The power of narrative

Published Dec 15, 2011 07:35pm

IS the greatest threat facing Pakistan coming from Al Qaeda as President Obama has said or is it the opening script from the US narrative aimed at prioritising the primacy of the latter and thus hiding what Pakistan’s real threats are?

Yes, the insurgency remains a nuisance and eats into Pakistan’s limited resources; it adds to the public debt that now exceeds Rs240bn; due to the stoppage of external assistance the government has no recourse left but to borrow heavily or to go into deficit financing.

To keep itself functional the government has been borrowing at the rate of reportedly Rs38bn a week from the banking sector.

According to one analyst, the power sector drains away 2.5 per cent of Pakistan’s annual GDP amounting to Rs360bn a year, or Rs100 crores a day.

In the absence of external resources or additional taxes, inflation in the country will soon reach South American proportions — leading to banking and business collapse, unemployment and galloping poverty. The hardest hit will be the rising middle class — Pakistan’s future hope.

Our population growth although believed to be underreported by about 20 per cent at 180 billion is a catastrophe and servicing such a huge pool of people is no longer within the existing capabilities of the state. It is not so much the lack of skills in governance. The extent of expansion needed in the social sectors is not possible given our poor fiscal situation.

Amongst other consequences of the state’s creeping collapse, the tell-tale signs become abundantly clear with each passing day: the theft of 200,000 cusecs of water which will led to lower food production; rampant corruption; failure to pay salaries to public-sector employees; the collapse of the railways, the power sector and the national airlines.

In short, Pakistan is a patient suffering from a terminal illness in the intensive care unit and yet we are told that Al Qaeda is the main threat.

I am not denying that the radicals are dangerous fellows, yet our tale of woes and thus our narrative needs to be different to reflect our pressing threats — they lie within the Malthusian discourse of famine, poverty and war (driven by poor social conditions) and not as much by the doings of Al Qaeda as the Pentagon has been painting.

Narratives are often used as platforms for defining and scoping an issue or selecting the strategic enemy that will serve the purpose of the narrating state, rather than the other elements involved in a problem set.

Once a narrative is accepted it defines the framework of debate in the media, books are written and facts twisted to fit the postulates of the master narrative. Even wars are declared on the basis of such discourse as we have seen.

Both the US and Pakistan were partners in the conflict that began in 2001, after the attack on New York on Sept 11. The US provided the first narrative explanation containing the reasons for the occurrence that was said to be Osama’s intent to form a caliphate to fight the West.

The basic facts about the hijackers were lost sight of. Fifteen of them were Saudi citizens, one was an Egyptian, another Lebanese and two were citizens of the UAE. None of them had links with Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The fact remains that the US took military action to punish the perpetrators of an atrocity carried out mostly by Saudis and other Arab nationals. However, the punishment fell upon Afghanistan. War was then declared against Iraq and later it shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan when the International Security Assistance Force began large military operations in Afghanistan.

Apparently, the narrative was constructed in such a manner that the Taliban were selected for punishment for harbouring the leader of the hijackers — Osama bin Laden. Strangely, even after 10 years and Osama’s death as well as the expenditure of a trillion dollars, no criminal investigation into the 9/11 attack exists, something that was noted also by the 9/11 Commission.

It is worth noting that while the US boasts the largest number of think tanks in the world, not one pointed out the weak chain of logic inherent in inflicting punishment on innocent nations. In this absurd situation, people were killed in the thousands and after 10 years the US and the world is not much safer than it was in 2001.

On the other hand, Pakistan and Afghanistan have been made more fragile as nation states, and several other serious problems that needed resolution have been ignored as the imperial overhang of the US policy usurped time and resources.

In the case of Pakistan, the dilemmas that beset the country are caused by other deep-rooted problems. However, by subscribing to the US narrative of Islamic radicalism as the reason for the troubles in Pakistan, far more serious challenges confronting us have been lost sight of. An appraisal of these would have provided one with a more realistic diagnosis of the problems thus making treatment possible.

It is clear that both Pakistan and Afghanistan are in the grip of severe overpopulation and are stuck in the Malthusian trap. It is clear that unless measures are taken to control the growth of population, the need for food will exceed supply, causing famine, poverty and war as Malthus predicted.

Clearly, there is a shortage of resources and poor administrative capacity to deal with our huge population. Pakistan’s narrative should thus concern itself with this challenge, rather than the threat from radical Islam or Al Qaeda. Do they really matter if Pakistan becomes incoherent as a state? I don’t think so.

The writer is the chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.

azizkhalid@gmail.com


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