Pakistan sits squarely among other strategic giants, flanked by Afghanistan, Iran, India, and China. It is a country desperately trying to modernize, bolster its economy and spur trade, improve education, and address growing energy demands. But threatening Pakistan's and regional stability is a dramatic rise in extremist activities as terrorist groups find refuge in the mountains.
In recent weeks, the Asia Program has hosted several experts to discuss political and security issues, and the program's director recently traveled to Islamabad to partake in a workshop that may lead to larger efforts this year toward advancing gender equality.
A Political View
On March 31, the Asia Program hosted Maleeha Lodhi, who served twice as Pakistan's ambassador to the United States (1994-97 and 1999-2002) and later as Pakistan's high commissioner to the United Kingdom (2003-08). A respected journalist, she is the first woman in all of Asia to be editor of a daily newspaper, having edited two of Pakistan's major English dailies, The News International and The Muslim.
Lodhi briefed the audience of South Asia experts on Pakistan's currently intertwined crises of governance, economics, and security. She discussed inhibitors to good governance in Pakistan, highlighted the various deficits—particularly the fiscal and trade ones—that threaten the country's long-term economic prospects, and depicted the alarming rise in violence in Pakistan over the last two years. She warned how such crises, if not resolved, can generate a public desire for peace at all costs,and she argued that Islamabad's recent efforts to conclude deals with militants, such as those in the Swat Valley, reflect such sentiments.
On the domestic front, Lodhi highlighted Pakistan's February 2008 parliamentary elections, in which the country went from military to civil rule, and Islamabad's recent decision to reinstate the country's chief justice, which was prompted by middle-class activism.
On foreign policy, Lodhi commented on President Obama's new strategic plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how Pakistanis view the plan. She said the Afghanistan portion, with its more modest set of objectives and its willingness to negotiate with some militants, dovetails with Pakistani opinion. However, Lodhi said other elements of the plan—particularly Obama's intention to condition U.S. assistance to Pakistan on the attainment of benchmarks—may face more resistance. She said sanctions do not work and Pakistanis resent such policies that seek to coerce cooperation. She suggested that Washington consider other ways of helping Pakistanis that do not impose conditionality or encroach on the country's domestic affairs.
Security: Unrest in FATA
Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), located in the country's volatile northwest, have become a hotbed of extremism and militancy. The region is so dangerous that few outsiders—including journalists—can access it, and information about FATA is hard to obtain.
Khalid Aziz, director of institutional capacity-building for the FATA secretariat, aims to counter this trend. Speaking at an April 13 ASIA PROGRAM event, he signaled his desire "to let the world know what's happening" in this troubled area, and "to give a human picture, on a ground level," of how FATA's instability has affected its long-suffering people.
Aziz first screened a short documentary about FATA, titled Cries of Anguish, which depicts the 3.5 million ethnic Pashtuns of FATA as a peaceful, independent people besieged by terrorists. Their lives are threatened by extremist forces, many of whom found refuge there after the 9/11 attacks. FATA has become a haven for warlords, drug barons, arms dealers, and Taliban fighters while many thousands of Pashtuns are living as refugees in their own country.
The film's commentators also highlight FATA's lack of development, which they attribute to the region's inaccessibility and the lack of funds from Islamabad. Employment opportunities are limited, and development assistance is now threatened by the rapid spread of extremism. Development, however, remains a chief desire of FATA's people. "Give us development and our due share and peace will follow," one man interviewed in the film promised.
After the film, Aziz discussed efforts to pacify the region. He said the more indirect approaches often succeed, such as working with tribes to create stability from within the structures of tribal elders. He said current pacification policies such as forging peace -treaties with militants only have increased radicalization in FATA and across Pakistan.
Aziz offered a range of solutions including tighter border controls, better counterinsurgency methods, and stronger Pakistani institutions. He urged better trust between the American and Pakistani militaries. He also acknowledged the effectiveness of using unmanned drone aircraft and championed their continued use—though under a Pakistani, rather than a U.S., flag.
Women and the Media
On March 14, a workshop took place in Islamabad to assess the Pakistani media's coverage of women and to highlight the barriers female journalists confront because of their gender. Sponsored by the Asia Program and Uks, a rights-based advocacy group dedicated to gender equality and women's development, the 17 participants ranged from print and broadcast journalists and executives to civil society members who advocate on behalf of women's issues.
"The purpose of this conference was to sensitize Pakistani media to the role of women in Pakistani society, to find ways the energies and talents of 50 percent of the Pakistani population can be better harnessed," said Asia Program Director Robert Hathaway, the only American in attendance. "The discussion shifted during the day to consideration of how to get more women into decision-making levels in the media."
Participants discussed how improved media coverage of women could help counter the growing bias against women in Pakistani society. They also discussed women as -reporters of news, from the absence of separate women's bathrooms in newsrooms to intolerance in the workplace.
Prior to the workshop, a media content analysis was done to identify gender gaps and biases in print and broadcast media. Workshop participants reviewed the findings and plan to draw up a code of ethics on the fair treatment of female employees that would be the cornerstone of a potential larger conference on this topic in Karachi this fall.
Two new books by Wilson Center staff and scholars highlight current challenges in Pakistan.
Powering Pakistan: Meeting Pakistan's Energy Needs in the 21st Century. Edited by Robert M. Hathaway and Michael Kugelman. Oxford University Press, 2009.
This new volume, co-edited by Robert Hathaway, director, and Michael Kugelman, program associate for the Asia Program, examines Pakistan's energy challenges. The book's 13 contributions highlight the mismatch between the country's energy requirements and likely power sources over the next several decades. The volume also considers steps Pakistan's government and private sector, foreign investors, and the international donor community might take to enable Pakistan to meet its energy needs.
Bangladesh and Pakistan: Flirting with Failure in South Asia. William B. Milam. Columbia University Press, 2009.
On March 2, the Asia Program held a book launch for Bill Milam, a Wilson Center senior scholar and past U.S. ambassador to the book's two subject countries. He said "failure" in the book's title does not refer to a total breakdown in law and order, but to a "dysfunctional behavior or action" that becomes a regional or global threat. In Pakistan, such a scenario would entail "some or all of the country" succumbing to extremist forces and becoming a "haven" for international jihadists. In the book, he addresses several themes that "lead us to worry about failure" in each nation including the growth of Islamism and relations with India. In Pakistan, he said, every foreign policy issue is seen through the lens of India.