Pakistan and south Asia’s stability

India, the United States and really the entire world have much to gain from securing a stable future for Pakistan and other nearby states.

The longstanding geopolitical conflict between India and Pakistan weighs greatly on south Asia’s stability. Pakistan’s obsession with the Kashmir region has led the two neighbors to fight three wars after independence in 1947. In July 1999, laced with nuclear capabilities, Pakistan made another incursion in Kashmir’s Kargil region only to be humiliated again on the world stage.

Apart from the overt war, Pakistan has bled India with a constant infusion of armed militia. This proxy war has cost thousands of Indian lives and painfully enough, in the Western world’s clamor of “war against terrorism,” India’s war is almost forgotten.

While former President Bill Clinton almost declared Pakistan a terrorist state, President George W. Bush anointed Pakistan as a top ally and silently pardoned Abdul Qadeer Khan’s nuclear bazaar to India’s ire.

The United States’ rant about democracy and simultaneous support for a military dictator in Pakistan is incongruous but not unusually new. So India (and Indians) should not be worried about the United States’ leaning toward Pakistan.

What should worry India (and the world) most is the internal state of Pakistan. While Pakistanis are used to dictatorships and don’t seem to care for democracy, other things are corroding Pakistan and endangering the stability of this nuclear nation.

For starters Pakistan’s economy has been stagnant for qute some time. Though the alliance with the United States helped to write-off some external debt, foreign investment is nonexistent because of political instability and negative perceptions of Pakistan.

Poverty, unemployment and crime are rampant and are creating a fertile ground for breeding Islamic fanaticism. The Islam religion is sharply divided and the conflict between majority Sunni and minority Shia Muslims has been increasingly bloody.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf has been “cracking down” on extremist organizations but his sincerity is dubious. Eerie silence still prevails over Musharraf’s ability to prevent Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl’s beheading in 2002.

The extremists don’t like Musharraf toeing U.S. lines and have inflicted “assassination attempts” on him. While some theorize that Musharraf himself orchestrated these bids (to demonstrate his resolve), the assassinators might succeed one day.

What happens in such a breakdown? Utter chaos can happen until a new military dictator appears.

What if the military is divided in factions? Which faction gets to keep nuclear bounty? What if religious fanatics and militiamen loot nuclear arsenal? If you think its chilling, it is.

India could end up as the biggest hostage to this nuclear terrorism. Therefore, waiting for Pakistan’s failure is not an option for India. Pakistan needs to be kept engaged. No matter how ironic it is, Musharraf might be India’s best and only hope for peace.

Developments in recent months including Musharraf’s latest invitation for a “new approach” to peace process are certainly welcome. Talks on confidence building measures such as no first use of nuclear arms are ongoing. Relaxing of visa restrictions and boosting bilateral trade are positive solutions to the mutual bitterness.

Musharraf’s commitment to peace needs to be tested. He was in the United States recently lobbying for securing F-16 fighter planes (only a few days after the peace visit by Pakistan’s prime minister to India).

U.S.-Pakistani ties appear warm but anti-Americanism runs high inside Pakistan. Today there are areas in Pakistan ruled by warlords and where Musharraf has no control (almost every report suggests Osama bin Laden to be hiding near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border).

Things are sure to become tougher for Musharraf and Pakistan’s breakdown is a real possibility. The most dangerous consequence of such a situation could be the spilling of nuclear paraphernalia.

Flamboyant intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy christened Pakistan as “the most delinquent of nations.” While the fate of Pakistan is in the hands of its people, India and the world might have to pay a big price if its delinquency goes too far.

Atul Kumar is a doctoral candidate in pharmacy studies. Please send comments to [email protected]