Walter Russell Mead
The news from Pakistan remains dire. The flood waters now sweeping toward the Arabian Gulf have been far more devastating and the destruction more widespread than anyone predicted. They have cruelly exposed many of Pakistan’s glaring weaknesses: its corrupt feudal elite, its corrupt and ineffective bureaucracy, its lack of infrastructure, its weak civil society, and the presence (unsurprising given the decades long failures of the country’s public and private institutions to do their job) of radical religious extremism and terrorism emerging from the rage and despair of a people betrayed by its leaders.
The long term outlook is not good. Pakistan has failed yet again to educate a rising generation of children and the population is rising faster than the country can find jobs. While the IPCC may have overstated the problem of glacier melt, long term trends point to a decline in the flow of the rivers on which Pakistan depends. The growing power gap between Pakistan and India (the world’s two most hostile nuclear powers) is likely to destabilize the geopolitical environment for some time to come. The slow but inexorable decay of the Pakistani state, the rise of separatism in some parts of the country, and a depressingly long list of other problems greatly complicate the task of those in Pakistan and abroad who would like to help.
Flooding in Punjab Province, Pakistan (UN).
Beset by so many problems from so many different sources, Pakistanis struggle to make sense of their country and the world. Conspiracy theories are rife; the raucous and rambunctious media (especially the Urdu media) is better at expressing anger than analysis. A strong civil society is struggling to emerge, but the enormous internal disparities in wealth and education make it hard for strong and effective groups to emerge. Like idealistic 19th century Russian aristocrats and students, the educated idealists who direct many Pakistani social movements are so distant from the world of the poor that their efforts, commendable and well intentioned as they may be, are often irrelevant to the problems of the masses.
A recent example shows how this works. While I was in Pakistan, there was massive press coverage of “Diplomagate.” Pakistani law requires that members of parliament must have college degrees. It turns out that dozens of legislators had fake degrees, and the Good Government crowd raised holy hands in horror. It wasn’t just that the fake graduates were what in the American South we used to call ‘pig-ignorant,’ though some of them were. It was that they had perjured themselves to take their seats. There was a mass hue and cry to detect the fakers, expel them from parliament, and even to recover the salaries and expenses they were paid under false pretenses.
OK and fair enough, but a law that requires MPs to have university degrees doesn’t make much sense in a country where half the population can’t read at all and most adults have less than four years of school. And Americans can’t help but reflect that neither George Washington, Benjamin Franklin nor Abraham Lincoln could have taken a seat in the Pakistani legislature. More, a political class that prioritizes this law while tolerating the state’s decades long failure to build a strong national primary school system and the persistence of much graver illegalities like the existence of up to a million bonded workers (slaves, many children, many brutalized and abused) clearly has its head screwed on wrong. The efforts of the educated, professional minority to limit the access of the great unwashed to positions of power and prestige is fought at every level of the Pakistani economy. Licenses, credentials, certificates, degrees: useful and necessary as all these can be, in the context of Pakistan’s gross and immoral educational inequality they are instruments of discrimination and privilege. The educated elites mobilize rapidly and effectively against abuses that threaten their privilege; it is harder to get traction for causes that would benefit the masses.
Worse, the leading Pakistani political parties are sinkholes of political corruption, dominated by wealthy (or soon to be wealthy) leaders and cliques. Modern Pakistani history is in part the story of incompetent and corrupt civilian governments (like the current one) driving the country so crazy through failure and corruption that the nation is practically begging the military to step in and clean up the mess. Then, inevitably, when the military doesn’t govern well and the corruption and repression of military rule grow unbearable, the nation demands the return of the rotten politicians. Hailed as heroes, the politicians return — and immediate initiate another cycle of failure and rejection.
Pakistanis are very good at explaining how all this is America’s fault; unfortunately they aren’t very good at breaking the cycle of state failure.
None of this means that Pakistan is doomed — and there are a lot of good things happening there. But given the immense scope of the country’s problems and the limits on the ability of Pakistani civil society to address the country’s deep fault lines, it is useless to expect a rapid turnaround. For some time to come, Pakistan seems likely to continue to experience difficult times, religious and political violence, and economic under-performance. The unhappiness of various groups in Pakistan with this situation will express itself in turmoil of various kinds. The country is unlikely to succumb to the kind of religious hysteria that installed Khomeini in Iran, but it will experience continuing violence at the hands of radical groups. Various forms of political ideology based on the idea that a ‘pure’ Islamic revival could rebuild society — some quite benign and even positive, some fanatical and violent — will, in the absence of other ideological possibilities, continue to spread even among the countries scientists and military officers.
The question many Americans have is a natural one at this point. Pakistan is going to hell in a hand basket. Should America care — and if we do care, is there anything useful that we can actually do?
The first question is the easiest to answer. Given Pakistan’s geographical position on the borders of Afghanistan and Iran, the country’s nuclear program, the long and deep connection between elements of the state and terror groups, the United States has no choice. What happens in this country matters to us. The costs of helping Pakistan get on its feet are significantly less than the costs of living with its continued and ultimately catastrophic decline. There are moral and humanitarian reasons why we should care as well: more than 170 million people created by God live in this country, half of them illiterate, some of them living in actual slavery and most of them poor. Unless we want to align ourselves with Cain (“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked God after murdering his brother Abel), we need to take heed.
