Thursday, January 10, 2008

What, if anything, is Europe to do about Pakistan?

by Melissa Ball and Tomas Valasek

As if to prove that “when it rains, it pours”, Pakistan took yet another step towards chaos with the assassination on December 27th of Benazir Bhutto, the country’s former prime minister. This comes on the heels of months of protests by the country’s lawyers and judges, a mounting Islamist challenge to Pakistan’s secular nature, and the increasing isolation of Pervez Musharraf’s regime. With Bhutto’s untimely death, the country’s best hope for stability – a power-sharing agreement between Bhutto and Musharraf – is no longer possible. And while Pakistan remains relatively calm for now (it could be worse), a violent regime change or even a civil war no longer seem implausible.

Pakistan matters enormously. It borders the rising powers of India and China as well as two of the world’s worst trouble spots, Afghanistan and Iran. A failed Pakistan is certain to destabilize Afghanistan, and may well derail India’s peaceful development (if the violence in the contested region of Kashmir worsens). Equally importantly for Europe, Pakistan’s northwestern region serves as training and recruiting ground for al-Qaeda terrorists. Pakistan-trained terrorists have already struck in the UK but Germans, too, were found to be training in Pakistan’s terrorist camps, and the Taliban also claims to have French and other nationalities in its ranks. Add to this a sizeable stash of nuclear weapons, and the prospect of Pakistan disintegrating into its ethnic constituencies becomes scary indeed.

Pakistan may be thousands of miles away from Europe but its collapse would certainly reverberate here as well. Europe must think hard about what can be done to help. The Europeans’ biggest stake in Pakistan is via their involvement in Afghanistan. Troops from 21 European countries there are having a terrible time fighting the Taliban, who draw support from the tribes in Pakistan’s lawless northwestern region. It is becoming clear that Afghanistan cannot be secured unless Pakistan’s tribal areas are brought under some semblance of central control. If Pakistan collapses, that task will become impossible, and the chance for a successful Afghan state may slip away.

NATO commands the Afghanistan operation, and until recently, it ran a busy military-to-military dialogue with Pakistan. That conversation has largely stopped for now, NATO officials say, until Pakistan’s internal situation becomes more stable. But when and if it resumes, European countries involved in NATO’s Afghanistan mission should use the forum to press Pakistan for more co-operation on the fight against the Taliban. They should also explore whether the scope of the debates can be expanded to include Pakistan’s domestic situation.

But beyond this forum Europe’s leverage over Pakistan is limited. The reality is that events in Pakistan have a bigger impact on Europe than the European Union (EU) exerts on Pakistan. Asian countries by and large view the EU as a collection of nation-states rather than a whole. While on trade issues they speak to the EU, on foreign policy national capitals matter far more than the union. London almost certainly has a bigger say in Pakistan than Brussels.

That would be fine in principle except that member-states find it difficult to have a meaningful influence alone. In Pakistan, even the United States tried and failed to broker a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance. Islamabad has become introverted and closed.

The question then becomes how to use the EU’s limited influence, and, whether it is possible to expand it. On the first count, Europe’s main goal should be to ensure that the Pakistani elections next month are fair, free and timely. Europe has offered to send an election monitoring mission to assist with the forthcoming elections on February 18th (moved from January 8th). This includes 11 election experts and fifty long-term observers. Europe should make it clear to Musharraf that he must not delay the elections any longer for his own political gain, as Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (which stands to benefit the most from the sympathy factor) fears. Musharraf’s decreasing credibility in conjunction with rigged elections would snuff out any hope of return to normality in the near to medium term.

Europe should also use its leverage over the US to lean on Washington to insist on fully democratic elections. For too long, Musharraf, who has been a willing aide in Washington’s fight against terrorism, enjoyed America’s nearly total support, despite having previously overthrown a civilian government. That attitude has begun to change lately – the US was behind the push for a Bhutto-Musharraf alliance, and US diplomats have been quietly talking to some of the Islamists opposition parties, too. Europe should encourage Washington to fully end their dependency on Musharraf, and to press for democratic elections.

Beyond these measures there seem precious few options for the EU to act, certainly in the short run. Since the September 11th attacks the EU has consciously tried to strengthen its role in the country. It gave Pakistani goods preferential access to European markets. In 2005 the EU provided tens of millions of euros to help Pakistan deal with the aftermath of a massive earthquake. Yet none of this seems to have raised Europe’s profile much. Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy representative is said to be speaking to Musharraf often but to little effect. But for now, Europe’s best hope is to use its limited leverage to press for democracy, and to hope for Musharraf to become more open to outside influence. A visit to Brussels would be a strong signal of interest.

In the long run, the EU could and should use its know-how in institution-building to help Pakistan overcome its ethnic divisions. As things stand, Pakistan’s political parties represent regional and ethnic interests rather than ideas. And while Bhutto, who hailed from the southern Sindh province, has gained nation-wide appeal and always viewed herself as Pakistani first, the fear is that her successors will put Sindhi interests before Pakistan. In that case, even if the elections are free and fair, the late Bhutto’s party victory may exacerbate ethnic tensions and fail to produce a stable government (not unlike in Iraq, where elections manifestly failed to heal the ethnic divide between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds).

The EU member-states have considerable know-how in building modern political parties. Those skills have already helped transform the politics of Central and Eastern Europe. The EU member-states should brainstorm about whether a similar formula could be applied to Pakistan. The strife-ridden country badly needs to transcend the politics of ethnicity. If the EU can help, it would make a major contribution to the stability of Pakistan – and perhaps win for itself a greater role in Pakistan’s domestic politics.

Melissa Ball is an associate at SEI and Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.

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