By Saad Hafiz:
Politics and diplomacy is a tough business, and the use of catchy sound bites is its modern currency, particularly in the media-savvy US. In keeping with this trend, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US Sherry Rehman used an attention-grabbing sound bite: “This is a new Pakistan. Catch up, gentlemen,” as Islamabad squabbled with Washington on transit rights for NATO forces in Afghanistan through Pakistan. Ms Rehman’s clip stressing upon her US hosts that Pakistan would not be pushed around anymore, probably bolstered her credentials with her intended domestic security and hyper-nationalist audience. Not to pick on Ms Rehman, who has the unenviable job of representing Pakistan in suspicious and unfriendly Washington, but reliance on sound bites often serves as a substitute for actual dialogue, helps masks ugly realities and contributes to the human capacity for self-delusion. If miraculously a new Pakistan has emerged as the world slept, most of us would wake up and applaud! Sadly, we know this is not the case.
Religious intolerance, violence and misgovernment continue to damage the country. The country’s leadership seems bereft of ideas, ethics and moral courage and rich only in self-interest and ambition. It felt safer in giving the impression of standing up to the US earlier while appeasing the street mobs that went on a costly rampage two weeks ago protesting an anti-Islam film. This appeasement was followed up by a government minister who, playing to the domestic gallery, offered a reward for killing the film’s promoter. The country is seen internationally as being more comfortable with controlling the spigot of extremism and terrorism at will rather than fighting these evils. The resultant trust deficit negates the huge sacrifice of the over 40,000 dead security personnel and civilians and billions of dollars in economic losses thus far from the domestic terror war.
Politicians persist with attack politics, tough sounding speeches, rank populism and political sound bites instead of offering constructive solutions to endemic economic and social problems. Nationally debilitating economic challenges, including the low tax-to-GDP ratio, large budget deficit and unsustainable debt burden, weak economic growth and the collapse of both domestic and foreign investment stay unaddressed. While the country’s nascent civilian institutions battle each other over ‘constitutional’ issues, the ‘mighty’ military, a huge drain on the national exchequer, seems unable or unwilling to crush the relatively puny terrorist threat posed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Crime and corruption is rampant, with more than 50 percent of the population under the age of 18, which is a terrifying demographic, especially since most of these young people have little or no access to education and employment. The nation’s ideological guardians go on promoting murderous sectarianism and encourage the awful treatment of women and minorities. The state appears powerless in protecting its most vulnerable citizens against this obscurantist onslaught. The well-fed and self-righteous clerical leadership are quite happy to feed the gullible masses a nonsensical diet of the worldwide humiliation and suffering of Muslims, suggesting that there are conspiracies galore being hatched by all and sundry to target Muslims.
In this backdrop, just wishing for a ‘new’ Pakistan to emerge is not going to cut it. However, there are no easy answers and short-term fixes either, but it is possible to suggest a way forward. An important element in this process is to recognise past mistakes. The COAS General Kayani did just that in his Independence Day speech when he acknowledged that all state institutions in Pakistan, including the army, had made mistakes, recognised militancy as the main threat to the country and sought public support for dealing with the threat. One can only hope that General Kayani’s admission will lead to a ‘blitzkrieg’ against militancy and terrorism in the country, compared to the timid and ineffective counter-insurgency strategies tried up until now.
The longer-term problems of religious extremism and political violence also require subtly different non-military approaches. Firstly, decades of dictatorial regimes in the country have promoted cultural anarchy and the tendency to impose ideas through coercion. Despite sound evidence to the contrary, naysayers persist in projecting that democracy in developing countries such as Pakistan contributes to bad governance. It is difficult to convince the sceptics that it is the absence of genuinely democratic institutions that encourages contending interests to seek to settle their differences through conflict rather than through accommodation. In this charged environment, an intellectual dialogue on the merits of democracy and for strengthening democratic institutions in the country is needed. Secondly, extremists organise and flourish, exploiting discontent and alienation across society, to aggregate the effects of multiple grassroots actors into a mass movement with a national reach. To counter this trend, non-coercive democratic models have to be consolidated at the grassroots level, backed by good governance. Strong local government is best placed to address primarily local issues such as the lack of housing, electricity, clean water and sanitation.
Hopefully, success with political and social issues at the grassroots level will have a positive knock-on effect on national governance and development. Pipe dream perhaps, but it is probably better than latching onto another ‘empty sound bite’, one attributed to Mr Jinnah who did not live long enough to steer Pakistan personally to be what he thought and aspired will be “one of the greatest nations of the world”.