Sunday, March 18, 2007

Why Pakistan is crucial to the world's stability

Denis Macshane
Sunday March 18, 2007
The Observer

Anyone who wants political power in Pakistan, so say the street pundits, must hold three aces - America, the army and Allah. As Pakistan plans its 60th birthday celebrations this year, it may hope for a future less in thrall to its military, to its mullahs and to Washington. President Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a bloody 1999 coup, is facing a crisis.

Far from being Nato's calm eastern ally, a new front in the fight against terrorism, Islamabad's streets feel shaky, divided and waiting for the worst. Pakistan is neither dictatorship nor democracy. Its newspapers are louder in criticism of their President than the anti-Blair or anti-Bush press in the West. Its intellectuals roam the world, trashing their country. Opposition politician, Cambridge-educated billionaire, Benazir Bhutto, is free to return home when she wants. But General Musharraf and his army are in charge. The house arrest of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, after he refused Musharraf's demand to resign, has caused outrage. In a nation that reveres high office, the manhandling of the judge shocked even the most cynical of Pakistani politicians.

Pakistan urgently needs a return to democratic civilian rule even if its elected leaders in the Nineties became bywords for corruption, encouraging the Taliban and the madrassas, as well as the long-bearded, turban-wearing politicians who insist the law should be subordinate to theocracy. Democracy requires compromise between the military and the politicians. Instead there may be a slow drift towards increased authoritarianism under Musharraf, further alienating Pakistan.

In fact, the most poignant story in Pakistan last week was not about the Chief Justice but the stoning to death of a woman and two men accused of adultery. The rise of religious intolerance is now a political danger from the Christian West to the Muslim East. Yet it is all too easy to patronise Pakistan. Britain is currently gushing over India with its clever graduates and Midas-touch businessmen. But India's record on human rights and the illiteracy of half its population is little better than Pakistan's. India is rightly seen as a strategic partner for the West, especially the US, which is playing a balance-of-power game using India against China. But Pakistan, not India, is key to stability in the new world order.

The chain reaction that began when the West and Saudi Arabia called into being the jihadi movement to oust the Russians from Afghanistan is coming back to haunt Pakistan. In the Eighties it allowed itself to be the base for military attacks on Russia, even as the USSR tottered on the edge of history's dustbin. Now the jihadis are heading steadily eastwards as fanatical Islamism preaches hate and justifies suicide bombings. But Afghanistan could be saved if a political-economic-social campaign can gain ground from a purely military definition of the challenges. Earlier this month US soldiers ran amok after a bomb attack. They fired indiscriminately, killing 30 people. A few more Bloody Sundays like this and Pakistan's neighbour will be Iraqified before reconstruction pays off.

Britain is sending one of its toughest trouble-shooting diplomats to take over a beefed-up presence in Kabul. The UN agencies, the European Commission plus the European Council, plus dozens of NGOs constitute the huge effort being made in Afghanistan, yet without better co-ordination it may end up chasing its tail.

The news is good in terms of schools, roads and hospitals built. Kabul looks richer than when it was a hippy-trail stopover three decades ago. But relentlessly the Taliban and the jihadis from among the three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan are back in business. Pakistan is endlessly reproached about not doing enough. It is told to close its frontier, as if the US can close the Mexican border or 30,000 British soldiers could seal the border across which IRA killers roamed. Pakistan is pressured to hunt bin Laden, but Nato can't find Radovan Karadzic or persuade the Serbian army to stop protecting Ratko Mladic.

The time is overdue to acknowledge the sacrifices Pakistan has made. It has 80,000 soldiers along the 2,300km frontier with Afghanistan; 500 have been killed, far in excess of Nato casualties in Afghanistan or Britain's in Iraq. India could join the war against terror by removing its 700,000 soldiers from Kashmir and opening the border. Musharraf has been braver than his predecessors in acknowledging that Indian-controlled Kashmir is not going to return to Pakistan.

If Pakistan felt its eastern flank was secure, it could transfer its military to the west - Afghanistan. Britain in recent years has given £1bn in aid to India, while India spends £200m on aid to Afghanistan. UK aid is, in effect, subsidising India's efforts to pull Afghanistan into its orbit. India is opening consulates in parts of Afghanistan where no Indian has been seen in years. From Pakistan's perspective, this looks like India seeking influence in order to keep up pressure on its old foe.

This summer heroin will be cheaper on the streets of Pakistan than sweets. India and China have a bigger drugs problem than the UK. Both countries should cut Islamabad some slack. If Afghanistan goes wrong, the next target for the ideologues who unleash suicide bombers will be Pakistan with its nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is the key to defeating the new threats to the world. Time and again, the West has turned its back on Pakistan. That mistake should not be made again. Britain, with its close links to Pakistan, its able, articulate Muslim MPs, and its duty to tell America to change tactics, should help before it is too late.

· Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and was a minister at the Foreign Office until 2005.

No comments: