Pakistan needs more democracy to make it a less dangerous place, says James Astill
THINK about Pakistan, and you might get terrified. Few countries have so much potential to cause trouble, regionally and worldwide. One-third of its 165m people live in poverty, and only half of them are literate. The country's politics yo-yo between weak civilian governments and unrepresentative military ones—the sort currently on offer under Pervez Musharraf, the president and army chief, albeit with some democratic wallpapering. The state is weak. Islamabad and the better bits of Karachi and Lahore are orderly and, for the moment, booming. Most of the rest is a mess. In the western province of Baluchistan, which takes up almost half of Pakistan's land mass, an insurgency is simmering. In the never-tamed tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, the army is waging war against Islamic fanatics.
Nor is that all. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and until recently was selling their secrets to North Korea, Iran, Libya and maybe others. During its most recent big stand-off with India, in 2002, Pakistan gave warning that, if attacked, it might nuke its neighbour. Mostly, however, in Kashmir, Afghanistan and its own unruly cities, Pakistan has used, and perhaps still uses, Islamist militants to fight its wars—including the confused lot it is fighting, at America's request, in the tribal areas. Several thousand armed extremists are swilling around the country. Thousands more youths are being prepared for holy war at radical Islamic schools. Osama bin Laden is widely believed to be in Pakistan.
When General Musharraf launched his coup in 1999, it was not—or not principally—to clean up this mess. Instead, he wanted to save his career, having been sacked as army chief by Nawaz Sharif, then the prime minister. Mr Sharif had tried to subordinate the army—which in Pakistan is a parallel state, some say the only state—to civilian rule. But however unpromising his start, General Musharraf has generally proved much better at running the country than either Mr Sharif or Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's other elected leader in recent times. He also remains more popular than either of them, though his support has recently been slipping.
General Musharraf inherited an economy in crisis. Shackled by sanctions and parched of capital, Pakistan had defaulted on foreign debts. He ensured that the country did what the IMF told it to do, and ended the crisis. Thanks partly to continued fiscal prudence and some sensible reforms, Pakistan has notched up average growth of 7% over the past three years, about the same as India.
It also helped that after the attacks on America on September 11th 2001, General Musharraf decided to stop supporting the Taliban government in next-door Afghanistan and grant America access to airbases from which to fight it. The benefits have not been confined to a surge of American aid dollars that boosted the growth figures. Having joined the “war on terror”, the general reined in Islamist militants fighting India in the disputed Kashmir region. He then surprised many by throwing himself into peacemaking with India. Peace on the subcontinent is still hard to imagine, but it may be more possible than at any time since British India's bloody partition.
This is encouraging. But a bigger concern for most Pakistanis is the state of their broken and predatory institutions, which have helped to make Pakistan unstable and prone to extremism. General Musharraf pledged to fix them, and to promote liberal values, or “enlightened moderation”. If he were to make serious progress towards either of those goals, history would smile on his coup.
But this survey will argue that General Musharraf is unlikely to deliver on these crucial promises. He has introduced many sensible reforms, such as making the lowest level of the judiciary independent. But they have almost all been implemented only partially and corruptly. Part of the problem is that General Musharraf does not rule Pakistan by fiat, though he often seems to think otherwise. He rules behind a façade of democracy. Thus, for example, he has rewritten the constitution in his favour, allowing him to sack the government and impose martial law; but he needed political allies to vote through those changes. Such alliances have led to paralysing compromise.
To sideline the mainstream parties, whose leaders he fears, General Musharraf has sought support from religious conservatives, so his liberal reforms have gone nowhere. With the same intent, he pandered to Taliban-friendly Islamic parties, helping them win unprecedented power. Moreover, General Musharraf has clung on to his job by the same undemocratic measures as his predecessors: by manipulating the institutions he had vowed to clean up. Only, unlike any civilian leader, he has the army behind him, which means he can do that much more damage. Whereas Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto packed the supreme court with their supporters, General Musharraf sacked half its judges for refusing to swear allegiance to him.
Pakistan is too big, too fractious and too complicated to be ruled so overwhelmingly by one man. General Musharraf has been lucky to survive three assassination attempts, and his succession is unclear. He has, moreover, limited time at his disposal to get to grips with an unlimited number of problems. His period in office has been littered with initiatives—a diplomatic proposal to India here, a promise to reduce the army there—that never got off the ground or fizzled to nothing for want of the general's attention.
And even if he had unlimited time, he has limited understanding. In army fashion, he considers Pakistan's problems to be mostly practical. But they are invariably political. To deal with a mounting water crisis, for example, General Musharraf has decreed that three long-stalled dams will be built in Punjab and North-West Frontier Province. In Sindh province, the lower riparian, this has caused uproar. Sindhis say their water supply will be diminished by the dams; General Musharraf says it will not. He has no patience for the Sindhis' distrust of the Pakistani state. They complain, with good reason, that it is dominated by Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, where most of the army is raised. Sindhis make up about a quarter of Pakistan's population, but hold only a couple of the top 50 jobs in the water ministry. If General Musharraf wants the dams built, he should start by increasing that number.
Pakistan is torn by such grievances. Where people feel unprotected by their government, regional strife and Islamic militancy have bred. The longer they are allowed to fester, the more unstable Pakistan will become. Neither General Musharraf nor his obvious rivals for the leadership, Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif, could heal these rifts. But then Pakistan does not need a saviour to become stable and well. It needs a sustainable political system, representing the majority of its people. General Musharraf has had some successes. But by sabotaging Pakistan's fragile democracy, he may well have made the country even more dangerous.