Last spring, according to a Pew Research Center poll, eighty-four per cent of Pakistanis were dissatisfied with the way things were going in their country. Inflation, terrorist bombings, and American drone strikes were among the causes of their discontent. Three-quarters disapproved of the job being done by the country’s President, Asif Ali Zardari.
Then came the summer’s monsoon rains, which engorged the Indus River water system, causing floods that by last week had killed almost two thousand people, left seven million homeless, and ruined 1.4 million acres of cropland. As the disaster unfolded, President Zardari decided to travel to Paris and London, in order, he explained to reporters, to raise relief funds and repair some misunderstandings about Pakistan’s vigilance against terrorism. The criticism he came under while abroad only “gives me a reassurance that I’m so wanted,” Zardari said.
Pakistan has, from its birth, in 1947, possessed many of the ingredients of a modestly successful country, but its political leaders have repeatedly sabotaged its potential. Some of the failure can be traced to the long-running conflict between civilian politicians and the Army. President Zardari, in addition to his considerable personal failings, has been constrained by the role of the military in national life. The Army ruled the country for most of its sixty-three years, often abetted by the United States.
The Obama Administration has declared that it intends to transform its relationship with Pakistan into a durable strategic partnership between two civilian-led democracies. The crisis provoked by this summer’s floods suggests how far there is to go. Among other challenges, the American and Pakistani people seem to hold increasingly negative views of one another. Since 2001, the United States has provided about eighteen billion dollars in military and economic aid to Pakistan, and yet sixty per cent of Pakistanis think of the United States as an enemy. The United States has waged war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in notional alliance with the Pakistani government, but most Pakistanis believe that these campaigns are in fact aimed at them.
There are steps that the United States could take to reduce its Evil Empire profile within the country, such as gradually withdrawing from direct combat in Afghanistan, while preserving political stability through regional negotiations that account for, among other things, Pakistan’s interests. There are steps that Pakistan’s Army and intelligence service could take to increase American confidence in their reliability, such as repudiating their ties to Islamist militias that seek to kill Americans or foment war with India, and by arresting the leaders of these groups and seizing their bank accounts.
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.
Pakistan’s floods—like the tsunami that swept across Indonesia’s northern provinces in 2004—threaten to set the country’s economic growth back by years. For the United States, preventing such an outcome should be recognized as a strategic as well as a humanitarian imperative. So far, the Obama Administration has displayed all the right instincts, by rushing relief to civilians, affirming the primacy of the country’s elected leaders, and galvanizing other governments to pitch in. As the waters recede, and the immediate crisis passes, however, the challenge will be to muster international investment to repair Pakistan’s infrastructure and catalyze its economic recovery.
The agricultural market towns in the flood zone—Ghotki, Jacobabad, Shahdadkot—are not notable breeding grounds for international terrorism. They are home instead to the marginal lives of another Pakistan, one poised for many years between aspiration and collapse—that of landless laborers, tenant farmers, bus drivers, and shopkeepers. These Pakistanis belong to no war party and live in peaceful indifference to the United States. To help reimagine their future, and that of their country, the place to begin is to come unconditionally to their aid.
This article was written by Steve Coll and published in The New Yorker.