Ever so often, when Pakistan is rocked by internal crises, external players swing into action, huddling with the protagonists and seemingly brokering a solution. Americans, the British, EU officials, Saudis, princes from the UAE, the Japanese, Australians — name a country with even a modicum of international standing, and its officials are likely to be found involved in crisis diplomacy here. The result is the popular perception that Pakistan’s destiny is in the hands of outsiders and were it not for their ‘interference’ the issues that haunt this country would at least be more manageable. But that perception is simplistic at best and plain wrong at worst. Foreign powers are not involved in Pakistan’s affairs on a lark or because they can; they come here because this country is often a dangerous mess.
Take stock of the problems Pakistan represents from an international perspective. Top of the list are militancy and nuclear weapons. By themselves they are not insurmountable problems. After all, India has problems with militancy and Israel menaces its neighbours with nuclear weapons. But Pakistan is different in that control of the state is still being contested by groups that inspire little confidence. On the one hand, there is the political class, weak, fractious and bereft of statesmanship. On the other hand, there is the army, considered the only stable institution in the country, but guided by a predatory elite that hasn’t grasped the nuances of running a state despite four stints in charge and that has repeatedly made catastrophic military judgments. As these two groups have alternated in power, the state’s capacity to govern has gradually but definitely deteriorated. So when some of the world’s biggest problems are married to a declining local ability to deal with them, the world at large worries. Which is why the world powers roam the corridors of power here, trying to prevent the state from eventually keeling over.
But they can only do so much. Consider the present crisis in Pakistan. There is little leverage that the Americans or anyone else can have over the Sharif brothers at the moment. If they are intent on taking the battle to the streets in the belief that the Punjab public will support them, it is hard to stop them from going for broke. Meanwhile, with the PPP, if the leadership does decide that it wants a PPP-led government in Punjab at all costs and can in fact win the support of the PML-Q, there is little that can be done to deter it. So far from dictating outcomes, the outside powers will be trying to make the protagonists realise their own self-interest. There is no guarantee that they will succeed, but with all that is at stake it is hard to fault them for at least trying.