Analysis & Opinions - The Scotsman

Behind the Headlines: Azeem Ibrahim, Research Fellow at the International Security Programme at Harvard University

| February 5, 2009

International Security Program Research Fellow Azeem Ibrahim analyzes why the Obama administration's foreign policy must include Pakistan.

ALL the attention on Barack Obama's attempts to increase international troop numbers in Afghanistan threatens to obscure the grave situation facing Pakistan. Increasing threats to its integrity on the economic, political, and military fronts may constitute the biggest existential risk it has faced in its 61-year history. The Obama administration must factor this into its foreign policy strategy.

The first threat is the potential Balkanisation of Pakistan. The growing Pakistani Taleban's strategic objective in the northern provinces is to create a new Sharia state. This would probably embolden other nationalist groups which, sidelined in the Musharraf era, now see new opportunities from a weaker central government. The predominantly Punjabi make-up of the security services would make it especially difficult for them to secure nuclear sites in breakaway provinces. In this scenario, some of Pakistan's 50-odd nuclear warheads would be devastatingly vulnerable.

After the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan threatened to abandon the fight against militants and move troops to its Indian border. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country's main intelligence body, has even said if it carried out this threat, it would then enlist the Pakistani Taleban to help fight India. Doing so would give radicals de facto power in the regions bordering Afghanistan, and provide another safe haven for al-Qaeda and the Taleban to train and recruit. The international community would not be able to intervene effectively; stabilising a fractious country over five times the size of Iraq would take more than a million troops.

The second is economic. Despite the confirmation of a $7.6 billion IMF loan, Pakistan's economy is on the edge. A 23 per cent inflation rate, negative real interest rates and food shortages are fuelling popular discontent. The currency has declined 25 per cent in a few weeks, foreign exchange reserves have dropped 75 per cent over the last year, and the IMF loan was the only thing preventing the government from bankruptcy.

The third is political. Since its inception, Pakistan has alternated between democracy and dictatorship. The constitution remains a divisive issue. Part of the problem is General Pervez Musharraf revoked the power for the provinces to elect their own leaders. Now, President Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistani Peoples' Party has promised to reinstate them as part of a wider effort to undo Musharraf's constitutional changes. The problem is that granting the provinces their former level of political autonomy would be a blow to Pakistan's already fragile integrity and hinder a unified Pakistani response to terrorism by empowering governors with radically different perceptions of the problem.

The fourth is military. Even if it has often disrupted the political process, the Pakistani military has traditionally been a stable institution. It now faces huge problems which would compromise its ability to deal with a Pakistani break-up. Many elements in both the military and the ISI are sympathetic to the Taleban and other radicals.

The army is engaged in a protracted war in the tribal areas that it does not fully believe it can win, and there is little evidence of a coherent strategy.

The new US administration must recognise that no less than Pakistani territorial integrity is at stake. Getting Pakistan back on its feet is essential not just for the security and wellbeing of its 170 million people, but for American national security too.

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For Academic Citation: Ibrahim, Azeem.“Behind the Headlines: Azeem Ibrahim, Research Fellow at the International Security Programme at Harvard University.” The Scotsman, February 5, 2009.