Pakistan: A failed state or a clever gambler?

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An anti-American rally in Karachi. Photo: 6 May 2011
Image caption,
Osama Bin Laden's death provoked anti-American rallies in parts of Pakistan

They are so many questions for which Pakistani officials do not have answers.

How could Pakistan's air defence system fail to intercept four incoming helicopters? Why did the US not trust Pakistan to help catch Osama Bin Laden?

How come Islamabad failed to find a man living in such an obviously suspicious house? Or did the state help hide him?

Is Pakistan a failed state? No? Then is it a rogue state?

Pakistanis are used to journalists asking embarrassing questions. But the death of Osama Bin Laden has broken new ground.

The claim of the country's main intelligence agency, the ISI, that it had been unable to find Bin Laden has dented the image of an organisation that has hitherto been beyond public criticism.

Remarkable resilience

The country faces so many crises.

With an average of more than one suicide bombing every week, 35,000 Pakistanis have died since 9/11.

In the province of Balochistan there is a five-year-old nationalist insurgency that shows no sign of going away.

The law and order situation in Karachi - the country's biggest city - is now so dire that there are an average of 4.7 murders every night. Most are politically motivated targeted killings.

It's the sort of thing that has led many in the West to predict an impoverished, jihadi-run, nuclear state.

And yet Pakistan has proven to be remarkably resilient.

The country's democratic development has been thwarted by repeated coups. Its most effective political leaders have been assassinated.

Given Pakistan's track record of surviving such disasters, Western academics are now debating whether the country is in fact more stable than many people think.

The reaction to Bin Laden's death illustrates both sides of the argument.

The pessimists point to the failure - for whatever reason - to find Bin Laden, and to the Taliban's immediate threat of revenge attacks. They wonder just how close are the links between Pakistan's security establishment and some elements of the Taliban.

And they ask how could the death of Bin Laden, the man who inspired so many suicide attacks with such dreadful results in Pakistan, provoke not celebrations - but angry, anti-American protests in Karachi.

The optimists argue that while some people may have gone onto the streets to protest against the American action, very few voiced sympathy for Bin Laden.

And, as ever, the vast majority of Pakistanis were not protesting at all but were at home trying to cope with challenges faced by poor people everywhere: feeding their children and hopefully educating them, too.

Washington's headache

The debate about these issues is especially intense in Washington.

Since 9/11 the US has provided Pakistan - or more accurately the Pakistani military - with more than $20bn (£12bn) in aid. It's a huge sum which some believe has prevented the country from slipping into bankruptcy.

Image caption,
Pakistan has long faced frequent suicide bomb attacks

But the argument already being made in the US Congress is this: why should America, itself facing a massive debt mountain, be giving money to Pakistan's military leaders if they fail to offer full support to US goals in South Asia?

The problem is that Pakistan is preparing for American defeat in Afghanistan. In fact, it has been doing so for nearly a decade. Within weeks of America's 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan concluded the Americans could not win there.

With the US now preparing to pull out, leaving behind a strong Taliban movement, Pakistan's generals feel their assessment has been fully vindicated.

And the death of Bin Laden has made the issues even more acute because the establishment of an Afghan government with Taliban participation is now even more likely.

In recent years the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, had been distancing himself from Bin Laden so as to make the Americans feel more comfortable about withdrawing.

Now Bin Laden is dead, Mullah Omar will find it easier to persuade his own supporters that al-Qaeda can be left to one side so that he can move towards his single objective: the establishment of an Afghan government that would reflect his conservative view of Islam in a country free of foreign troops.

On the face of it, the critics of the US aid programme to Pakistan have an easy argument to make: Washington, they say, should not give money to Pakistan when it is preparing for the increasingly likely prospect of a government in Kabul that will have Taliban ministers.

And yet every time the US has discussed cutting Pakistan's funding it has ended up paying even more. The US has consistently calculated it has little choice but to pay up.

The more impoverished Pakistan is, it fears, the more jihadis it would produce.

Nuclear gamble

And then there's the nuclear bomb.

Image caption,
Pakistan is developing a new type of ballistic missile reportedly capable of delivering nuclear warheads

When India tested a nuclear device in 1998, Pakistan came under huge pressure not to follow suit.

The US offered billions of dollars worth of debt relief in return for Pakistani restraint.

But Islamabad went ahead anyway and matched India's tests.

A few days after the Pakistani tests a government minister explained one of the reasons that decision was taken.

"We are a now nuclear state," he said. "So no-one can let us go bust. We may have turned down billions of dollars. But many more billions will follow."

How right he was.