Acting like an especially convivial nightclub manager, Pervez Musharraf storms the room and opens with a joke: “You should come to Pakistan – it’s the most happening place in the world, where there’s never a dull moment!”
There is nervous laughter. The man who was the military ruler of Pakistan for seven years would like to get back into politics, this time by election. “I’m no longer a military man,” he says, “so I cannot take over anything.” Even more nervous laughter. The generals, in Pakistan, are never far from power.
For decades, Pakistan has served the world as a large and obstreperous military force that inconveniently happens to have a nation attached. Nowadays, as far as the West is concerned, it mainly acts as the denominator in what the military calls “Af-Pak,” the war against the Taliban.
The week began with an exceptionally non-dull moment that confirmed this view, and showed what has changed since Mr. Musharraf’s departure in 2008. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency said that, with the help of the CIA, it had captured the Taliban’s second-ranking Afghan leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in northern Pakistan. This was considered a huge aid to the current Afghan military surge, in which Canada’s soldiers are playing a spearhead role, and a new phase in Pakistani-Western co-operation.
Throughout most of the Afghan war, Pakistan’s military and Mr. Musharraf had argued that, while it was worth using its soldiers to expel the Pakistan-based Taliban from places such as the Swat valley and North Waziristan, they weren’t interested in going after the Afghan Taliban leaders headquartered along the border in Pakistan.
Islamabad told the increasingly exasperated U.S. and NATO leaders that Pakistan wanted to stay friendly with the Afghan Taliban because it was worth maintaining influence over Afghan affairs. And, it said, the Pakistani army was too busy with other conflicts to risk opening another front against the Afghan forces. Those “other conflicts” are the root of everything that’s wrong with Pakistan, and everything that’s been wrong with the way we’ve treated this country.
Most Pakistani soldiers have never been deployed along the country’s northwest border with Afghanistan. They are overwhelmingly concentrated on the eastern border, preparing for a showdown with India that will never occur, at outrageous expense.
Mr. Musharraf drives this point home: After some perfunctory remarks about the Taliban, his talk is all about India’s plots, India’s intransigence, India’s dangerous meddling in Afghan affairs, India’s unwillingness to reason, India’s problem with Islamic extremism within its own borders, and even, heaven help us, India’s secret responsibility for fomenting Islamism within Pakistan. This is not just Mr. Musharraf’s view. The army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, said in a briefing this week that Pakistan’s No. 1 one threat remains India.
The Indian threat is a constant and popular trope in Pakistani politics. It is used by every elected leader to gain victory, and by every military dictator to justify seizing power. It’s a national obsession but one that kills. Pakistan officially spends 5 per cent of its national income on military-related expenses, compared with 0.7 per cent on health, according to Unicef. That makes Pakistan one of the biggest military spenders in the world, while having appalling infant-mortality rates, an average lifespan below 50, and education and literacy levels far below its neighbours.
While there’s no real danger of the Taliban’s taking over Pakistan, electorally or militarily, there’s a danger of Pakistanis becoming destitute and hospitable to terrible ideas – largely because we’ve turned the country into an anti-India military force.
The two nuclear powers came very close to resolving their Kashmir conflict in 2008. But the Mumbai terror attacks (carried out by Pakistanis) made such talks politically impossible until after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had got a national election out of the way, and that occurred last year.
On Thursday, there was an even more important non-dull moment: India said it will resume talks to try to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Mr. Singh acknowledged that India’s impressive economic and human-development progress was being jeopardized by this simmering, expensive conflict. For India, resolution is worth a loss of face. For Pakistan, it never will be.
Never mind Af-Pak: The world urgently needs to fix Kash-Pak. We must do everything we can to make these peace talks work, for everything, including the Afghan conflict and the lives of hundreds of millions of people, depends on Pakistan’s generals being proved wrong.