It's Morning in Islamabad

Yes, it’s broke, violent, and tumultuous. But here are five reasons Pakistan is better off than you think.

As Pakistan prepares to return to the polls on May 11, dark clouds loom. What should be a time of celebration for a country experiencing its first democratic transition in 63 years has turned into a somber and strange moment of quasi-reflection.

Politicians and their families face the ongoing wrath of the Pakistani Taliban, as terrorists keep their promises of spilling the blood of openly anti-Taliban parties. Electricity in many parts of the country is in short supply, the treasury is near empty, and the government -- unlike the Taliban -- is unable to keep its promise of preventing terrorist attacks and ensuring security.  

Meanwhile, tensions are surging on Pakistan's border. To the west, Afghan and Pakistani forces exchanged fire in early May, prompting Afghan President Hamid Karzai to question the very nature of the border between the two countries, known as the Durand Line. On April 26, an Indian terrorist serving a life sentence in a Pakistani jail was beaten to death by inmates. Indian prisoners responded with a pick-axe attack on a Pakistani prisoner in an Indian jail.

Domestic tensions, and those with Afghanistan and India, probably won't spin out of control, but still, life isn't easy for Pakistani optimists.

Despite it all -- and this is Pakistan, so all is quite a lot -- there are significant reasons to be hopeful. Here are the five biggest.

1. Feisty democracy

This first-ever transition from one elected government to the next is a big deal, partially because Pakistanis are depressingly familiar with military interventions preceding power transfers. But it's also important because Pakistan's recent experience with democracy has been so unpleasant.

The word "democracy" has become a tragic punchline in Pakistan, ever since President Asif Ali Zardari appealed to rioters reacting to his wife Benazir Bhutto's December 2007 assassination by stating that "democracy is the best revenge." Elected to succeed his wife, Zardari now oversees a notoriously inept government: his nominees for prime minister have all been investigated, indicted, or convicted for corruption.

Zardari's government has also had to endure, in 2008 alone, the blowback from the Mumbai terror attacks, near bankruptcy, and a return to the International Monetary Fund for another $7.6 billion after the global financial crisis. Three years later, 2011 saw the Raymond Davis incident, the humiliating U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden, and the U.S.-NATO attack on the Pakistani border post of Salala that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. These stresses claimed many scalps, including former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and former National Security Advisor Mahmud Durrani. That's not to mention several high-profile political assassinations -- and many thousands dead from fighting. To top it all off, in 2010, Pakistan experienced one of the most devastating floods of the 20th century, affecting more than 20 million people and marginalizing the agrarian economies of the Pakistani heartland for almost a year.

And yet, after enduring these calamities Pakistanis are not only engaged in a major political debate about the future, but also likely to break records for voter turnout on May 11.

What Pakistan has gone through since 2008 would have wiped out any chance of another free election in the Pakistan of the past. Yet there is now confidence and hope that not every government will be as feckless the last. Whatever the election result is on May 11, a young and fragile democracy is going to take a giant leap.

2. Activist judges

When then President Pervez Musharraf tried to fire him in 2007, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry refused to go quietly into the sun. Like his predecessors, Musharraf had used the judiciary to help him discredit and imprison political opponents, and then disposed the judges that grow a conscience or chose a different team.

Instead of rolling over, Chaudhry fought back. He rallied some of the lawyers he knew, and within days, a movement emerged. Lawyers across the country gathered in support of a single cause: the reinstatement of Chaudhry. Musharraf miscalculated the intensity of the fury that they were channeling -- less around Chaudhry and more around the fatigue the country felt after eight years of Musharraf's monotonous and ineffective rule.

Two years, one national emergency, millions of marchers, and a national election later, the chief justice was finally restored in March 2009. Since then, he has revitalized the judiciary by making it part of the daily national discourse. To do so, he's taken on explicitly political cases, becoming a folk hero in the process. Former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, elected unopposed in 2008 -- and, with a four year term, the longest serving PM in Pakistan's history -- was felled by Chaudhry after Gilani refused to reopen fraud investigations against his boss, Zardari. Chaudhry has repeatedly hauled in key officials suspected of corruption, cementing the Supreme Court's status as a power center.

