January 21, 2013 7:25 pm

Pakistan’s turmoil

A far bigger strategic challenge than Afghanistan

While western strategists debate the consequences of withdrawing from the long, drip-bleed conflict in Afghanistan, events across its porous eastern border should remind us that the real strategic challenge in the region is Pakistan.

Nuclear-armed and bristling with jihadist groups selectively licensed by its generals, Pakistan – at the intersection of central and south Asia and the Middle East, and on a constant state of alert against India – is again being pulled apart by the egotism of its political class. With elections due in May, Pakistan has just been hit by three thunderbolts. Yet another massacre by Sunni extremists against the Shia Hazara minority led to Islamabad taking over the government of Baluchistan, where an ethnic insurgency simmers.

Then, the Supreme Court, which has laid siege to the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari, ordered the arrest on corruption charges of his prime minister, Raza Pervez Ashraf. Finally, an ostensibly civic movement led by Tahirul Qadri, a Muslim cleric and sometime politician, occupied central Islamabad demanding the resignation of the government. As if that were not enough, Pakistani and Indian troops have clashed across the line dividing the disputed territory of Kashmir, threatening to reignite a casus belli after nearly 10 years of truce.

The sudden eruption of the seemingly well-financed Mr Qadri, who backed the military coup in 1999, has led to speculation he is fronting for the army. Certainly, he has shown that power is always up for grabs in Pakistan, making the military the final arbiter.

There is still no real sign of the broad democratic bloc – against jihadis and the generals – that civil society tried to summon into being during the last great constitutional crisis of 2007-08. Meanwhile, lead players such as Mr Zardari and his arch-rival, Nawaz Sharif, continue to treat politics as a zero-sum game that takes precedence over the very survival of the state.

Mr Qadri has tapped into popular despair at inflation and lack of jobs, power shortages, corruption and jihadi terror. But this government, however venal and incompetent, should finish its term and hand over to its elected successor – for the first time in Pakistan’s history. The ways forward thereafter are slow and require international support: to rebuild institutions, such as policing and justice, under the rule of law; seize back education from the religious right; to disseminate skills; and spread a culture of competitive politics rather than neo-feudal entitlement.

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