Since 2001, U.S. dealings with Pakistan have been guided primarily by security concerns -- and with Hina Rabbani Khar traveling to Washington for the first time as Pakistan's foreign minister this week, the buzz about Afghanistan, terrorism, and security is unlikely to abate. Indeed, the last time a Pakistani foreign minister visited Washington, Richard Holbrooke, then the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, felt compelled to remind Americans that "We don't work with Pakistan because of Afghanistan. We work with Pakistan because of Pakistan itself." It was hardly true in 2010 and it's even less true now. The possibility of working with Pakistan for its own sake remains overshadowed by the war in Afghanistan -- and will likely remain so even after NATO withdraws in 2014 given the negative security outlook.
The preoccupation with security persists because the stakes are so high: the security of the U.S. homeland, stability on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations -- the latter, of course, being an important determinant of the first two. Because of this, the dialogue on security should continue, but it has distracted us from other circumstances that are potentially more devastating for long-term stability in Pakistan and which also have broader implications for U.S. national security. For those of you planning to attend one of the events featuring Foreign Minister Khar in Washington or New York, consider asking her about something other than the Haqqani network, al Qaeda, or the Taliban. Below are three non-Afghanistan questions to ask the foreign minister; they keep real Pakistanis up at night, and they all affect U.S. interests.
1. Why is Pakistan a hotbed of religious extremism?
Pakistan, like many other Muslim countries, is experiencing a growing trend towards more conservative religious practice. This alone is not cause for concern, but it does mean the political space for secular and progressive interpretation of law, culture, and social behavior is shrinking. Just in the past month, gunmen pulled several Shiites off a bus in Quetta and shot them; Hindus fled Pakistan for India claiming persecution; and a fourteen-year-old Christian girl was jailed on false blasphemy claims. In an incident earlier this month at a McDonald's in Karachi, an employee objected to a married couple sitting side-by-side because it broke the rules. (The manager confirmed that such behavior was against the restaurant's policy on Islamic family atmosphere.) Maybe the owner of McDonald's Pakistan is an über fundamentalist trying to convert wayward Pakistanis one Big Mac at a time or maybe the franchise simply wants to avoid being targeted by violent extremists who deem such behavior inappropriate. Either way, it's a distressing sign of the times.
We can't blame the Pakistani Taliban alone for the rise of extremism throughout the country. Others responsible for fanning the flames include the militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, the pan-Islamist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and religious political parties like Jamaat-e-Islami. But the real question is not who, but why? Some say it's because moderate Muslims are unwilling to speak out against militancy. Others believe jihadist ideology justifies violence. A more controversial view holds Pakistan's legal system responsible for empowering extremists. The trend is a dangerous one where violence is regularly used as retribution for being on the wrong side of politics or religion. The United States could sit back and ignore much of this -- conservative social mores and attacks on religious minorities don't immediately impact its priorities in Pakistan. But the further the pendulum swings to the right, the more challenged U.S.-Pakistan relations will be since railing against the United States is a favorite pastime of violent extremists. Furthermore, the weak civilian government in Pakistan will be in no position to challenge ascendant extremists -- either out of fear of retribution or because of election-year political pressures.
2. Why has Karachi become a killing field?
While Washington has been obsessing about the Haqqani network, Karachi has become a killing field. The problems of the megalopolis do not seem to worry U.S. policymakers -- but they should. Karachi is one of the world's largest and most dangerous cities. The problems of its population, estimated to be anywhere from 14-20 million strong, are representative of the country's broader struggle to address changing demographic patterns.
Just take Karachi's changing ethnic composition and city politics -- a root cause of rising violence -- as an example. Mohajirs -- migrants from northern India -- have traditionally dominated Karachi's politics and economy through the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a secular political party with liberal positions on many social and political issues. The 1998 census listed Karachi's Mohajir population at roughly 50 percent. In the mid-2000s, the balance of power shifted with the influx of Pashtuns, who now represent an estimated 20-25 percent of the city's total population. This influx enabled the rise of the Pashtun nationalist Awami Nationalist Party, which, along with the Pakistan People's Party, has sought to carve off a greater share of the revenues from Karachi's enormous informal sector, which some unofficial sources estimate at $1 billion.