertainty is speculation about whether there will be early elections this year with the countervailing buzz that elections won’t take place until 2013.

And today there are 40 active, functional, television news channels stoking the furnace of speculation and gossip – broadcasting 24/7.

One can sympathize with the US ambassador in Islamabad or the CIA station chief trying to write home reports that stand up for slightly less than the next 48 hours. 

Imagination can run wild amid these political uncertainties and instability. Pakistan has dozens of nuclear bombs. A 2009 Gallup poll showed that nearly 60 percent of the population in this Muslim country believes the United States poses a greater threat than Islamabad’s traditional enemy, India (at only 18 percent). Pakistanis overwhelmingly believe Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks on America.

Yet the US is stuck with Pakistan – in for a penny, in for a pound. Washington’s worst nightmare is the witches’ brew of a Taliban-dominated nuclear Pakistan led by radical mullahs eager to fan the smoldering political embers at home. While a Taliban-dominated Pakistan is probably unlikely, that could change in a nanosecond if an outside power were to meddle in the affairs of the world’s second most populous Islamic country. 

Bruce Riedel, adviser to four US presidents, rightly warns, “The future of the global jihad will be decided in Pakistan more than anywhere else in the world,” making Washington’s quest for political stability in Pakistan an imperative.

But any pessimistic view of Pakistan, while endemic in the West, differs considerably from the perspective of Pakistani analysts who cautiously point to more optimistic scenarios. They cite half a dozen hopeful developments.

1. Despite a weak coalition civilian government, there has been no coup d’état. Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council notes the military has “held back over the last four years, [and is] now gradually stepping back” from the day-to-day political arena. 

2. A resurgent judiciary in Pakistan has emerged as a potent force. In 2007, 2008, and 2009 it played a critical role in driving Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator, from office. In a country where millions are serfs and villeins and humans are occasionally sold like chattel, the Supreme Court increasingly offers a venue for redress of grievances. Mr. Nawaz observes, “The Supreme Court is now being seen as a great opportunity for the people of Pakistan to get a voice.” 

3. There is even a budding moderating trend on Pakistan’s religious landscape. Hassan Abbas, another Pakistani analyst, recently commented that “there is a renewed effort across Pakistan among … [Muslim] clerics to challenge Al Qaeda and the Taliban.” It manifests itself in a reassertion of a more moderate Islam that preaches that suicide bombings are un-Islamic. 

4. Pakistan’s generals, who have thrived for decades by promoting a perceived threat from India, now seem to realize the greater threat is internal terrorism, not to mention the violent secessionist movement in the province of Baluchistan. Professor Abbas observed, “Even the military has signed on to the reality of normalization with India because [if] you normalize with India then the Army can deal with the internal militancy.”

5. The proliferation of broadcast media outlets coupled with an explosion of social media like Facebook are further reshaping the landscape. Now everyone is becoming part of the political process, challenging politicians and government institutions, including the Army. 

6. Finally, the entry of Imran Khan, the national cricket hero, into the political election melee could well meet a genuine public craving for change. Ultimately Mr. Khan’s new political movement could even challenge the stagnant two-party system.

But Moeed Yusuf, a Pakistani journalist, says hope hinges on what he calls “good governance”: the ability of the central government to deliver water, guarantee electricity, and develop civil society so that violence – rape and murder – is not the norm. Without this political stability, democracy in Pakistan remains impermanent at best.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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