10 years into Afghan war, Pakistan gripped by crises

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 6, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Ten years into the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, neighboring Pakistan, despite receiving billions of dollars in U.S. military and financial support, continues to be gripped by an economic crisis and persistent terrorist attacks.

Former U.S. and Pakistani diplomats say that Pakistan's decision to support the war has worsened its own security, dampened exports, reduced foreign investment and tourism and slowed the privatization of its heavily state-controlled industries. All that has led to lower tax revenue, bloated security spending, damage to roads and basic infrastructure and huge costs to care for millions of Pakistanis who have fled the volatile tribal areas and become refugees in their own country.

"Result: a broken country," said Rustam Shah Mohmand, formerly Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, Pakistan was already plagued by economic problems and its government accused of supporting Islamist militants fighting Indian rule in the disputed Kashmir region.

Ten years after the U.S. invasion, as the Obama administration tries to wind down what has become the longest war in American history, Pakistan's contributions to the Afghan war effort have become the source of escalating tensions between Washington and Islamabad — particularly since the May 2 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden at his hideout not far from the Pakistani capital.

Pakistan's cooperation in rounding up suspected militants and allowing the U.S. military to use its territory to supply its forces in Afghanistan are critical parts of the U.S. war effort. Its participation in the war has made Pakistan a target of terrorism, particularly by the ferocious Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, based in the country's remote tribal areas.

But the Pakistani intelligence agency's widely alleged links to some militant groups — including the Haqqani network, based in Pakistan's tribal areas, which U.S. commanders call the No. 1 threat to their forces in Afghanistan — has led many U.S. and Afghan officials to conclude that Pakistan is playing a "double game," as Afghan President Hamid Karzai said earlier this week.

"(Pakistan's) participation in the war on terror has been ambiguous," said Teresita C. Schaffer, a longtime U.S. diplomat in South Asia.

"Its relationship with parts of the Taliban movement, including the Haqqanis, has effectively put Pakistan in the position of supporting those who were conducting the war against the United States," she said.

Many Pakistanis believe their government's complicated role in Afghanistan has worsened the plight of ordinary people in the nation of 180 million. In a recent interview with Pakistan's independent Dawn newspaper, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the war has cost Pakistan $68 billion.

According to Pakistani government officials, the U.S. financial support — including aid and military payments — has amounted to less than $20 billion since 2001.

Even before 2001, Pakistan's economic health was shaky because of global sanctions imposed after it detonated nuclear bombs in 1998. Experts say that the economy was beginning to stabilize by 2000 as improved access to credit gave Pakistanis more purchasing power.

All that came to a halt after the U.S. launched the war in Afghanistan, which destabilized the region and sent investors packing. In the past 10 years, inflation has jumped from 4.4 percent to 16 percent, while Pakistan's national debt has climbed from $30 billion to $60 billion.

Mohmand blamed the "disastrous policy" adopted by Pakistan's former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, to join the U.S. war effort. When Musharraf seized power in a 1999 military coup, Pakistan lost its membership in the Commonwealth of Nations, a grouping of more than 50 former members of the British Empire.

To help repair his image — or, as Mohmand put it, "legitimize his illegal regime" — Musharraf backed the Afghan war.

"In the 1980s when the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan, millions migrated to Pakistan, hundreds of thousands perished — but there was no insurgency or collapse of order," Mohmand said. "This time around (Musharraf) plunged Pakistan into a war that it should never be fighting."

Since 2001, there have been some 335 suicide attacks in Pakistan as compared to only one previously, according to the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, an independent think tank in Islamabad. The attacks escalated sharply after Pakistani government forces in 2007 attacked the Red Mosque in Islamabad, which had reportedly been infiltrated by Islamic militants. More than 10,000 civilians have been killed in terror attacks across the country, the institute says.

Amir Rana, the institute's head, estimated that Pakistan's already weak roads and communications infrastructure had been damaged by the transportation of NATO supplies through Pakistan and into Afghanistan. He estimated damages to the communication sector alone at $7 billion.

Stephen Cohen, an expert on South Asia at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that Pakistan had suffered "in large part because it still tacitly or explicitly supports Taliban and related groups as it seeks to shape the outcome of the war in Afghanistan."

Cohen said that the U.S.-Pakistan alliance was tense because Pakistan — bordered on the east by its archenemy, India — is eager to maintain some control over its western neighbor, Afghanistan.

"I think the real cause of the problem is the difference in strategic goals between Washington and Islamabad," Cohen said. "They want different kinds of results in Afghanistan. This is a very serious problem."

President Barack Obama, in a news conference Thursday, called Pakistan "an effective partner" in the Afghan war but said that Pakistan's military and intelligence services have allied themselves with some "unsavory characters" in an attempt to ensure that Afghanistan doesn't fall into India's orbit.

"What we've tried to persuade Pakistan of is that it is in their interest to have a stable Afghanistan, that they should not be feeling threatened by a stable, independent Afghanistan," Obama said. "We've tried to get conversations between Afghans and (Pakistanis) going more effectively than they have been in the past."

Mohmand said that was one of the reasons why Pakistan had failed to launch a robust peace initiative that would end the Afghan war.

"It's a weak government (in Islamabad) that neither understands the dynamic of the conflict in Afghanistan nor in the tribal areas nor does it have any genuine motive to safeguard national interests," he added.

But Aziz Ahmed Khan, who served as Pakistan's ambassador to both India and Afghanistan, said that Pakistan had no choice but to get involved in Afghanistan because of geography and demographic reasons. Afghanistan's ethnic majority, the Pashtun, also have a large population inside Pakistan.

Kahn said the United States underestimated the costs suffered by Pakistan.

"There is a disappointing lack of appreciation of Pakistan's role and sacrifices, both in men and material, in helping the U.S. fight terrorism," Khan said.

"Pakistan is being made the fall guy for failures for which others are responsible."

(Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.)

(McClatchy special correspondents Raza and Naqash are journalists at Dawn, a leading independent newspaper in Pakistan. They are working in McClatchy's Washington Bureau under a partnership with the International Center for Journalists.)

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