I am going to break a self-imposed rule and recount my latest conversation with a Pakistani taxi driver. His parents live in Lahore, so we got talking about his main worries about Pakistan. The answer – lack of clean water and dengue fever. I am somewhat parodying the tired journalistic device of “my taxi driver said” here (I promise not to do it again) – since you can quote a Pakistani taxi driver without even going to Pakistan (London minus the extra airfare) – but here’s my point. People don’t always, or even often, talk about the stuff that makes headline news – like relations with the United States, the war in Afghanistan, Islamist militancy, drones, civilian-military competition and political confrontation. Pakistan (190 million people or more) is also cultural, social, economic and historical; it is religious but not only religious, traditional and urbanising; it is the most parochial country to be obsessed with the outside world; the most feudal to be driven by a web-savvy and growing youth; its issues include music and education, the price of onions and the fear of dengue.
Pakistan: Now or Never?
In his book “Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination“, an edited collection of his Chapati Mystery blog, historian Manan Ahmed complained about the United States’ past support for former president Pervez Musharraf, and its refusal, at the time to trust Pakistan with democracy. In an entry written in 2007, he described Pakistan as the “the not yet nation” – a country for which democracy might be a good thing in the long run, but was in American eyes not yet ready.
I have never read “Three Cups of Tea”, Greg Mortenson’s book about building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I tried to read the sequel, “Stones into Schools” and gave up not too long after the point where he said that, “the solution to every problem … begins with drinking tea.” Having drunk tea in many parts of South Asia – sweet tea, salt tea, butter tea, tea that comes with the impossible-to-remove-with-dignity thick skin of milk tea – I can confidently say that statement does not reflect reality.
In a report this month calling for faster progress on a political settlement on Afghanistan, the influential UK parliamentary foreign affairs committee was unusually critical of the dominance of the military in setting Afghan policy.
All countries are unique and comparing two of the world’s most populous Muslim countries, Egypt and Pakistan, is as risky as comparing Britain to France at the time of the French Revolution. But many of the challenges likely to confront Egypt as it emerges from the mass protests against the 30-year-rule of President Hosni Mubarak are similar to those Pakistan has faced in the past, and provide at least a guide on what questions need to be addressed. In Pakistan, they are often summarised as the three A’s — Army, Allah and America.
In one of the more anguished posts about the murder of provincial governor Salman Taseer, Pakistani blogger Huma Imtiaz wrote that his assassination “is not the beginning of the end. This is the end. There is no going back from here, there is no miracle cure, there is no magic wand that will one day make everything better. Saying ‘enough is enough’ does not cut it anymore …”
The fall-out from the fake WikiLeaks cables in Pakistan continues to be far more interesting than the real WikiLeaks cables. To recap, several Pakistani newspapers retracted stories last week which quoted WikiLeaks cables ostensibly accusing India of stirring up trouble in Baluchistan and Waziristan, cited U.S. diplomats as ridiculing the Indian Army, and compared Kashmir to Bosnia in the 1990s. Since the anti-India narrative presented in the stories chimed with the views of Pakistani intelligence agencies, the alleged cables were then dismissed as fakes and most likely an intelligence plant.
One of the more troublesome aspects of the current situation in Pakistan is how subdued – at least relative to the scale of the deaths – are protests against suicide bombings on Pakistani cities. Travelling from Lahore to Islamabad last month, my taxi driver winced in pain when I told him I had a text message saying the city we had just left, his city, had been bombed again. Yet where was the outlet for him to express that pain, or indeed for the many grieving families who had lost relatives?
One of the arguments that comes up frequently for helping the victims of Pakistan’s floods is that otherwise Islamist militants will exploit the disaster, and the threat of terrorism to the west will rise. It’s an argument that makes me wince every time I read it.