WASHINGTON: “Pakistan cannot exist without coexistence between Sunni and Shia Muslims,” warns a group of senior diplomats and scholars.
The group which met in US capital also warned that time was running out for Pakistan to wake up to its present predicament and begin a serious reassessment of the fundamental challenges it faced.
Almost all the participants at this discussion at The Century Foundation, Washington, also described the Chinese plan for investing more than $40 billion in Pakistan as a unique opportunity for the country to stabilise its economy.
Robert Finn, the first US ambassador to Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion, said that despite its shortcomings, Pakistan had a democracy where things could not change overnight but they “could evolve and they should”.
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Riaz Khokhar, former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, New Delhi and Beijing, observed that secular political forces in Pakistan did not have a strategy for combating extremism.
“This created a vacuum, which was filled by the extremists,” he said, adding that both PPP and PML-N had had popular mandates but could use their support bases for creating a viable alternative to extremism.
“This gave political space to these forces and they exploited it,” Mr Khokhar said.
Barnet Rubin, director for the Afghanistan-Pakistan programme at the New York University, noted that Islamabad’s relations with Kabul had improved greatly in the last six months, which could have a positive impact on the entire region.
He also noted a change of policy in China which was now opposing extremism “not just in Xinjiang but also in the entire region”.
“Now China also does not want a Taliban government in Afghanistan,” said Mr Rubin. “Given Pakistan’s concerns about the Indian influence in Afghanistan, China’s involvement will increase its sense of security.”
Mr Rubin argued that militants based in Punjab also had a say in the affairs of the state. “Pakistan will have to address this, as the existence of one group of militants encourages others,” he said.
Imtiaz Gul, a senior journalist and think-tank expert from Pakistan, urged the government to provide basic facilities to the people, such as education, health and energy.
“The absence of rule of law lies at the heart of many problems Pakistan faces now,” he said. “This is the biggest threat.”
Both ambassador Khokhar and Mr Rubin noted that unlike the Americans, the Chinese were not asking Pakistan to do more.
“The Chinese are offering incentives, not pre-conditions,” said Mr Khokhar. “Generally incentives are more effective than sanctions,” Mr Rubin added.
Mr Rubin urged both Pakistan and China not to ignore India. “If it will not work if it is seen as something against India,” he said.
He also advised Pakistan to maintain a safe distance from the Shia-Sunni fight raging in the Middle East.
“Pakistan cannot exist without coexistence between Sunni and Shia Muslims,” he said. “Anything that gets Pakistan involved in sectarian conflicts in the Middle East is fatal for Pakistan.”
Mr Rubin said that the Pakistani parliament made a wise decision to stay away from Yemen and the government should not change this policy.
Thomas Pickering, a career ambassador, which is the highest rank in the US Foreign Service, noted that Saudi Arabia too was going through a change and Pakistan would be better advised to stay away from the conflicts raging in that region.
“Pakistan, for its own reason, was very wise in my view, not to jump into the land of war in Yemen,” he said. He urged the international community to support “an enlightened decision”.
Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2015