ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 28 — Massive power outages in Quetta and other districts this week once again disrupted the lives of millions of Pakistanis. Here in the capital city, outages have become commonplace. With temperatures around 110 degrees Fahrenheit, electricity is on everyone’s mind. A designer from Lahore joked over dinner that if U.S. officials could solve the problem it might actually put a dent in the country's notorious anti-Americanism.
The chronic countrywide blackouts may be an apt metaphor for Pakistan. Nearly everyone I’ve met here over the past week shares a rather grim perspective at the moment, a feeling that Pakistan is teetering on the brink. Double-digit unemployment, double-digit inflation, decaying urban infrastructure, calamitous problems in basic health care and education — and the country is at war. The military trumpets each success — this week 45 militants were killed in Fata and Swat. There were also claims this week that Maulana Fazullah, a top leader of Pakistan’s Taliban, has been killed by Afghan police near the Pakistani border. It’s all a drop in the bucket. The country’s border regions with Afghanistan — the North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas — are home to desperate populations held hostage to high unemployment, high crime rates, drug trafficking and seething jihadism. As the Americans prepare for crucial operations in Khandahar, Taliban forces, Afghan and Pakistani alike, are said to be crossing the border freely to take up a crucial round in the fight.
Meanwhile back here in Islamabad, ubiquitous checkpoints and security posts have kept the city relatively safe of late. The Marriott hotel, blown up by terrorists in 2008, has been reconstructed; kidnappings are down. But the heavy security also attests to the fact that authorities here remain deeply concerned.
Pakistan’s recent decision to ban Facebook and close down some 1,000 Web sites, including YouTube, may be another metaphor for Pakistan’s free fall. There’s ample menu of choice and ferociously lively debate in Pakistan’s media. But reports critical of the government or military can be restricted. As a result, self-censorship is a problem. In the case of Facebook, a Pakistani court recently handed down blasphemy laws against the site. The material that first generated the controversy — including the Prophet Mohammed depicted as a pig urinating on the Koran — is offensive. The country’s blasphemy laws are also strict. Anyone who “defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed” — by word, spoken or written; or by visual representation; or “by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly — “shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life.” Freedom House ranks Pakistan’s media as “unfree.”
The media crackdown stems from a deep, convulsing culture war in Pakistan, a phenomenon that throws into sharp relief the challenges America faces in much of the Muslim world. On one side, the country confronts a small group of vicious, violent fanatics whose vision of the future is barbaric and medieval. On the opposite side is a small group of liberals, mostly modern, many secular, who feel comfortable with women’s rights and Salman Rushdie and feel at home in the frequent flier lounges of Frankfurt Airport and London Heathrow. Incidentally, less than one percent of Pakistan’s 170 million people have a Facebook page.
Then comes the big fat middle of Pakistani society. Religious, traditional, socially conservative. They reject the horrors of Taliban rule on the one hand; and what they see as the horrors of Western secularism, materialism, and hedonism on the other. A columnist in the daily the Nation applauded the Facebook ban, but then asked whether such modest steps suffice. “Has the blasphemy ended?” he asked.
I visited the home of the deputy head of Pakistan’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood, a member of the parliament who also directs a prominent think tank. Khurshid Ahmad counts as a moderate in Pakistani politics. He rejects the Taliban vision for Pakistan, condemns suicide bombings (at least in conversation with me) and says the September 11 attacks were a crime. He also blames America for many of his country’s ills, sympathizes with the plight of Iranian mullahs and wants a Pakistan where religious leaders play an active role in governing. For the foreseeable future the real battle for Pakistan’s soul remains a struggle not between liberals and jihadists but between Islamists of different stripes.
In large part, Pakistan’s military will determine how this struggle plays out. Despite the formal end of a decade of its dictatorship, the military, not the elected government, continues to be the country’s most powerful institution. It is complex and contradictory. It fights the insurgency. It also feeds extremism. And part of its folly has been to believe it can separate good terrorists from the bad.
The military and the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, helped to create the Taliban, initially envisioned as a pro-Islamabad force that would serve as a hedge against influence of archenemy India in neighboring Afghanistan. As for everything in this part of the world, there’s history to all this. After partition in 1947, Afghanistan was initially hesitant to recognize Pakistan and made claims on Pakistani territory inhabited by Pashtun tribes. Then of course, there are other militants, those “freedom fighters” involved in the Kashmir cause, or the attacks in Mumbai. They’ve always been seen as worthy allies.
Yet predictably the disease of radical Islam has spread inside Pakistan’s own borders. The monster returned to bite the hand that bred it. Mosque attacks in Lahore today killed at least seventy.
The military dabbles with anti-Americanism as well. It was the military that set off the wave of anti-American outbursts over the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid bill. Pakistan welcomes economic and military assistance so long as it's not tied to internal reform or meddling over issues such as human rights and democracy. Such “meddling” has in fact been modest, even if it’s meddling Pakistan desperately needs. The central problem now, however, is that Pakistan has the leverage. And the military knows it. The country is an essential transit route for supplies to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
So while the military tries to rein in anti-government insurgents at home, it’s unclear today how much it does to control Afghan Taliban who regroup inside its borders. Critics argue it’s very little. In fact in Kabul last month, Afghan officials repeatedly complained to me about active Pakistani aid for their anti-government insurgents. There have been repeated allegations in journalistic and diplomatic circles that Pakistan had a role in the attacks on Indian diplomats in the Afghan capital over the last year.
Over tea at my hotel a senior government spokesman lamented recent budget cuts. More money for the military; less for schools, health care, and social services. Pakistan’s extremists have always been good at running schools and operating charities. They’ll keep filling the vacuum. A vicious cycle, out of control.
All of which leads one to at least flirt with the most disturbing of conclusions about our Pakistani allies. Do we now find ourselves in a situation where we can’t win with them and can’t win without them? A popular remark around Islamabad these days is that there’s near glee among the military over what they see as America’s imminent failure in Afghanistan.
Husain Haqqani, a journalist turned diplomat who serves as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, had a prescient moment a few years ago. In a 2005 book Haqqani warned that “unless Pakistan’s all-powerful military can be persuaded to turn over power gradually to secular civilians ... the country’s vulnerability to radical Islamic politics will not wane.” In the short term, Haqqani argued, antiterrorist operations will be severely undermined. Beyond that, however, the Pakistani government and its Western allies would have to reckon with the “global radicalization of Islam.” At a minimum, a failed nuclear state coming apart at the seams would turn the entire region into a jihadist nightmare.
In this way the Obama administration got it right. We can’t get it right in Afghanistan if we get it wrong in Pakistan. To do that, though, will require patience. Immense patience. If we’re serious about winning, this struggle has just begun.
Jeffrey Gedmin is the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, whose new Pashto language station went on air in Pakistan earlier this year.