David A. Andelman: Pakistan on the Brink?

World Policy Journal hosted a group of top CEOs from leading Pakistani companies, as well as American companies with large Pakistani subsidiaries, and several members of the United States embassy in Islamabad, including the dynamic new ambassador, Anne W. Patterson.

The goal of the delegation was to persuade American investors and the media they read, that there is a continuing story of progress in Pakistan beyond the daily unrest that seems to make that country, the world’s sixth most-populous nation, a somewhat questionable destination for major investment initiatives.

Their case was a persuasive one. A representative of Proctor & Gamble described a $100 million investment that was being made there, in part to develop a factory to produce disposal diapers—for a nation that is adding some 11 million new babies a year and promises to continue doing so for the next century or more. Another noted a project to build new gas-fired power generating facilities, then there was a furniture manufacturer (Pearl Furniture based in Peshawar, the heart of the Northwest Frontier Province) and several conglomerates, each with their own compelling story.

The timing, of course, was unfortunate—we spoke the very day that word arrived of Taliban forces seizing control of the strategic Buner valley, barely 60 miles northwest of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. With the nation’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, acceding to the imposition of Islamic law in the northwestern Swat valley in a likely futile effort to appease the Taliban, radical Islamic fundamentalists seem to be in a position to cut off access to the entire northwestern region of Pakistan and turn it into a separate, terrorist-run state.

Still, when editors of World Policy Journal raised this issue with our guests, the leader of a major pharmaceutical manufacturer observed that it’s necessary when considering the question of such extremists to look at the big picture, and understand just who they are and especially who they represent.

“Religious traditionalists are not religious fundamentalists,” observed Asif Jooma, managing director of Abbott Laboratories (Pakistan) Ltd., and president of the American Business Council of Pakistan. His nation, he suggested, contains multiples more of the former than the latter.

Pakistan is a nation where Islam plays an important, indeed, a central role in society and life. But fundamentalists, he continued, do not—they still represent only a small fringe of society. The more rapidly this nation can develop, and build a strong, viable middle class (as has neighboring India), the fewer converts fundamentalists will have to their cause, the more marginalized they will become, and the more stable the nation and its economic and financial infrastructure.

The question that remains, however, is a fundamental one. Which will arrive first? A vibrant nation with a thriving middle class or the seizure of power (and the country’s nuclear arsenal) by violent fringe elements while Pakistan’s 500,000-strong army remains fixated on the phantom of an invasion from neighboring India that will never come?

David A. Andelman is the editor of World Policy Journal and The World Policy Blog. A veteran domestic and foreign correspondent and editor of The New York Times, CBS News, and most recently Forbes.com, he is the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.

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