Yes, Chaudhary's model of activism is fraught with all kinds of political and institutional risk, and will contaminate the imagination of the next generation of Supreme Court judges, some of whom will seek to grab more power than Chaudhry currently wields. But his activism has helped create a vital venting mechanism for Pakistan. In the Pakistan of old, Gilani might have been handed his walking papers by a general on a tank, illegally and unconstitutionally. The judges have found a way to challenge unbridled executive authority by bending the Pakistani constitution, rather than breaking it.

The most poignant sign of the judiciary coming of age is its treatment of Musharraf: The former dictator was jailed in April in the house he built to retire in. Once again, Chaudhry has showed Pakistan that the military is not above the law.

3. Freer media

Despite threats of violence from insurgents and terrorists, the media continues to hold up a remarkably candid and brutal mirror to the face of powerful Pakistanis -- be they in uniform, robes, or the suits and shalwar kameez of politicians and businessmen.

For example, consider the outrage sparked in April after lower court judges rejected the candidacy of politicians because they didn't seem "Muslim enough." In came the journalists, pens and microphones blazing. Three days later, the hullabullo was over. Ten years ago, very few of those politicians would have had any advocates in the public discourse, and most would have been shouted down by obscurantists batting for those judges.

There is, of course, much room for improvement. Pakistan ranks 159th in Reporters Without Borders' 2013 Press Freedom Index, just below Egypt. And on May 9, the major networks played, on incessant loop, video of people falling out of a burning building to their deaths. But that hunger for ratings and scoops is also what has produced a range of incredible acts of journalistic courage, all of which help sustain the status of the media as the steward of hope for a more free and pluralistic Pakistani public discourse.

4. Youth surge

More than 100 million of Pakistan's 177 million people are below the age of 25 -- and they're referred to in Islamabad as a "ticking bomb." Yet Pakistani youth are increasingly raised in cities, to families that can broadly be categorized as middle class. They are the apple of marketers' and advertisers' eyes; as regional and global telecoms and consumer goods manufacturers seek to expand beyond the BRICs, they are coming to countries like Pakistan. Pakistani youth have access to the Internet, to mobile phones, and to the ideas and information these technologies bring.

And this election has become about them. Prime ministerial* candidate Imran Khan, whose status as a Pakistani icon was sealed when he won for his country the cricket World Cup in 1992, became even more cherished when he raised money for the construction of Pakistan's premier cancer hospital in the mid-1990s, as a memorial to the mother he lost to the disease. Despite accusations to the contrary, Khan has an excellent record of public service and integrity, which drives his appeal among youth. For 16 years, he peddled these qualities in a Pakistan whose politics was dominated by Benazir Bhutto and the pro-business Nawaz Sharif. And then something shifted. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it was -- maybe the fatigue from the tired and broken rhetoric of the traditional parties. But in October 2011, more than 100,000 Pakistanis, many young and middle class, came together in Lahore to demand "change."

Khan's rhetoric has not changed since the 1990s. It is raw, simplistic, and incredibly powerful: He wants an end to patronage and corruption. The crowds Khan is drawing across all four of the country's provinces are reminiscent of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's cross-ethnic, cross-provincial appeal (though Bhutto didn't deliver on many of his promises). Then, as now, a national leader rode to power on the back of young people. Khan may not win the election on May 11, but he is the trigger-man for an entire generation of Pakistan and its engagement with politics. Their continued and sustained involvement in the affairs of their country could help mold a Pakistan that holds itself accountable for its actions -- internally and externally.

5. Indian thaw

Since the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, there has been a predictable hardening of opinion in India about what Pakistan represents: instability and violence.

But in Pakistan, India no longer represents the first, or even the second, most important villain. Sometimes, it's no longer even seen as a public enemy. It could be because of a new preoccupation with the United States as the principal tormentor, or because of domestic crises unrelated to India. Perhaps most importantly, Pakistan's elite have decided to prioritize trade and regional prosperity over disputes that neither country will outright win.

Consider the Pakistani reaction to events that have set the Indian national discourse on fire. In January, both India and Pakistan breached the uneasy border between the two countries. India was furious, particularly after accounts surfaced of Pakistani troops beheading an Indian soldier. A decade ago, Pakistan's response would have been to reciprocate and escalate. But this time, Pakistan's government and media barely responded at all, and Islamabad even offered India a U.N. investigation. Once India calmed down, tensions eased.

