Economic Woes, Security and Political Concerns Continue to Plague Pakistan

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WHILE PAKISTAN'S Feb. 18 elections did bring a return to democracy, they did not herald the end of the country's problems. The assassination of Pakistan People's Party leader Benazir Bhutto the previous Dec. 27 created a major political vacuum, from which the only person to benefit has been Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who is now the country's president.

Politically, it is all Zardari's show. He is hardly unaware of his poor reputation-his nickname of "Mr. 10 Percent" is a reminder of the kickbacks he was widely believed to have received when his wife was prime minister in the 1980s and part of the '90s. Nor is Zardari's word his bond: having promised to transfer real political power from the president to the prime minister, in fact he has gone on to exercise increasing authority as president and undermine the power of the prime minister.

Pakistan's current economic and security problems were hardly unpredictable-economic indicators gave fair warning that its troubles would increase if not tackled adequately and promptly. According to Shaukat Tareen, special assistant of finance, Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves have dropped drastically, to the point where today the country needs immediate monetary help within 30 days to avoid defaulting on its national debt.

When the West, facing economic problems of its own, declined to come to Pakistan's financial rescue, Zardari dashed off to China to seek assistance. Beijing offered long-term project assistance, but no cash. Tareen has urged Pakistani industrialists to invest domestically, and Pakistanis living abroad to send remittances home.

Islamabad has been trying to avoid approaching the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help because of the stringent controls the IMF would impose before extending any funds. Nevertheless, today the IMF appears to be Pakistan's best bet.

Analysts argue that the West will not allow Pakistan, an unstable nuclear power, to become a failed state. Yet the situation deteriorates with each passing week: Pakistanis are confronting severe food shortages, skyrocketing inflation, an unemployment rate peaking at 40 percent-all compounded by a severe shortage of electricity, with the government shutting off powers for nearly 12 hours a day in major cities like Karachi and Lahore. This has resulted in street demonstrations throughout Pakistan.

The other issue that demands immediate attention is the ever-worsening law-and-order situation. Bombings have become an almost weekly occurrence, with suicide bombers staging attacks across the country. The Sept. 20 attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad demonstrated the reach of those violently opposed to the government. The areas bordering Afghanistan and in Pakistan's Swat Valley, where the Pakistani army has launched anti-Taliban operations, are particularly unstable. While it has issued no loud protests against U.S. drone attacks in the area, Islamabad has strongly objected to Washington sending ground troops into Pakistan to engage Taliban forces. The latest thinking in Pakistan is to strengthen tribal leaders opposed to the Taliban and let them, instead of the army, fight the dissidents. The U.S.-led coalition and NATO forces in Afghanistan disagree with this tactic, however, fearing it would strengthen the Taliban, and even al-Qaeda, in the area.

In response to the Taliban demand that shariah (Islamic law) be introduced in Pakistan, Islamabad has allowed the implementation of certain aspects of shariah in some parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) where religious groups wield political influence. This is a matter of concern to the majority of moderate secular Pakistanis.

A committee of National Assembly members appointed by the government to review the country's situation and recommend ways to deal with it met behind closed doors and formulated a 14-point resolution which was adopted by the National Assembly and the Senate on Oct. …

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