By Parag Khanna
On Pakistan's 62nd birthday, the country's rumor mill has much to churn on, even by local standards.
First, is TTP mastermind Baitullah Mehsud actually dead? And does it matter given the history of decapitation of terrorist groups resulting in the formation of an ever greater number of smaller ones? Maybe more significant than Mehsud's fate is the Pakistani parliament's follow-on announcement that it has lifted the long-standing ban on political activity in the FATA and its 4 million almost completely disenfranchised residents.
The law is expected to pass parliament soon, and represents a long overdue effort to step up the inclusion of the largely Taliban controlled region into provincial and national politics. As PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar put it, "This breaks the monopoly of clerics to play politics from the pulpit of the mosque to the exclusion of major secular political parties." I wrote about the need for and implications of this step four months ago. This could represent the start of a positive political dynamic in the FATA, even if the road ahead is a very long one.
Another subject of widespread speculation is the expansion of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, both geographically/physically and plans to deploy about 1,000 officers, marines and other staff there. Anyone who has been to Baghdad in the past five years will certainly be scratching their heads given how pointless, redundant, and idle much of the over-crowded U.S. diplomatic presence in Iraq was. The same could certainly be the case in Pakistan, another post falling into the "hardship" and "no family" categories of the State Department, meaning Foreign Service Officers usually spend no more than a year there. That is enough time to waste a lot of taxpayer money while achieving just about nothing.
In a related vein, USAID plans to spend $1 billion on "governance" in 26 districts of Pakistan, which if plotted on a map not surprisingly overlap with areas known to be sources of recruitment for the Taliban and Islamist militias like Lashkar-e-Taiba scattered around NWFP, Baluchistan, Sindh, and Punjab. Pakistanis and American development contractors and consultants are keenly waiting to hear more as to what exactly is planned and how USAID intends to improve governance in these areas.
A little noticed story from the BBC is that the Turkey-Pakistan freight rail corridor is about to make its maiden trial voyage with 20 containers of cargo. Cross-border infrastructure-railways and pipelines-can be very revealing about long-term geopolitical change: they are the lines that matter as much as borders on the map. The 4,000 mile route from Istanbul to Islamabad via Tehran is notable not only for the fact that this is a rough neighborhood, but also that the project has been sponsored by the Cold War relic Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), clearly not defunct yet.
In fact, the railway could boost trade across the three regional powers well over its current paltry $1 billion annually. It also follows on growing Iranian provision of electricity to energy-starved Pakistan, as well as renewed Iranian-Pakistani-Indian dialogue over the IPI gas pipeline which has eluded agreement over the past decade. This will be crucial for the development of Baluchistan, where stepped up attacks by insurgents have led China to stop work on a major gas refinery at Gwadar. Without such projects, Baluchistan will not only continue to fester, it could become another Pashtunistan.
Ashraf Ghani is campaigning in Afghanistan partially on the platform that cross-border energy (specifically hydro-power) projects with Tajikistan and other Central Asian states are crucial to Afghanistan's long-term development. He is right -- and the U.S. should be promoting the creation of new electrified and oil-slicked Silk Roads across the Af-Pak terrain.
There is much more grist for the mill such as the potential impacts of the Afghan elections and NATO troop surge on Pakistan, the post-Mehsud fate of the Pakistani military plans to move more strongly into North Waziristan, and whether or not Musharraf will indeed be arrested on his return to the country. It will be a long year ahead until Pakistan 63rd birthday.