August 31, 2010


FLOOD TIDES (Steve Coll, September 6, 2010, The New Yorker)

After a decade in which the United States and Pakistan have been lashed together by war and terrorism, it is understandably hard for many Americans to conceive of Pakistan as a whole place. It’s not only a country that is poorly governed and menaced by Islamist radicals; it’s also one that is growing economically, and that houses a raucously open society populated by muckraking journalists, comic novelists, cheesy reality-TV producers, real-estate hustlers, world-class squash players, and the like. The number of Pakistanis living in poverty fell by almost half between 1999 and 2008, from thirty per cent of the population to about seventeen per cent. This extraordinary change, a result of rapid economic growth and remittances from Pakistanis working abroad, is not often discussed on American cable-news outlets. Five years ago, Pakistan’s economic growth rate reached eight per cent annually, and the economy has continued to expand, if more slowly, even since 2008, when the global financial crisis and the domestic Taliban insurgency took hold simultaneously. (The number of Pakistanis living in poverty almost certainly has crept up again, and will move higher still because of the floods.)

Islamist insurgents threaten Pakistan’s weak government, yet they remain widely unpopular. In the last election, the religious party previously aligned with the Taliban polled two per cent; in the country’s history, religious parties have never won more than twelve per cent in a national election.

Pakistan’s economic expansion has come, in part, by selling and smuggling consumer goods to India’s growing middle classes. For Pakistan to overcome its many burdens, it must make peace, or, at least, normalize economic ties, with India, which would include resolving the Kashmir dispute. On this subject, the United States could benefit from a sense of urgency comparable to its focus on Pakistani terrorism. In 2007, the governments of India and Pakistan negotiated the outline of an agreement that would have further opened their border to trade. A final deal has proved elusive, in part because of evidence that Pakistan’s Army continues to support anti-Indian terrorist groups; the Obama Administration has the leverage in Pakistan to hold the Army accountable.

Economic growth is not a panacea for social ills or political disarray, but policies designed to unleash Pakistan’s economy during the next decade are far more likely to reduce the threat of Taliban-inspired revolution than are military operations and drone strikes. Examples of success exist: Indonesia, which, like Pakistan, has a large Muslim population and implausible borders left behind by imperialists, suffered badly a decade ago from separatist violence, Al Qaeda-linked Islamist terrorists, and poisonous civil-military relations. By riding Southeast Asia’s economic boom, Indonesia has become a comparably bland, democratic archipelago.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 31, 2010 5:28 AM
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