Skeptics argue that while the moral problem will remain, there are changes in American policy that could diminish the strategic relevance of Pakistan to American foreign policy. Disengaging from Afghanistan and finding a modus vivendi with Iran would reduce America’s exposure to Pakistan’s problems. Maybe the US should worry more about that, and less about propping up Pakistan.
Unfortunately, it is easier to imagine these policies than to put them in place. Wanting to exit from Afghanistan and wanting to end the confrontation with Iran doesn’t get you very far. Unless the Taliban and the mullahs are willing to help (and so far, they aren’t) we are going to have to keep toughing it out for a while. Additionally, the India-Pakistan conflict cannot be ignored given its impact on wider US interests in the Middle East and Asia — and the Pakistani establishment is very good at brinkmanship, manufacturing crisis as a way of forcing US attention and aid.
I have heard some American thinkers express, quietly and privately, the view that maybe we should do what many Pakistanis already fear we are doing: fully and frankly turn to India as a substitute for Pakistan as our regional partner in central Asia including Afghanistan. India, say these thinkers, is more sincerely attached to the chief US goal of preventing this part of the world serving as a terrorist base and Pakistan is in any case a hopeless basket case. Many Afghans hate and distrust the Pakistanis — widely blamed for supporting the Taliban and generally suspected of interfering and seeking to dominate. Working around Pakistan by engaging with India, China and Russia (and, hopefully, ultimately Iran) in the region is a better long term strategic choice.
I don’t think we are ready to work around and even work against Pakistan, partly again because it is easier to imagine a diplomatic shift like this than to develop a set of workable policies that could bring it about in a reasonably effective and beneficial way, and partly because the danger of an isolated Pakistan going rogue should not be ignored. Pakistan may not have a lot of ability to make our world a better place, but it has a significant party pooping power that we need to respect. Nuclear program, terror links, geopolitically sensitive location: it’s a bad mix, but it’s real.
For all these reasons we need to care about Pakistan’s success — but we should not let the Pakistanis think they have a blank check. Whatever the consequences, we cannot underwrite Pakistan’s failure forever. Continuing Pakistani weakness and progressive state failure could change the American calculation — and Pakistanis need to know that. Indeed, part of any serious plan for helping Pakistan involves getting the Pakistani establishment, civil and military, to understand just how much trouble they are in and how urgently the country needs change. Americans shouldn’t threaten and browbeat Pakistan, but Pakistanis do need to understand that failure has to stop sometime, and that if Pakistan won’t or can’t move decisively to improve its situation, even its best friends can’t help it.
Realistically, Americans cannot care more about Pakistan than Pakistanis do. If Pakistanis are hellbent on seeing the country go downhill, we can’t stop the slide. If the military elite is committed to a doomed strategy against India that progressively impoverishes the country and distorts its development, we can argue the case with them, but we cannot force them to change their minds — and we cannot spare them the consequences of the inevitable failure. If the country’s educated classes are more interested in looting the state, exploiting the poor and maintaining the stranglehold of rural elites than in developing the country and building its future, we cannot change their minds — and we cannot protect them from the domestic and international consequences of their suicidal choice.
Emotionally, many Pakistanis will be enraged by this line of thinking, pointing out (with some justice) that past and current US policy in the region has greatly complicated Pakistan’s life. The social upheaval and economic consequences of the Afghan wars present and past, the invasion of Iraq and many other US policies large and small have significantly worsened the economic and political situation in Pakistan. This may be true, but the responsibility for Pakistan’s future still lies in Pakistan’s court. If Pakistan comes up with a serious and realistic strategy for national recovery and development, the United States can and should help. If it doesn’t, nothing the United States can do will stop the rot — and Pakistan’s diplomatic position and geopolitical interests cannot be indefinitely insulated from the consequences of domestic decline.
Most US thinkers continue to believe, correctly in my view, that America’s vital interests are best served by the emergence of a stable, prosperous and secure Pakistan and that even as we pursue shorter term goals in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the best way to stabilize the region and secure our interests involves a long term focus on the health and stability of the Pakistani state. But the United States must avoid getting trapped in a dysfunctional and enabling relationship with Pakistan’s elites. If a strategically myopic military and a rent-addicted economic elite are truly determined to lock the country into its current destructive and unsustainable course, the US will have to consider alternative ways to safeguard its regional interests.
For the present emergency, the United States should unleash the full power of humanitarian aid without regard to the long term issues. It is the right thing to do, and it is the best way to create favorable conditions for the kind of serious, no holds barred strategic discussions that the US and Pakistan need.
Going forward, the United States will have to find ways to make clear that Pakistanis will determine the future course of our relations. We should work seriously and contribute generously towards a far-reaching program of national renewal and change; we should not lift a finger for a failing status quo.
In a couple of future posts I’ll offer some suggestions about how the US can most usefully work to help Pakistan toward a workable national strategy and what kind of diplomacy and aid might make sense. Pakistan presents the United States with some of the most urgent and most intractable policy problems we face anywhere in the world. Helping Pakistan find its feet and move toward sustainable economic and social development would help stabilize a vital region, strike a massive blow against violent religious extremism, reduce the global danger of nuclear war and improve tens of millions of lives.
These goals are worth working for. But success won’t be easy and at the end of the day we can’t control the outcome. On my last visit to Pakistan I found myself often thinking about the old joke: how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one, but the light bulb must want to change