Sunday, August 29, 2010

Old habits die hard

A hopeful story from Pakistan (may its tribe increase), spoiled by the usual old American habits of short-term thinking.

The New York Times tells us about the new breed of politicians rising in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, where politics has long been a matter of pedigree, Jamshed Dasti is a mongrel. The scrappy son of an amateur wrestler, Mr. Dasti has clawed his way into Pakistan’s Parliament, beating the wealthy, landed families who have ruled here.

This is a big change. As the article explains,
For years, feudal lords reigned supreme, serving as the police, the judge and the political leader. Plantations had jails, and political seats were practically owned by families.

Instead of midwifing democracy, these aristocrats obstructed it, ignoring the needs of rural Pakistanis, half of whom are still landless and desperately poor more than 60 years after Pakistan became a state.

But now, it seems, the stranglehold of the feudal classes slowly loosens. Newer, more populist candidates get elected, who actually meet with their constituents and try to address their concerns. Of course, many of them are rough men with criminal records, but:

Whatever the case, he is deeply appealing to Pakistanis, who have chosen him over feudal lords for political seats several times. Local residents call him Rescue One-Five, a reference to an emergency hot line number and his feverish work habits. Constituents clutching dirty plastic bags of documents flock to his small office for help, and he scribbles out notes for them on his Parliament letterhead like a doctor in a field hospital.

Contrast this example with a feudal lord:

Mr. Mehmoud, 48, is a wealthy man of leisure, who spends more time relaxing in his house — a pink replica of a Rajasthani palace with a hand-carved facade — than on his job as a lawmaker. Sometimes he talks to his constituents, but more often he watches them go by from the window of his speedy, white Hummer.

For years, people voted for him anyway, partly out of habit. His ancestors were considered to be distant relatives of the Prophet Muhammad, which inspires awe and respect. But more important, his constituents were tied to him economically. His family owned the land they worked and often their houses. His carpet has a worn patch where generations of peasants sat in supplication.

No wonder the feudals are losing their seats, as labor becomes more mobile and more people wake up to their rights.

So, does the American analyst see this as a hopeful sign? Of course not:

The result is a changing political landscape more representative of Pakistani society, but far less predictable for the United States. Mr. Dasti, 32, speaks no English. His legislative record includes opposition to a sexual harassment bill. He has 35 criminal cases to his name and is from the country’s conservative heartland, where dislike of America runs deep.

So, it doesn't matter if he's popularly elected: he doesn't speak English, is a Neanderthal like Newt Gingrich, and comes from a backward and xenophobic area, so we have a problem with it? We still haven't changed our old habits in how we look at Pakistan.

And finally, this is the paragraph that made Boston Brahmin sputter out his morning coffee:

The changes also leave room for Islamists. In the neighboring district of Dera Ghazi Khan, a hard-line mullah, Hafiz Abdul Karim, came within a few thousand votes in 2008 of unseating Farooq Leghari, a former president of Pakistan. His weapon? Efficient, Islamist campaign workers and free water pumps.

So far, Islamists have not tapped popular frustration in a systematic way at the ballot box, and the military, the country’s oldest, strongest institution, would probably put down any broader uprising, analysts say.

Ah -- not to worry. Our favorite nephew, the Pakistan army, will take care of the uppity natives if needed.

This analysis is wrong on so many levels. Let me just list three: first, even if the hard-line mullah's workers are Islamists, if he is running for elections with free water pumps, this can only be a good thing, no? Second: do we still really want the Pakistan army to intervene in politics? If running for elections and winning by giving the people water pumps is the "broader uprising", then we need more of those in Pakistan. What legitimacy does the army have in intervening? And third: have we not learned yet that the army is an ally of the Islamists, in fact the sponsor and protector of some of them? In every army action, the army picks and chooses its favorite Islamists.

One would think that the U.S. troops being killed in Afghanistan by Pakistan army-sponsored Islamists might give these analysts pause. But no. Before Pakistan, the real change, it seems, is needed in our own analysts, whose old habits die hard.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Sun in the Sky

A recent paper by Matt Waldman of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government documents systematic and ongoing support by the Pakistan military of the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Some excerpts, based on interviews with several Taliban and Haqqani commanders:
Support to the Afghan insurgency is official ISI policy. It appears to be carried out by both serving and former officers, who have considerable operational autonomy.
A number of analysts suggest that due to American and international pressure in 2006, 2007 or later, Pakistan has curtailed its support for the insurgents, but there is little evidence to support this.

Waldman summarizes that:
Pakistan appears to be playing a double-game of astonishing magnitude. The conflict has led to the deaths of over 1,000 American and 700 other foreign military personnel; thousands of Afghan soldiers, police, officials and civilians; and an unknown number of Afghan, Pakistani and other foreign insurgents. It has already cost America nearly $300 billion, and now costs over $70 billion a year. As a Haqqani commander put it: ‘Of course Pakistan is the main cause of the problems [in Afghanistan] but America is behind Pakistan.’

Why is Pakistan doing this? Their overriding concern is India.
As Steve Coll explains (The New Yorker, 1 March 2010): ‘Pakistan’s generals have retained a bedrock belief that, however unruly and distasteful Islamist militias such as the Taliban may be, they could yet be useful proxies to ward off a perceived existential threat from India. In the Army’s view, at least, that threat has not receded.’

So, what does Waldman conclude that the U.S. should do?
The priority must be to address the fundamental causes of Pakistan’s insecurity, in particular its latent and enduring conflict with India. This requires a regional peace process and, as Bruce Riedel has argued, American backing for moves towards a resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

So, in other words, if the Kashmir dispute is resolved, the Pakistan army will no longer see India as a threat, and they will then stop sponsoring terrorism? This conclusion sounds weak, because it is based on the assumption that the Pakistan army's hatred of India is a rational response to something India has done or not done.

But this hatred is not based on what India does or does not do. It is a self-sustaining mechanism of survival for the Pakistan military, whose enormous clout and influence within Pakistan depends on always having an external threat. Their hatred of India is institutionalized since the founding of Pakistan, and especially since Zia's Islamization.

And that is as clear as the Sun in the Sky.