Adrian Hamilton: The benighted lot of Pakistan

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A little over a year ago, the Pakistan army launched a much-lauded (in the West at least) assault on the Taliban in the Swat Valley and North-West Pakistan. The result was well over a million civilians displaced and some 10,000 or more killed. Now the monsoons have come to the same people in the same area, killing at least 1,300 and affecting more than three million.

Forget all the hoo-ha about David Cameron's forthcoming meeting with the visiting Pakistan president, Asif Ali Zardari. It's being built up by Zardari for domestic purposes and to justify a trip to launch his son's career in Birmingham which he should have cancelled given the magnitude of the natural disaster back home. The one important thing is the millions affected first by man-made war and then by natural disaster in a country corrupted by domestic politics and undermined by the contrary expectations and interference of the outside world.

It's not that Pakistan is the basket-case country it is being increasingly painted as. It has a well- educated middle class, a strong judiciary, some fine universities and an income per head that is actually better than India's. But the manner of its birth, the long decades of hostility with India, and the corruption of its politics has left it with a fractured history of democracy and military rule from which it never been able to extricate itself.

The last military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, had to resign under the threat of impeachment. President Zardari, elected in February 2008 in the aftermath of the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, is widely regarded as venal and ineffective, accused of accumulating assets of as much as £1bn around the world through illegal means. His chief opponent and former Prime Minster, Nawaz Sharif, has not an unblemished record himself. While he has supported an independent judiciary and cleaner rule , he has made politics even more fractious by the ferocity of his party assaults.

Meanwhile, the army has remained largely aloof this time from politics, while guarding its independent privileges and power, and is directly funded by a Washington anxious to support its efforts against the Taliban within Pakistan. Pakistan's leaders can be blamed for many of the country's woes. The government's reactions to the flooding, and its preparation before, have been late and ineffective. Only yesterday was a Cabinet meeting called, and then without the President.

But outside intervention has hardly helped. It is all very well for Mr Cameron having a go at Pakistan's security forces and its notorious intelligence services, the ISI, for supporting insurgents in Afghanistan, but who is it that is now pouring money and weapons directly to those forces in the interests of the war on terror? It is the US and Nato.

The West hailed the reintroduction of democracy into Pakistan, and helped it along by withdrawing critical support from Musharraf and swinging behind Benazir Bhutto as their favoured candidate. But when it has come to it, the outside world has done precious little to assist civil society in the country or development. If fundamentalism has grown – as it has in so many Muslim countries – it is at least partly because it is the Mosque and the religious societies who have provided the security and the family assistance which the state has failed to do, as we are seeing again in the floods.

And if Islamabad has failed to exercise central authority over the tribal regions, it is at least in part because – just as in Afghanistan – the village elder and the tribal connection are the only certain form of security. Nato generals may bemoan the leakages across the border, but Pakistan knows that western forces are due out. Of course the Pakistan military is going to keep up relations with its favoured Taliban leaders, not least for fear that in the ensuing chaos post-withdrawal it will be the Indians who step in to make their presence felt.

David Cameron didn't make his criticisms of Pakistan in India by accident or through insensitivity. He meant to, for the same reason that he talked of Gaza in Turkey. He was out to impress his hosts by telling them what they wanted to hear. He wants to favour, and be favoured by, India. Pakistan is of secondary importance. In a way it's the same approach as demanding 40 per cent cuts in departmental budgets at home. You make your move first and then smooth out the consequences later.

Fair enough, at least in economic terms. But in making these remarks where he did, he took the UK straight into the centre of what is the single most destructive issue of the sub-continent – the face-off between India and Pakistan. Over 60 years it has been the cause of a huge diversion of funds to the military, a competitive development of nuclear weapons with no real rationale, and a policy preoccupation that has hobbled both countries' foreign policies. For India even more than Pakistan, this obsession with Pakistan has not only been wasteful but it has also prevented it from developing the kind of international approach to resources and alliance that China is now doing so effectively.

A real friend of India, as of Pakistan, would have gone to New Delhi and then to Islamabad and told them what they didn't want to hear – that this confrontation is a dead end, militarily, economically and politically; that the Kashmir problem is soluble given goodwill and a willingness to compromise on both sides, and that the sooner they stop looking over their shoulders at each other's shadow and face forward the better it will be for their ordinary citizens.

For further reading

'Descent into Chaos: the world's most unstable region and the threat to global security' by Ahmed Rashid (2008)

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