Today’s Topic: Pakistan (4 cents)

From time to time, I attend noontime talks at the Library of Congress.  Usually, I go to those programs which deal with Jewish or Israeli topics, and they usually fill the Mary Pickford Theater at the Madison Building.  Today, I went to hear Daniel Markey (currently with Council on Foreign Relations, previously with the State Department) talk about his new book, “No Exit from Pakistan”, and I was one of only 22 in the audience.  Too bad, because Markey is a very well spoken scholar, and the topic of both interest and importance.

He took his title from Sartre’s play, saying that, metaphorically, Pakistan and the United States may be together in a room that they would like to exit, but they can’t.  Each is too important to the other.  They are stuck with each other. Pakistan is too important for America’s general position in Asia, and Pakistan needs assistance from somewhere.  There may be some Pakistanis who think that China could become their sugar daddy, but China has proven to be a pretty unreliable friend.

One point that I hadn’t fully realized is that hatred of the United States is rampant in the country.  “It’s in the water”, Markey said, and seems to permeates all groups and classes. All classes, perhaps, except for the military, which has more of a reason to be appreciative of our financial assistance.

But in addition to hatred of the U.S., there is a lot of resentment against the Pakistani military, which it is felt by many has been the cause of many of Pakistan’s problems today.  This may be true, but Markey says that it is a double edged sword.  The military (which does not seem to be subservient to the civilian authorities and even sets its own budget) may have suppressed many in the country, but today, he says, the military may be the only source of stability in the country.  With them, there are problems; without them, there would be chaos.

You can look at Pakistan in various ways, says Markey.  For one thing, it would certainly qualify as a basket case – that is, a nation so chaotic that it is hard to see how the problems will ever be solved.  On the other hand, it can be considered a garrison state, controlled by the military; when you walk onto a military base, he says, you feel you are in a different country. Everything is clean, cared for, orderly. You can also look at Pakistan as an incubator of terrorism – and there are a lot of terrorist types in the country – there is Al Quaeda, there’s the Pakistani Taliban, there’s the Afghan Taliban (a different group, he says), there’s Lashkar e Taiba (they were behind the Mumbai attacks of a few years ago), and there are other (and competing) Sunni and Shiite groups.  Finally, he said, there are the young idealists, tired of all the problems and the extremists, making up such a large portion of the population, looking to see how they can become effective.

Pakistan is a very crowded country – the population now of 200,000,000 and heading for 300,000,000 before mid-century. Almost 75% of Pakistanis live in rural areas.  And the rural areas are beset by Pakistani feudalism.  There has never been any land reform.  The rural areas are largely owned by an extraordinarily wealthy elite.  Education for the poorer classes is very poor.

He didn’t talk specifically about the fragility of Pakistani governments.  Nor did he talk very much about the country’s nuclear arsenal, which does not appear to trouble Markey right now, although he says that, depending on how the country goes, you can conceive of Pakistan turning into another North Korea.

He points out that the Pakistani foreign minister is in Washington this week, meeting with a bevy of high government officials.  “No exit”, he says.

A questioner asked him if the glass was half full or half empty.  After a little back and forth, his conclusion was that the glass might be only 10 percent full, but that you have to be optimistic.  You have to work with what you have.

Markey’s book has received very good reviews.  On one level, I would like to read it but I am sure that details, beyond those reported above, would be lost on me as soon as I put the book down.  I am satisfied, though, that Markey’s very well presented talk today, has provided me with a great deal of context to help me as I follow the news.

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