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Is India ready for Pakistan's coming collapse?

March 10, 2009 14:45 IST

Pakistan, a nuclear armed state of 170 million people, is facing a virtual meltdown and its political leadership seems utterly incapable of steering the country through the present mess. The international community has few levers left that might have any significant impact on the course of events. And so everyone is just waiting with bated breath for events to unfold in what is probably the worst crisis in Pakistan's troubled history.

Battle-lines have been drawn between the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz who had just months back decided to come together to oust Pervez Musharraf. Their hatred for Musharraf was perhaps the only glue that kept the coalition partners together. Now Nawaz Sharif is finding out the Asif Ali Zardari has turned into another Musharraf. The PPP was waiting to get to Sharif and wrest political control of Punjab province, the prize catch of Pakistani politics. It used the Supreme Court to dislodge the PML-N government headed by Nawaz Sharif's brother.

Even at a time when extremism, terrorism and economic crisis have brought Pakistan close to being a failed state, political expediency remains high on the agenda of the nation's politicians. The army might be tempted to reclaim its pivotal position in Pakistani polity once again as the competition between the PML-N and the PPP begins. The civilian government of Zardari is neither willing nor able to tackle the problems facing the nation head-on.

The Taliban is making inroads into the very heart of the country and the government is making deals with the extremists in the hope of staving off the inevitable. Yet, as the brazen attack on Sri Lankan cricketers demonstrates, the Islamists are getting emboldened with every failure of the government to have its writ run in the country.

But the real trouble is emanating from Pakistan' tribal areas where the insurgents have found a safe haven. From their sanctuaries in the Federally Administered Tribal Area and Baluchistan, they are wreaking havoc on the western forces fighting in Afghanistan.

As a consequence, no improvement in the security of Afghanistan is possible without progress in the control of the Pakistani border areas. The Pakistani government, meanwhile, has acquiesced in to the demands of the radical Islamists and imposed Islamic law, Sharia, in its Swat valley region which was once a popular tourist destination. It is a dangerous concession to the Islamist extremists and would embolden them even further to demand imposition of Islamic law in other areas too even as it provides them with a safe haven to launch attacks on western forces.

It is a highly dangerous situation for global security as the Taliban rapidly makes inroads into the world's second-largest Islamic state and one with nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration remains unconvinced of Pakistan's commitment to fighting the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other extremist groups. In the last few weeks, US-led forces in Afghanistan have frequently struck targets in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region with missiles and even used Special Operations Forces to stem cross-border attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan also has in recent months allowed US military trainers to provide counter-insurgency instruction to Pakistani soldiers. But in the absence of ameliorative political and economic measures, a purely military approach will not be enough to stem the growth of extremism in the tribal areas.

Over the past eight years, Pakistan has received more than $10 billion in aid from the US, ostensibly for counterterrorism operations, but has failed to build up its institutional capabilities as it ended up diverting a huge proportion of that aid to acquire military hardware suited for conventional warfare vis-a-vis India. Despite accusing Pakistan of using the massive American aid to fight the war on terror for "preparing for a war against India", US President Barack Obama has tripled non-military assiastance to an annual $1.5 billion while continuing with the exorbitant military aid of his predecessor.

The underlying fragility of the state's basic institutions will continue to haunt Pakistan and with it the entire region as well as the West's war on Islamist extremism. Pakistan's return to democracy remains tenuous and the authority of the government is weakening by the day.

The state institutions -- the civilian government as well as the military -- seem unwilling to acknowledge the obvious -- that the threat of extremism that is haunting the very survival of Pakistan today is the outcome of the country's long-running use of jihadist terror as an instrument of foreign policy. Use of Islamist extremist mobilisation and terrorism for domestic political purposes as well as for projecting Pakistan's ambitions in its neighborhood has ended up costing the nation dearly. Today as Pakistan continues its steady slide towards the abyss, the international community perhaps has one last chance. What the country needs is a thorough investment in building its socio-political institutions from bottom-up. Without such a restructuring of the Pakistani state, the inherent instability of the state will continue to haunt the world.

Pakistan is no longer failing, it is already a failed state. The sooner this is recognised, the better, for it will enable the international community to recalibrate its existing approach toward a nation that is, once again, 'standing in the middle of the road between survival and disintegration'. Global security in more ways than one is linked to security and stability in Pakistan and it is therefore imperative for major powers to intervene and save the world's nightmare.

Meanwhile, it goes without saying that the challenges emanating from Pakistan will have far-reaching consequences for India. It's the biggest strategic failure of Indian diplomacy that even after 60 years, India has not found a way to neutralise the malevolence of a neighbour one-eighth its size. Business as usual has never been an option for India and yet our Pakistan policy could never move beyond cultural exchanges and cross-border trade. Pakistan has continued to train its guns at India and drain India's diplomatic capital and military strength and India has continued to debate whether Pakistani musicians should be allowed to enter India.

This disconnect between Pakistan's clear strategic priority and India's magnificently short-sighted approach will continue to exact its toll on India unless India makes it a priority to think outside the box on Pakistan. Today, India finds itself desperately seeking international attention for its troubles vis-a-vis Pakistan as well as Pakistan's own problems and when it doesn't get that attention or is rebuffed the government behaves like a spoiled child, throwing a tantrum and going on the defensive.

The end game that the West is seeking in Pakistan and the region is different from the one that India seeks, despite certain congruence in their objectives. India will have to think more clearly about its strategic objectives vis-a-vis Pakistan and how best to achieve them. The barbarians are at India's gates, there is no time to lose.

Harsh Pant teaches at King's College, London.

Harsh Pant