In South Asia, the new year has begun with brutal fighting which threatens to derail uncertain rapprochement between India and Pakistan. In a daring raid, an armed group invaded an air force base in northern India. The United Jihad Council, a militant group seeking an end to Indian rule in Kashmir, has claimed credit. At the same time, there has an attack on an Indian consulate in Afghanistan.
Only a week earlier, India Prime Minister visited Pakistan. The attacks threaten multilateral talks involving Afghanistan, India and Pakistan along plus China and the U.S.
In 2012, young Malala Yousafzai if Pakistan was shot by the Taliban in revenge for her advocacy of education for females. She survived, and has become a vital international symbol of courage. Vital Voices Global Partnership, a nonprofit organization to empower girls and women, established the Malala Fund.
Global media emphasis on violence in and around Pakistan reflects the region’s strategic importance, but overshadows progress in democratic politics and orderly alternation of governments.
In September 2013, beleaguered Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, who did not seek re-election, was succeeded by Mamnoon Hussain. This was the first peaceful presidential transition in the history of the country. In May 2013, National Assembly elections provided a significant victory to Nawaz Sharif and his opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N. President Hussain is a Sharif ally. Despite violence, turnout in these elections was approximately sixty percent.
The orderly office handover to the opposition represents a distinctive departure from the nation’s history of military coups. Sharif was prime minister twice earlier. He was forced out of the post in 1999 in a military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and spent more than a decade in exile in Saudi Arabia.
The election was a serious reversal for the powerful Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) dominated by the Bhutto family, and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Charismatic Benazir Bhutto also served twice as prime minister. She was making a dramatic third effort to win national power when she was brutally assassinated late in December 2007.
In recent years, Pakistan-U.S. relations have been vexed. Pakistan since 9/11 has been a front line in the struggle against terrorism. Targeted killings of individuals by American drone aircraft have caused intense continuing controversy.
Osama bin Laden’s ability to hide in Abbottabad raised suspicion that Pakistani officials may have been complicit in concealing him. That government was not informed in advance of the U.S. SEAL Team 6 raid which killed him.
Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons. This vastly raises the stakes of a possible radical takeover of power. Pakistan and U.S. militaries cooperate closely on securing these weapons, in a long-established durable partnership.
Historically, the nation has been a relatively solid ally of the West, a point almost always overlooked in media commentary. The British-trained military is extremely capable. During the Cold War, Pakistan was generally a conservative counterweight to neutralist India and communist China.
In the 1950s, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles ensured that this important ally joined both the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), designed to replicate NATO in the Middle East and South Asia respectively. The nation was unique in membership in both alliances. Both alliances are long gone, but the geostrategic importance of Pakistan continues.
While media emphasize Islamabad-Washington strains, threats of Islamic radicalism, and incidents of brutal violence, reality – as usual – is more complex, and more promising.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (Palgrave/Macmillan and NYU Press). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org