This is not to say that Pakistanis embrace their neighbor. They are still smart about India's role in separating Pakistan from Bangladesh, and still view with acrimony India's administration over large parts of Kashmir. Yet for all the bitterness and baggage, even the juiciest volleys from India are now returned with a disengaged "meh." This will likely remain the status quo for a while. As long as it does, the doors remain open for India to tap into an unprecedented national appetite for normalcy.

* * *

No one will accuse Pakistan of being a model of tranquility. It remains shackled by security, economic, and political challenges. Things are not great in Pakistan, but they're better than anyone could have expected. And on the  eve of a historic, if bloody, election, that's worth remembering.

*Correction, May 10, 2013: An earlier version incorrectly referred to Imran Khan as a presidential candidate. (Return to article.)



Oh, You Silly Man

How John Kerry got rolled by Vladimir Putin on a plan to save Syria.

The photographs showing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry smiling and slapping palms with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are being circulated by many Syrians opposed to the Bashar al-Assad's regime as visual obituaries of their cause. Weren't these men supposed to be on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict? And why does the Herman Munster-ish Lavrov look happier than his American counterpart?

Perhaps because the atmospherics of Kerry's recent visit to Moscow were meant to show that his hosts were under no illusions as to who was the more desperate and bowed party. First, Kerry's motorcade sat in Moscow traffic for a half hour because of a military parade rehearsal for Victory Day, which celebrates the Soviet defeat of the Nazis in World War II. Then Russian President Vladimir Putin kept Kerry waiting for three hours before granting him an audience, upon which he fiddled with his pen and more resembled a man indulging a long-ago scheduled visit from the cultural attaché of Papua New Guinea than participating in an urgent summit with America's top diplomat.

The pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia claimed that Kerry had been "counting on convincing Moscow not to block sanctions against Damascus. It didn't work." Even if false, the framing of the story provides good insight into how the Russian government viewed these talks. And in the end, Kerry gave Putin exactly what he wanted: Washington's assent to a renewed push for negotiations to end the geopolitical catastrophe in Syria.

Sometime before May is behind us, the United States and Russia will host a conference based on the parameters of the Geneva Protocol, which was agreed to late June 2012 under the auspices of the United Nations. The communiqué calls for a "Syrian-led political process leading to a transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people." To pave the way such an agreement, the document demands the end to armed violence by both sides, the release of political prisoners, granting journalists freedom of movement throughout the country, and the "[c]onsolidation of full calm and stability." Since this would-be roadmap was cobbled together almost a year ago, more than 50,000 Syrians have died in the Assad regime's desperate attempt to crush the uprising.

The underlying assumptions are that Russia can "produce" Assad or his representatives, pressuring them to attend this confab, and that the United States can produce both the political and military wings of the Syrian opposition with which it has chosen to partner, namely the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Command, headed by Gen. Salim Idris. Neither of the latter bodies existed when the Geneva Protocol was first introduced, and Idris now finds himself forced to do what Russia's clients in this conflict never have to do -- beg.

Indeed, while Assad imports long-range missiles from Iran and allows Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Suleimani to build a 150,000-strong sectarian militia to inherit the responsibilities of the Syrian military, Idris is writing open letters to his patron asking for more help. The U.S. response is to ask Idris's men to kill al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra fighters first, and only then turn their attention back to President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Syria has allegedly been subjected to sarin gas attacks, seen the deaths of more than 70,000 people and the displacement of nearly a quarter of its entire population, and become a haven for a growing and ambitious al Qaeda franchise. Now Kerry wants the world to believe that it can travel back in time and revive a diplomatic initiative that was stillborn even at the time. It's not going to work.

As the Russians like to remind the world, nowhere in the Geneva Protocol is there a demand that Assad must resign or even promise not to take power again in future. John Kerry appears to agree: In a joint press conference in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the secretary of state offered this stark reappraisal of President Barack Obama's repeated insistence that Assad quit the scene. "[I]t's impossible for me as an individual to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by the man who has committed the things that we know have taken place," he said. "But ... I'm not going to decide that tonight, and I'm not going to decide that in the end."

