Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
(The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The writer is Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK)
WILL PAKISTAN GO THE MIDDLE EAST WAY?
By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
Some of our analysts are drawing a parallel between the ongoing wave for democracy across the Middle East and hoping that Pakistan might follow suit. In fact they are talking of an impending revolution in Pakistan as well.
In doing so, these doomsayers conveniently ignore differences between the political culture of Pakistan and the Middle East. They forget about the long struggle waged by our political forces against military dictators for decades which was missing in the Middle East. Similarly, the unprecedented role of the media and civil society in helping shape political life in Pakistan has not been taken into account.
Without being judgmental in drawing comparisons, we can safely say that today’s Pakistan is way ahead in political development than say during the past one decade or even the political culture which we followed during the nineties.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden made a rather odd comment during his visit to Pakistan this week. “We want what you want: a strong, stable, democratic Pakistan,” he told a news conference, according to the Washington Post. “We wish your success because it’s in our own interest.”
It was not that he was wrong to deny accusations that the United States is out to destabilise Pakistan – a conspiracy theory fuelled by confusion over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which to many Pakistanis seems so irrational that they assume there must be a darker plan behind it. Nor that he was wrong to promote democracy — although the United States has had a track record of backing military rulers in Pakistan when it suits them.
Never in the history of Pakistan has a democratically elected civilian government served out its full term and then been replaced by another one, also through democratic elections. It is that context that makes the latest political crisis in Pakistan so important.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is scrambling to save his PPP-led government after it lost its parliamentary majority when its coalition partner, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), announced it would go into opposition. A smaller religious party, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), already quit the coalition last month. If the government falls and elections are held ahead of schedule in 2013, the opportunity for Pakistan to have a government which serves its full term will be lost.
Pakistani journalist Mosharraf Zaidi had a good post up last week attempting to frame the many different challenges Pakistan faces in trying to deal with terrorism. Definitely worth a read as a counter-balance to the vague “do more” mantra, and as a reminder of how little serious public debate there is out there about the exact nature of the threat posed to a nuclear-armed country of some 180 million people, whose collapse would destabilise the entire region and beyond.
Zaidi has divided the challenges into counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and counter-extremism.
Of the many comments I heard in Pakistan, one question particularly flummoxed me. Was democracy really the right system for South Asia? It came, unsurprisingly, from someone sympathetic to the military, and was couched in a comparison between Pakistan and India.
What had India achieved, he asked, with its long years of near-uninterrupted democracy, to reduce the gap between rich and poor? What of the Maoist rebellion eating away at its heartland? Its desperate poverty? The human rights abuses from Kashmir to Manipur, when Indian forces were called in to quell separatist revolts? Maybe, he said, democracy was just not suited to countries like India and Pakistan.
“The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.” – Field Marshall Sir Philip Chetwode at the inauguration of the Indian Military Academy in 1932
For the first time in the history of Pakistan a civilian government is pushing a comprehensive constitutional reform package through parliament to undo provisions introduced by dictators to tighten their grip on power. President Asif Ali Zardari urged parliament this week to approve constitutional amendments which will turn him into a titular head of state – and, crucially, remove his right to sack prime ministers which had been used by previous military dictators.
So much for democracy. When Pakistan holds a “strategic dialogue” with the United States in Washington this week, there is little doubt that the leading player in the Pakistani delegation will be its army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani.
We have got so used to Americans dealing with the Pakistan Army in their efforts to end the stalemate in Afghanistan that it does not seem that surprising that the meeting between the United States and Pakistan would be dominated by the military. Nor indeed that Dawn columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee would describe Kayani as the most powerful man in Pakistan. Even the grudging admiration granted in this Times of India profile of Kayani by Indrani Baghchi is in keeping with the current mood.
A Supreme Court ruling striking down an amnesty given to politicians and officials by former president Pervez Musharraf has created havoc in Pakistani politics. Among those affected on a list of 8,000 politicians and bureaucrats who were protected by the amnesty are the interior and defence ministers, who are now no longer allowed to leave the country until they clear their names in court.
“Pakistan’s interior minister today found himself in the unusual position of being asked to bar himself from leaving the country,” wrote Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
The Pakistan Army has been getting a lot of flak over the past week or so for its alleged failure to take a tough line against Taliban militants expanding their reach across Pakistan’s north-west. And although Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani issued a statement promising to fight the militants and security forces began a new offensive, doubts remain about the military’s willingness to take on Islamist groups that it once nurtured as part of its rivalry with India.
Among a spate of articles about Pakistan’s powerful military, Newsweek ran a piece headlined “Pakistan’s Self-Defeating Army”. It argued that far from serving as a bulwark against chaos, the military had helped destabilise Pakistan by undermining the development of a civilian democracy in the decades since the country was founded in 1947.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has put out a paper on the need to reform Pakistan’s intelligence agencies just as army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is winning much praise for playing what is seen as a decisive role in defusing the country’s latest political crisis and saving democracy.
French scholar Frederic Grare says in the paper the reform and “depoliticisation” of the agencies, in particular the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is imperative.