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Home > News > Columnists > Harold A Gould

Barak Obama and the Pakistan conundrum

October 29, 2007

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During a recent Democratic debate in Chicago, candidate Barak Obama became the first serious contender for the Presidency of the United States to utter the unspeakable concerning this country's relationship with Pakistan. The unspeakable in this case pertains to the fact that since the War on Terrorism began Pakistan under General Pervez Musharraf [Images] has really been not so much part of the solution to terrorism and Islamic extremism as part of the problem, because he and his military and feudal zealots are standing in the way of the country's badly needed social reform and democratisation.

Obama characterised things accurately when he implied that Pakistan has accomplished next to nothing with respect to extruding Al Qaeda [Images] from their Waziristan sanctuaries. He then stated categorically that if after he becomes President Osama bin Laden is ever located within Pakistani territory he will order US forces to take him out whether Musharraf (or his successor) approves of it or not.

Understandably, this caused a stir in Islamabad, and has prompted Obama's rivals in both political parties to accuse him of all the usual things that are standard fare for political rivals in search of an electoral advantage. The principal and most predicable charge, of course, is that Obama's 'inexperience' has prompted him to advocate precipitous military action within the borders and against the wishes of America's most 'steadfast' non-NATO ally in South Asia, and that taking such action would fatally 'destabilise' a country that already teeters on the brink of political disintegration; one that might succumb to Islamic fundamentalism if Musharraf falls and take its nuclear arsenal with it into the terrorist camp.

One hopes that Obama will not, out of fear of being branded 'politically immature', succumb to these scare tactics. For the facts, and especially the historical record, support the proposition that Obama may be onto something here.

There is just as good a chance that a decisive stance on rooting out Osama from Waziristan with surgical military strikes, or whatever else it takes, might indeed more credibly push Pakistan's military junta (the real power in that country) toward reconciliation, or at least accommodation, with the country's demographically predominant civil society than into the arms of the demographically minuscule lunatic fringe that lurks in the back alleys of the country's urban centres and cowers in Himalayan caves.

Most experts (like Rashid Ahmad Ali Dayan Hasan) will tell you that the capacity of the latter to gain control of Pakistan in a political showdown with the country's civilian, secular oriented political mainstream has been vastly exaggerated by the military elite now in control of Pakistan. Because it is they who have the most to gain by maintaining the present status quo.

'The Pakistan military,' said Ali Dayan Hasan, 'has a long and well-documented history of prioritising its economic empire,' and that this takes precedence over any ideological considerations. They and their civilian cohorts currently own almost half of the Pakistan economy and thus have a vested interest in maintaining their political and economic dominance by depicting themselves as the country's indispensable political saviors. In their effort to hold onto power they have been willing to work both sides of the street -- pressing the extremists just enough to keep the Americans on the string while still allowing them enough slack to pursue their fundamentalist agenda from their Pashtun base of operations.

But the military's vested interest in the country's economic mainstream, and the materialism and consumerism that goes with it, acts as a strong deterrent to this essentially Westernised class seriously conforming themselves to the 9th century lifestyle which goes with Taliban socio-religious orthodoxy. 

This being the case, if Obama as President should carry out his pledge to trump the current Pakistani leadership and go after Osama in Waziristan, it is highly unlikely that this will impel the generals and their political lackeys to join hands with bin Laden and Mullah Omar. For this will mean that Obama has abrogated the long-standing modus Vivendi which for half a century has allowed the Pakistani ruling elite to have its political cake and eat it; that the only way out is a new political arrangement which no longer involves a military blank cheque for the generals but makes American support dependent upon a political deal with the civilian political establishment and a serious effort to neutralise and eventually eliminate Al Qaeda and Taliban asylums in Waziristan.

Confronted with the prospects of losing their heretofore US-guaranteed sacrosanct political status, the chances are much better that they will see that it is in their interests to make a deal with the country's moderate political forces because they alone would be inclined to allow the generals and their feudal allies to retain at least a modicum of their economic privileges and comfortable, very modern life-style.

Obama needs to be reminded that General Musharraf is not merely Pakistan's current military dictator; he is in fact only the latest in a long line of such purported 'saviors'. He was preceded by three others (Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia-ul Haq) between 1959 and 1999, each of whom followed the same trajectory as Pervez Musharraf.

That is, each seized power from allegedly incompetent civilian regimes, aborted the country's democratic evolution ('made the trains run on time for a while', as the saying goes), then in the end ran out of political gas as they gradually discovered that governing a country of Pakistan's proportions through Islamic jingoism and fear of India, with no viable democratic political infrastructure and no popular mandate, was a non-starter in the long run. In each instance the generals and colonels ran out of ideas and legitimacy, and grew increasingly corrupt while the public grew increasingly disillusioned with 'Colonel Blimp-style government'.

All of this made possible, incidentally, by an American grand strategy which held that short-term 'stability' promulgated by military dictatorship was preferable to the long term nurturance of 'messy' secular democratic political institutions.

This scenario is once again running is course in Pakistan even as we speak. The Musharraf regime is on the brink of going the way of its predecessors. There is nothing new about this in the compass of Pakistan's past history. Like his predecessors, Musharraf is flailing about trying to retain his mandate by tampering with the country's judiciary, pursuing 'Great Game' stratagems in Waziristan, Afghanistan and Kashmir, and seeking ways either to rig the impending national elections or, if that fails, employing the gimmick of 'emergency rule' to prevent them from taking place.

The last resort of this latest attempt to govern Pakistan in the same old manner, unfortunately with the United State government, as usual, acting as an enabler, seems to be what Obama senses must come to an end.

His declaration that the Pakistani junta will no longer be given carte blanche to stonewall further on dislodging Al Qaeda from Waziristan cannot, therefore, be dismissed as the ranting of a politically immature novice, as his detractors aver; it is the right thing to say and should be seen as another instance of Obama once again getting ahead of the pack, as he did when he voted from the outset against the Bush administration's Iraq fiasco.

It indicates that Obama has thought more deeply about the Pakistan conundrum than have his fellow candidates in both political camps.

One hopes that he sticks to his guns and does not allow his detractors to erode his resolve. A sane political solution for Pakistan hangs in the balance.

Harold A Gould is a visiting scholar in the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia, United States.


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