October 13th, 2011
01:45 PM ET

Is Pakistan preparing for war?

Editor's Note: Omar R. Quraishi is the Editor of the Editorial Pages of The Express Tribune in Karachi. Follow him @omar_quraishi.

By Omar R. Quraishi, Foreign Affairs

If Pakistani news channels can be taken at face value these days, the country is preparing for war. Retired generals, ambassadors, and professors weigh in on the likelihood of U.S. attack with an unrelenting intensity. The anchor of "Capital Talk," one of the most widely watched news programs on the popular channel Geo, recently asked guests what Pakistan should do when the impending attack occurs. A couple of his guests said that Pakistan should mobilize its forces and respond with full force. Officials have been more circumspect, but have issued the constant refrain that Pakistan's sovereignty must not be compromised.

On Facebook, meanwhile, new groups rally Pakistanis to the defense of the homeland. Just a few hours before sitting down to write this article, I received a text message with a similar call to action from a professional acquaintance. The rambling screed read, "Let them taunt us as an economically failed state, for they know not how thousands of Pakistani workers are currently working in the Middle East, Western Europe, and North America... Let them call us a technologically backward state, for they know not how we are the sole Muslim state with nuclear capability."

Read: Time to get realistic about aid.

In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, such propaganda is everywhere. I have never seen it so virulent. But, in fact, Pakistan can ill afford any war, much less one against the sole remaining superpower. Sure, thousands of Pakistanis work abroad and send home billions of dollars in remittances every year. But many of those workers left precisely because Pakistan did not have jobs for them or because the economy was failing to properly reward their academic and professional achievements. And, of those employed within the country, the vast majority pay no taxes at all; Pakistan has among the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world. The country's collection agency, the state-run Federal Board of Revenue, is infamously corrupt.

Defense budgets being virtually untouchable because of the military's outsized domestic power, the civilian government has dealt with the lack of revenues by cutting back the Public Sector Development Program (its social spending budget) by around 150 billion rupees ($1.7 billion) between 2010 and 2011 alone. Islamabad is left with little option but to seek development and emergency assistance from other countries. Following severe flooding in southern Pakistan last year, for example, the central government immediately called for foreign assistance. Eventually, such aid made up almost all of the relief effort. A similar appeal by the U.N. after this year's floods, for over $300 million, has raised less than a tenth of that amount, indicating that there will be nothing Pakistan can do to prevent another natural disaster from becoming one more humanitarian catastrophe.

Read: Double down on Pakistanis.

It would be fair to say that, purely from an economics point of view, Islamabad cannot afford worsening relations with the United States because it still needs aid. If the United States were to cut off the government today, its non-military budget for next year would be jeopardized, since the country's tax revenues are nowhere near enough to cover budgeted expenditures (the deficit for 2010-11 was close to six per cent of GDP).

Meanwhile, the country's defense budget takes up most of what little resources there are. And, this year, the military requested and received a budget increase of 45 billion rupees (about $458 million) over and above what it had been allotted during last year's budgeting process - without specifying why it needed the extra money. Despite its outsized military spending, Pakistan often responds to U.S. requests that it do more to fight terrorism by arguing that opening another front against the militants would be prohibitively expensive while declining any additional U.S. involvement. Indeed, with U.S. assistance or without, going to war is costly in both men and resources and imposes a heavy financial burden on Pakistan's already weak economy. (The country has to import a host of basic goods and services because it is unable to produce them itself.) So, even as Pakistan's generals are hesitant to step up their campaigns against militants, or allow the United States to handle the problem alone, they are uninterested in further provocations with the Americans.

For those who live outside of Pakistan, then, it is a fair question why the public tenor is so aggressive. When relations between the United States and Pakistan were more stable a year ago, a little posturing on the part of the government about sovereignty had very little cost abroad and high potential rewards at home. It appeased both the military and certain segments of society. Thus, Pakistani officials routinely spoke out against the U.S. drone program and the like, but never did anything to stop it. (In fact, the government and military even approved the strikes and leaders of at least three major mainstream parties privately confide that drones are effective.)

Read: Iran and Saudi Arabia square off.

After a while, the media took the establishment's cue and expanded its message. News programs have become increasingly reactionary and nationalistic, especially in regard to the United States. The United States' abandonment of Afghanistan, and subsequently Pakistan, in the 1990s is a constant refrain. Shows regularly postulate that the United States is doing the same. Naturally, the mixture of alarmism and nationalism is appealing, and wins viewers. And, of course, it is even true to some extent; Americans are leaving the region at a time when the Taliban are resurgent. Pakistanis, especially those who are liberal and progressive, feel that the country and region is being left to its own devices.

But with the U.S.-Pakistani alliance on the rocks, the tennor is more troubling. An anti-American public is now putting pressure on the government to stand up to the United States in ways that it might not be capable of doing. If there is some kind of permanent break in ties between the two countries, of course, the only ones who will benefit will be the Taliban, their allied militant groups, and the conservative element in society.

To prevent such a break, Pakistan will need to address its political dysfunction at its root: the imbalance between the government and the military. Fixing that would be exceedingly difficult, since it would require finding some solution to the Kashmir problem and reigning in domestic terrorism, but it needs to happen. It is the only way to stop jingoistic posturing, and it is the only way that defense spending could conceivably be reduced to free up resources for the social sector and for human resource development.

If Pakistan's centers of power could be rebalanced, the United States might even warm to the country again. This should be in the interest of all Pakistanis - those who do not want their country to become another Taliban-ruled Afghanistan; those who understand that the United States is Pakistan's largest trading partner, second-biggest investor, and the decisive voice at the World Bank and the IMF; and even those in the military who realize that the United States is their largest beneficiary.

There is no indication, however, that Pakistan will undertake needed soul-searching anytime soon. For now, the government seems firmly under the sway of the military. At the September 29 All Parties Conference, over 50 political and religious parties passed a resolution declaring that the government would sue for peace by talking to the Taliban and other militant groups. Even though the resolution was drafted by civilians, the initiative came from the military. The generals recently launched several operations in parts of the tribal areas, so their thinking, quite possibly, is that going into North Waziristan now could have significant blowback.

They ignore the fact, of course, that negotiating with the Taliban without first making any gains against them will only embolden them further. This happened in South Waziristan in 2006, in Swat in 2009, and in Fata in 2010. Already, the deputy chief of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, has come out in favor of the resolution, but gave two preconditions: that the state review its relations with the United States and that it impose sharia law in Pakistan. These steps would transform Pakistan into Afghanistan in the 1990s. Instead, Islamabad must push the military to seriously crack down on extremists. To do this, the parties, especially the ruling Pakistan People's Party needs to go back to its electorate (most of the PPP's voters are not at all in favor of a Taliban-like regime) and start druming up support for operations against the militants. The government could then talk to whatever remnants remain from a position of strength.

Read: Why the Rich Are Getting Richer.

Right now, rank emotionalism seems to be guiding the contours of Pakistani foreign policy, especially in terms of its relationship with the United States. One can only hope that the civilian leaders at least try to take charge. They have a clear stake in the country not becoming a pariah in the eyes of the world. If they can be more pragmatic they might manage to ease the tensions between the two countries. Even then, Islamabad will have the difficult task of passing the message on to the general public, much of which still seems to think that Pakistan is better off without the United States.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Omar R. Quraishi. Read more at Foreign Affairs.

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Topics: Conflict • Pakistan

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