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Commentary: Pakistan: Geopolitical conundrum

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large   |   May 15, 2013 at 6:13 AM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, May 15 (UPI) -- Sixty-six percent of Pakistan's 185 million people are under the age of 30 and almost all of them say they are worse off today than when they were 21.

They also say they would rather have a "strong leader" or one with a "strong hand" than a democracy.

Now they have what they wish -- Nawaz Sharif, 63, a former prime minister who was ousted in 1999 in Pakistan's fourth military coup since independence in 1947.

Thus, Pakistan has been ruled by the military for 33 years, or half of its life as an independent nation.

Almost 1 million Pakistani boys ages 6-16 attend single-discipline madrassas (Koranic schools), where they are taught the Koran by rote. These schools are free and the majority graduate with messages of hate against India, the United States and Israel.

Most Pakistanis (53 percent), a Pew Research Center analysis indicates, "doubt they can have any real political influence."

In Pakistan's first democratic transition from one elected civilian government to another in 66 years, Sharif returns to power.

Sharif spent most of his years out of power in exile as a guest of Saudi Arabia.

He was ousted in a military coup led by army Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf.

He was returning from a conference in Sri Lanka only to be kept in a holding pattern until his aircraft almost ran out of fuel. His assigned runway in Karachi was blocked by obstacles. The plane landed on a nearby military strip and Sharif was arrested and accused of treason.

Now Sharif is back with a comfortable win over all opponents to take over a dirt-poor country of 185 million as it faces a bloody jihadist insurgency.

In the past year, some 33,000 people were killed in a wide variety of terrorist attacks that spared Sharif's Punjab province, where he reigns.

Punjabis are Pakistan's largest ethnic group -- more than 40 percent of the population. And Punjab borders on all the other provinces. It was also the center of early civilization 3,300 B.C.

Since his return from his Saudi exile (which he chose instead of a long prison sentence), Sharif spearheaded verbal attacks against U.S. drone bombings of Taliban guerrillas in Pakistan's federally administered border region. His sympathies are clearly with Taliban's guerrillas fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan.

But in the wake of his Pakistan Muslim League-N Party's electoral victory, Sharif could afford to be magnanimous. He visited in the hospital his runner-up, the former cricket star Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan's Tehreek-e-Insaf.

Khan, with two days left in the campaign, fell off a forklift as it raised him to a platform for his closing speech. Skull and back injuries seemed almost symbolic for anyone who had the wherewithal to challenge Sharif.

To some long-time observers of Pakistan's political stage, Taliban rule in Pakistan is dangerously close to reality.

In the frontier province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Khan's PTI and Jamat-e-Islami are the new coalition partners, which means born-again MMA (United Council of Action, a coalition of religious parties), influenced by and sympathetic to, the Taliban, fighting U.S. and NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

Stripped of political verbiage, Pakistan's first truly free national election moves Taliban guerrillas dangerously close to checkmating the United States and its NATO allies as they prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Sharif, Khan and Islamic fundamentalists are on the same political page. Sharif could take all but he is most likely to broaden his base before informing the United States about the conditions for a new relationship.

Sharif presumably believes that whatever military funding he may lose from the United States will be adequately compensated by his Saudi friends.

One long-time observer of Pakistan's political theater says privately this will put an end to U.S. drone strikes against Taliban targets in their own country.

And if it doesn't, he adds, drones will be shot down by anti-aircraft fire or attacked by Pakistani air force F-16s.

Cognoscenti pessimists predict that Sharif's support of Khan, the Taliban and the "fundos" -- local slang for fundamentalists -- is the beginning of an "evil nexus against all moderate forces, both nationally and internationally."

Even cognoscenti moderates say U.S. "wishful thinking needs to be replaced with serious analysis and a better comprehension of ground realities."

Failing that, both pessimists and moderates agree 2014 could turn out to be a geopolitical nightmare.

Always lurking in the background when politics spin out of control in Pakistan: the formidable military establishment.

Sharif was turfed out 14 years ago by Pakistan's fourth military coup since independence. The threat of a fifth has to be front and center in his political and geopolitical calculations.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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