Nicholas Platt: Pakistan 'Not A Failed State'

Houston, Mar. 3, 2010: Nicholas Platt, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, called on the US to "stay the course" in its efforts to foster stable government in that country. (Jeff Fantich Photography)
HOUSTON, March 3, 2010 - Misgoverned by a squabbling and immature political class and threatened by an Islamic insurgency, Pakistan is a nation fraught with problems. Nevertheless, this key U.S. partner in the war in Afghanistan will "muddle through," says Nicholas Platt, former ambassador to Islamabad. "Pakistan is not a failed or even a failing state."

Platt, who enjoyed a long career as a senior diplomat in the State Department and later served as president of Asia Society in New York, delivered his cautiously optimistic assessment of prospects for stability in Pakistan in a speech before a luncheon audience of 130 hosted by Asia Society Texas Center. He appeared as part of ASTC's Wells Fargo Speaker Series on South Asia.

Platt took issue with shrill media descriptions of Pakistan as "the most dangerous nation on earth" and a country "sliding toward the abyss."

While the Taliban insurgency in the Northwest remains the greatest threat to stability, Pakistan's demographic complexity works in its favor. The country's distinct ethnic/tribal groups are "fiercely territorial and politically well-organized," Platt said. He called the idea that the Balochs or Punjabis or Sindhis will bow to the will of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban "outlandish." "The tribal compartments of Pakistan will keep the ship from sinking, even though it may list from time to time," he said.

Moreover, the army remains "the glue of the nation" and will fight if convinced the Taliban truly threatens the central government, he said. And after running the country off and on since its founding, the military now seems content to leave the job to civilians. Unfortunately, Platt said, the civilian political and economic leadership hasn't been up to the task.

"The ruling feudal, tribal, religious, and business elites have traditionally paid little attention to the needs of the ordinary people of Pakistan, and are now, as usual, more concerned with each other's power, and less with public responsibilities," he said. "They, and not the Taliban, are the most serious threat to the long-term stability of the Pakistani state."

Historically, U.S. policy toward Pakistan has alternated between close cooperation and passive indifference, Platt said. He approved of the current policy, which recognizes Pakistan's importance to U.S. security and recognizes the need for steady engagement with the country.

Platt offered one somewhat surprising suggestion for those wanting to know more about Pakistan. He recalled that before his 1991 posting he asked experts if there was one book he absolutely had to read to prepare himself.

The unanimous answer: Kim by Rudyard Kipling. Platt's answer to that: "You've got to be kidding." But it proved a revelation.

"I read Kim and never regretted it," he told his Houston audience. "The book gave me a feel for the deadly, conspiratorial politics and sweeping geography of the place that is still authentic."

Reported by Fritz Lanham, Asia Society Texas Center