At Tuesday’s State Department briefing, spokesman Robert Wood — admittedly speaking quickly, and off the cuff — said the following about Pakistan, when asked about the political tensions between President Asif Ali Zardari and his rival, Nawaz Sharif:
“It’s a complex country. It’s got a major problem that it’s dealing with, and that’s called terrorism.”
I don’t mean to criticize Wood, because I’m sure he knows better. But the fact is, Pakistan’s “major problem” is not “terrorism.” The real problem that Pakistan has is that it’s entire political system is broken: for nearly half a century, it’s been ruled by the military; its political parties are utterly ineffective, having functioned for decades as fiefdoms for two families, the Bhuttos and the Sharifs; and the country is desperately poor, in fact, virtually bankrupt, and its population is being pushed to the brink of desperation. Yes, it’s plagued by a terrorist movement, too, but the threat from the Pakistani Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies is nowhere close to existential — that is, radical Muslims are not about to seize power in Islamabad.
The idea that Pakistan’s “major problem” is “terrorism” is the chief shortcoming of US policy toward Pakistan. For nearly a decade, the United States has viewed Pakistan exclusively through the counterterrorism lens. Very few Pakistanis see terrorism as their chief problem, and they quite rightly criticize the United States for demanding that Pakistan make terrorism its first priority. For Pakistanis, the top priorities are economic development and political stability.
Take politics first. The political showdown pitting Zardari against the Sharif brothers is not new. They’ve been bitter rivals for decades. They represent two clans, both corrupt. As Tariq Ali writes in his book, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, politics in Pakistan is a “desert [and] not even an imaginary oasis is in sight.” It will take a generation, at least, for Pakistan to develop the rudiments of democratic political institutions, including healthy, grassroots-based political parties with legitimate constituencies. At present, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) — the party of Zardari and the Bhuttos — which once upon a time had the potential to become a real, democratic party representing Pakistani intellectuals, workers, and students, is a corrupt shell. And the Muslim League, an echo of the original party of Muslim nationalists that founded Pakistan in 1947, has split into pieces and its major chunk is a corrupted tool for Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, two brothers.
There is a thriving political class in Pakistan, especially among the professions — above all, the lawyers — and among students, who could provide the seeds for rebuilding democracy in Pakistan. The powerful movement in favor of restoring the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, to office is only one sign of the power of that movement. But for the pro-democracy movement in Pakistan to grow, for it to take over one or both of Pakistan’s two dominant political parties — or to create new ones — will take a long time. And it will only occur if two conditions are met: first, the Pakistani military must stay out of politics and allows the political class to reassert itself; and, second, the crippling economic crisis in Pakistan must be eased. Pakistan was already wobbling when it was hit by the oil price increase of 2007-2008 and then by the worldwide economic crisis since last summer. It’s now a basket case, and it will take a Marshall Plan — with not only the United States, but China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other friends of Pakistan — pitching in to help.