Monday, April 06, 2009

can pakistan be governed?

NYTimes | Pakistan feels as if it’s falling apart. Last fall the country barely avoided bankruptcy. The tribal areas, which border on Afghanistan, remain a vast Taliban sanctuary and redoubt. The giant province of Baluchistan, though far more accessible, is racked by a Baluchi separatist rebellion, while American officials view Quetta, Baluchistan’s capital, as Taliban HQ. American policy has arguably made the situation even worse, for the Predator-drone attacks along the border, though effective, drive the Taliban eastward, deeper into Pakistan. And the strategy has been only reinforcing hostility to the United States among ordinary Pakistanis.

Pakistan has made itself the supreme conundrum of American foreign policy. During the campaign, Obama often said that the heart of the terrorist threat was not Iraq but Afghanistan and Pakistan, and once in office he had senior policy makers undertake an array of reviews designed to coordinate policy in the region. They seem to have narrowed the target area even further, to the Pakistani frontier. “For the American people,” Obama announced on March 27, “this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world.” Some officials see Pakistan as a volcano that, should it blow, would send an inconceivable amount of poisonous ash raining down on the world around it. David Kilcullen, a key adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander, recently asserted that “within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state,” a calamity that, given the country’s size, strategic location and nuclear stockpile, would “dwarf” all other current crises.

And amid all that, Pakistan’s president appeared to be playing with fire. Zardari was setting his security forces on peaceful demonstrators, just as his authoritarian predecessor, General Musharraf, did — against members of Zardari’s own political party — several years earlier. The government crackdown, designed to prevent the marchers from reaching the capital, began on March 11. The police swept through the homes of opposition-party leaders, lawmakers, activists, “miscreants” and ordinary party workers. Many leading officials were already underground, but hundreds of arrests were made. By the 12th, the first day of the march, much of the country was glued to the television, where swarms of heavily armed policemen could be seen knocking down protesters and dragging them off to the paddy wagons. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the main opposition party, saw the protests as the “prelude to a revolution,” while Rehman Malik, a key Zardari adviser, accused Sharif of “sedition.”

The posturing and hyperbole would have been comical if the stakes weren’t so high. Although in Pakistan, it’s true, the stakes always feel high.