By S.M. Naseem
Dawn- Saturday, 17 Oct, 2009
The challenges facing the Pakistani state — both domestic and external — continue to mount and periodically bring it to the brink of disaster.
Whether through an act of Providence or the delicate balance of forces which keep propping up the state, the ‘existential threat’ gets averted.
The last two years have been especially traumatic and have taken the nation on a roller-coaster ride of hope and dismay. Democracy by itself may not bring tangible rewards for the population in the short run, but it does rekindle the hope of future advancement and wellbeing for many. The February 2008 elections did raise such hopes.
However, since then there have been a series of political, economic and security setbacks which have seriously undermined faith in the democratic process as presently articulated by the two major political parties. The latter, notwithstanding their promise to let bygones be bygones, continue to indulge in political mud-slinging.
From the judicial crisis to the Kerry-Lugar bill — with the intervening episodes of the wheat flour, sugar and cement crises, the unwarranted actions against the Sharifs, the procrastinated army action in Swat, the ‘minus-one’ formula, etc — the two parties have left no stone unturned to score points against each other.
The frequent television debates between PPP and PML-N leaders have bordered on the ugly and the ludicrous. If the leaderships of the two parties had shown some semblance of maturity and shrewdness, they would have prevented the political class from earning the odious reputation that currently haunts it. The politicians have been involved too deeply in the blame game and have not given serious thought to making a concerted effort to solve the challenges facing the nation.
The opposition’s accusing the government of corruption and mismanagement is countered by charges of destabilisation and pushing for mid-term elections by those running the government.
Parliament has lost its efficacy as a forum for serious debate on matters of substance and has become a place for grandstanding and vulgar exchanges between rival political factions, as evidenced by the recent suspension of two parliamentarians by the deputy speaker.
Having just recovered from a prolonged period of military rule in which both parties were victims, it is distressing to see that both sides are still playing a dangerous game with the military, despite their earlier understanding to join forces against its influence, and remain ambivalent about the army’s role in politics. They appear to court it when it suits their ends and rebuff it when it doesn’t.
The incidents relating to a retired brigadier’s appearance on TV channels and giving salience to his and his ilk’s brazen interference in politics, as well as the recent attempt to drag the military into the debate on the Kerry-Lugar bill amply illustrate this unfortunate trend.
The debate on the bill, both in parliament and in the media, has been inane and has avoided the main issues, which remain under-stressed. If a fuss had to be made — and some was needed to remind the Americans that, despite being a dysfunctional state, Pakistan could not be equated or hyphenated with Karzai’s Afghanistan — it should have been about the size of the aid and the reasons for seeking it. It should not have been simply about the manner in which it was being doled out. Beggars may not be choosers, but the wronged have the right to be recompensed for material losses, not merely for the wounded egos of the elites.
Although there is no denying that the war that is presently (and not during Pervez Musharraf’s regime) being fought by Pakistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists is its own and is not being undertaken solely at the behest of the West, the collateral damage that Pakistan has suffered in the past (conservatively estimated at $35bn) has been immense.
Pakistan could have asked the US and its allies to compensate it for this loss, in addition to the cost of the logistical support that Pakistan is providing to the allied forces fighting in Afghanistan. The promised US aid of $7.5bn over five years is indeed peanuts compared to what is needed to eradicate and keep the threat of terrorism at bay (much less eliminate poverty and illiteracy).
If the US really wanted to enter into an extended partnership and/or win the hearts and minds of the Pakistanis and Afghans, it should have launched a Marshall Plan-type of reconstruction effort in the region, instead of carrying out the ‘shock and awe’ and ‘surge’ waves in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have had spill-over effects in Pakistan. Despite his best intentions, President Barack Obama remains a prisoner of the past and vested interest groups and lobbies. He is unable to take bold initiatives.
Given the present state of both global and domestic uncertainty, the acceptance or rejection of the aid package contained in the Kerry-Lugar bill, which has already been signed by President Obama, is hardly likely to make a significant difference to the continuing political stalemate, economic stagnation and social disaffection in Pakistan. It addresses only the tip of the iceberg of the problems the country is surrounded by today, even if one were to ignore the political hullabaloo of the naysayers and the hoopla of its fervent supporters.
The current wave of terrorist attacks on major Pakistani cities, which began with the breach of the protective arrangements of the World Food Programme building in Islamabad and was followed by the GHQ assault in Rawalpindi, is continuing unabated. This should serve as a reminder that there is no time for debating non-issues, and that decisive action to face the serious challenges confronting the country cannot be deferred any longer.