Thursday, 15 September 2011

The time is now to turn things around, Zafar Hilaly

The time is now to turn things around

Zafar Hilaly
Thursday, September 15, 2011

The crisis we confront today has no parallel. So comprehensive has been our failure on all fronts that think tanks around the world are now ruminating on a “post-Pakistan” scenario and what our region will look like after what appears to them to be the impending doom of Pakistan.

Such fears may appear exaggerated to many. But let us not forget that Pakistan is not a historical state. It was conjured out of British India when arrogant and insensitive opponents in the Indian Congress spurned sensible compromises offered by Jinnah to keep India united and India’s Muslims free from Hindu-majority domination. Other non-historical states, like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, also floundered because of poor leadership and bankrupt policies, and a similar fate awaits Israel if it does not change its ways.

On the economic front we have made a complete mess. Even in areas where we started off promisingly, like PIA, for example. In corruption we are ahead of most countries.

Our budget priorities have been distorted for many years. While we have devoted the lion’s share to defence, our investments in education, health and social welfare have been among the lowest in the world. At the same time, we have excelled most countries in population growth, which is now taking a heavy toll of our natural resources, imposing a huge burden on the economy and on our urban infrastructure. We have done nothing to rein this in.

Similarly, we have shown ineptitude in handling our foreign relations. We have found comfort or cover in denial about so many things. In the process we stand virtually isolated in the world, even though, at least as yet, we are not a failed state. Even our much vaunted ties with China have lost lustre and our internal failings have become a source of serious concern to Beijing.

Our obsession with India has cost us dearly. True, India is not a benign power, it oozes ill will for Pakistan, but we must not get carried away with the problems we have inherited, nor should we overlook our own failings when dealing with India.

Besides, international politics today is vastly different from two decades ago. India’s concerns vis-a-vis China will continue to grow strongly as these two giants compete for influence. Competing for influence and managing its border issues with China are far more important for India than being fixated on Pakistan.

Of course, there is no magic wand to turn things around overnight. And military rule does not offer a way out. Yet, given our internal security situation and the fact that the military is still intact as an institution, we must not deride it, for all its past blunders. After all, it is only the military that stands between the horde of antediluvian murderers killing and bombing innocents and their goal of seizing large chunks of our land.

However, the military can do better by showing itself to be working to assist the democratic process and by being more dynamic than it has been in the recent past. Likewise, the politicians must realise we are in a grave crisis and that old-style polemics and games of musical chairs for power will not do anymore. Civil-military relations have been in tatters for many years, which both sides must now move closer together to repair.

The military, by virtue of its dominant position, should seek a better relationship with key politicians. And this it can do best by abandoning its domineering approach. Inasmuch as the politicians need the military to tackle the multifaceted crisis we face, the military needs them too – a fact which the military must candidly concede.

On their part, the civilian leaders must know that the military in Pakistan has a role in political decision-making; pretending otherwise is foolish and foolhardy, as experience shows. That said, a strong centre is no remedy. If anything, it has been a big problem for a very long time. The relationship between the centre and the provinces needs more doing than just the transfer of some subjects to the provinces.

Decentralisation has the advantage of unburdening the centre, which doesn’t have the capacity or ability to govern a large country in which anti-centre sentiment runs deep. Devolution and loosening up of central control can facilitate stability and free up local energy, but it must not be seen, and is not seen to be, a slippery slope to disintegration.

Our geo-strategic location can be both a boon or a potential disaster, depending on our vision and how we manage our internal situation and our external relations. But if we can get our act together, our role as an economic and infrastructural bridge between South and Central Asia can offer a bright economic future.

But to get to the promised land of economic prosperity we need to work for peace and stability with our neighbours – India and Afghanistan. It is only in those circumstances that we can realise our economic potential.

An ethnically divided Afghanistan will block our path to economic prosperity while old-style confrontation with India will weaken our capacity to tackle internal insurgencies. Pragmatism towards Afghanistan and India is not appeasement anymore; its realism through and through. Nor will pragmatism render the military redundant. We will still need a strong defence as an insurance policy against contingencies, but not an outdated military rivalry which has become less meaningful and affordable.

We will also need a strong military to fight armed extremists and provide the strategic cover to our police and paramilitaries for years to come. It is a pity that while we have one of the largest standing armies in the world, we are not able to exercise our full military might against armed extremists.

Likewise, internal security has now become paramount, which was not the case two decades ago. The major threats we face today are from armed extremists and the reason why the extremists are still strong is because the state apparatus has weakened.

The fact is that extremists thrive in poverty and anarchy and our circumstances today suit them well. Any strategy to stem extremism has to consider ways of reversing our grim economic and social conditions. And that can only happen within the framework of regional economic cooperation, which in turn will require, among other steps, peace and stability in Afghanistan and, I stress again, normalisation of relations with India.

Our strategic policy must therefore abandon the old-world notion of strategic depth for a new world concept of regional cooperation for economic and social progress. Indeed, it is regional cooperation that has been the lynchpin of rapid and sustained economic progress in regions that have done well. And it is economic cooperation which will also help to reduce threat perceptions over time, or at least help us to better manage problems, as we have seen in other regions.

Meanwhile, continued engagement with the US against international terrorism, Al-Qaeda in particular, will be crucial to bringing the endgame in Afghanistan to a positive conclusion. With regard to our dependence on international financial institutions which Washington largely controls, brick-batting and whining and whinging at Washington’s antics serves little purpose. Instead, we should focus more of our angst on collecting taxes to reduce our external dependence.

Anyway, as Washington withdraws from its combat role in Afghanistan and becomes more mired in its domestic woes, its obsession with military victory, which had much to do with the influence of some of its generals, will continue to recede and its embrace will become less suffocating.

Our deepest problem is our direction. We have strayed too long from the vision of our founder. After being bombarded over the past three decades with Saudi Arabia’s brand of Islam, we seem to have unhinged ourselves from the vision of Jinnah. Our salvation, in terms of direction, lies in returning to Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan.

The dangers ahead are too horrendous to contemplate if we continue to work at cross-purposes or allow our emotions or sense of hurt to take over. The time is now to turn things around even if it can only be done slowly. Having suffered so much over so many years, the people deserve to see the light at the end of this tortuously long tunnel.

The writer is a former ambassador.


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