Kerry was forced to hastily repudiate his wishy-washiness in Rome by reminding reporters of the original U.S. stance. But his initial response may convince the Russians that the U.S. position on Assad's departure is negotiable.

Kerry's comment about Assad's future mirrored Obama's now-notorious "red line" on the use or mobilization of chemical weapons. After the White House admitted that Assad likely used chemical weapons against his own people -- a step that Obama once said would be a "grave mistake" -- America's next diplomatic move on Syria was this effort to revive moribund peace talks.

All this is taking place against more caffeinated legislative efforts to assist the opposition. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced a bill on May 6 that would provide U.S. arms and military training to vetted rebels, and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) took to the floor today calling for precision air strikes using stand-off systems on Assad's aircraft and missile launchers. What the Kremlin correctly gleans from such schizophrenic shifts in U.S. policy and rhetoric is that Washington hasn't got a coherent strategy to speak of. And the Putinists surely won't have missed this tucked-away quote from an unnamed U.S. official: "If [Assad] drops sarin gas on his own people, what's that got to do with us?"

Russian security officials will read that as an open invitation to Russia to assist the White House in putting off intervention in Syria. Already, they've been all too happy to oblige: A day after Kerry left Moscow, the Wall Street Journal reported on an "imminent" deal between Russia and Syria to furnish Assad with S-300 missiles -- the same high-tech, anti-aircraft system that Washington pressured Russia not to sell to Iran. The supposed package will include "six launchers and 144 missiles, each with a range of 125 miles," and the first delivery is scheduled to occur within the next three months. Such weapons would no doubt boost the argument of non-interventionists in Washington who contend that Syria's air defenses are too formidable to impose a no-fly zone.

Putin's mind lies open like a drawer of knives, yet the United States -- and even some members of the Syrian opposition -- persist in the illusion that the Russian leader can change. But why should he, when it's the West's position on Syria that's proven eminently mutable? Lavrov wasn't being glib or unscripted himself when, in an interview with Foreign Policy, he said that he was "gratified to note some positive change which occurred on the part of those who have been denying any possibility for a dialogue as long as President Assad is in Syria."

Lavrov then reiterated Russia's right to sell arms and anti-aircraft weaponry to Assad, and noted that it was the Americans, not the Russians, who were backing down on their demands. Fyodor Lukyanov was similarly correct in his assessment in al-Monitor on Thursday: "Russia's position is certainly not changing.... Rather, it is the US that is refining its point of view -- not due to Russia, but as enthusiasm wanes regarding what Syria might look like after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leaves."

From the beginning, the Russian strategy has tracked well with that of the Assad regime's: prolong the conflict to the point where jihadists are the most visible presence on the other side, then frame it in the grammar of the global war on terror. Taking a page from Assad's book, Russia has characterized all of Syria's rebels -- including recent military defectors from the regime -- as "terrorists." It has tried to lay the blame for the Houla massacre -- in which 108 civilians, including many women and children, were butchered by pro-regime shabiha -- on the opposition. It has facilitated the regime's propaganda about the rebels' use of chemical weapons by insisting that the United Nations restrict its forensic investigation to just one area in Aleppo, rather than allowing the U.N. team to launch a full investigation across the country. Russia is also aware that the United Nations cannot access Syrian territory without Assad's permission, which is as unforthcoming as it is convenient for those who believe that no amount of credible or "concrete" U.S. intelligence on weapons of mass destruction will be taken seriously after Iraq.

Lavrov was certainly right to say that Russia's position has been "consistent." Now compare this to the White House, which first established a policy of regime change when Obama said that Assad had to "step aside" in August 2011 -- only to then quietly rescind that policy by backing former U.N. Syria envoy Kofi Annan's failed six-point peace plan in March 2012.

One almost envies the Kremlin at this late hour. After much intransigence at Turtle Bay and a steady stream of arms shipments and military advisers to the Assad regime, Putin finds that his expectations for restoring Russia's great power status have actually been exceeded. He wanted to be equal to the United States in foreign affairs, but on Syria, he's clearly now the man to see. Happy Victory Day.