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DAWN - Opinion; February 07, 2007

February 07, 2007


US & democracy in Pakistan

By Touqir Hussain

I HAVE always wondered why in Pakistan, and developing countries in general, people tend to blame outside powers, specially the United States, for all their problems. And they do so with such omniscience and confidence in the validity of their view.First, a simple psychological reason.

In relatively closed and authoritarian, especially feudal, societies people are generally afraid of owning up to their actions for fear of punishment. That encourages the tendency to apportion blame elsewhere, find fault in one’s stars or shift the onus of failures to the supernatural.

There is yet another factor. Most individuals in such societies are brought up in an environment lacking autonomy of thinking and decision-making, freedom of expression and choice. Invariably someone else, more powerful and authoritarian, on whom we are dependent for sustenance or emotional support — parents at the family level and government at the national level — is always making decisions for us in fact running our lives.

But who plays that role for the nation? It’s done by a nation more powerful and dominant especially on whom we have been dependent for security and economic support. And since societies such as ours have lacked an open political process, representative democracy and free flow of information, the truth as to who runs their affairs is hard to know. So rumours, myths and conspiracies prosper.

Especially prevalent is the myth that nothing moves in these countries without US approval. So is the corollary that everything that is wrong in these places is America’s fault. This perception is often instigated by the ruling elite itself who find the US a convenient lightning rod to divert dangerous currents of social discontent or political dissent. But the United States also is partly to blame for fostering this impression by traditionally proclaiming itself as defender and promoter of freedom and democracy in the world, a claim whose main purpose, barring a few good examples in history, has been to provide an intellectual cover for interventionist policies. Under the Bush administration, this has become a code word for regime change in countries seen as hostile to US national security or economic interests. So there is enough evidence to inspire suspicion about American intentions and conduct.

Yet the US reputation has been worse than its record. Where Pakistan is concerned, America has the reputation of making and unmaking the governments there which is not quite true. The fact is Pakistan has had serious problems relating to governance, social change and democratisation. We ourselves are primarily responsible for it. The US has not created these conditions but merely exploited them to its advantage.

One can debate endlessly as to whether the army or politicians are to blame for Pakistan’s troubles. Seen from a historical perspective neither have covered themselves with glory. They have both been united in the common pursuit of strengthening their class and institutional interests. Indeed, their identities fluctuate and often merge imperceptibly. As for the Americans, they have worked with any regime in Pakistan that was needed by Washington and was willing to do its bidding.

If Washington appears to have worked better with the army it is not because it liked the army and not the politicians, but whenever the US needed Pakistan, whether in the 1980s against the Soviets in Afghanistan or now in the war on terrorism, the army was already in power.

Ziaul Haq’s regime was already there before the Afghan jihad but had a pariah status because of the coup, the execution of an elected prime minister and Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Pakistan was under sanctions. US-Pakistan relations were at a very low ebb despite army rule. But with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan Zia became a celebrated leader in the West. By the time he died Washington’s support for him was wavering, yet his regime lived on.

Earlier, when Ayub Khan had challenged American interests in South Asia with opening up to China and the 1965 war adventure, he fell out of favour with President Johnson. But he continued to rule for another four years. Yahya Khan was an untouchable for Washington till he helped set up the US, China rendezvous. President Musharraf had been terribly isolated for a good two years prior to 9/11.

The point I am making is that the US has had both good and bad relations with Pakistan during army rule depending on its interests in South Asia. The US connection no doubt enabled such a rule to prolong itself as economic and military aid and international support enhanced its staying power. But it does not necessarily follow that the regime may have been brought to power by the Americans and it would only go when Washington so desired.Nonetheless the US does remain a party in the internal political dynamics of many countries which it tries to influence and sometimes manipulate depending upon the seriousness of its stakes and the vulnerability of the regime or the state. But the fact is in most countries including Pakistan it can do so only indirectly. Why does American writ and influence then seem so decisive, far more than it actually is? Partly because the regimes themselves have a vested interest in flaunting the US connection to dispirit the opposition which gets resigned to a feeling that nothing can be done until Washington wills it.

No wonder, successive regimes in Pakistan, including those of Benazir Bhutto and her father, craved a close embrace with Washington and did their best to hold on to it. But since the factors that have historically attracted America’s interest in Pakistan have been primarily military -- and intelligence-related in which the army has been a better partner from Washington’s perspective, relations have been stronger during army or army-directed rule. Washington has been able to extract more out of such a regime as the latter has been desperate for international recognition and help, and also, being unrestrained by public opinion and political considerations, could give more in the bargain.

Yet it does not obscure the fact that the army and politicians are equally pro- or anti-American. For instance, during the 1990s when Pakistan had been very shabbily treated by Washington there was a strong anti-American feeling in the armed forces, more than even among the population which on the whole has tended to be more anti-American. Where it came to defending the country’s core interests like the nuclear programme the army did not lag behind anyone in resisting American pressure.

Of course, historically Pakistan’s national interests, especially its security concerns, have been served to an extent by US-Pakistan relations but Americans always gave precedence to their own interests. Over time Pakistan’s ruling elite itself came to closely identify the national interests with their own interests and to tie them both to a close US-Pakistan relationship. In the end the relationship became as much a part of the problem as of the solution. Among other things, it complicated Pakistan’s struggle for democratisation.

As to the future US role in this struggle, it seems that Washington will continue to support President Musharraf. But it will not resist any political change arising out of Pakistan’s internal dynamics. Right now, Washington is throwing its weight behind Musharraf because of an assessment that the relationship of forces inside the country is still in his favour and that the opposition cannot change the balance of power. But the moment the equation changes it might prompt a reassessment of US support, especially if Washington concludes that the continued dominant role of the army could lead to depoliticisation of the country, exacerbate its internal tensions and increase the influence of the Islamists thereby destabilising Pakistan and complicating US interests.

As things stand now, the Americans feel that Musharraf is in control and as a crucial partner in the war on terrorism he and the army are the best bet, not only for them but also for Pakistan. That is why he is under no great pressure from Washington on the issue of democracy. But there is little doubt he is being advised to open up the electoral process for the 2007 elections to liberal forces and make it more inclusive to avoid any extreme scenarios. The signs are that Washington is warming up a bit to Benazir Bhutto. It is hard to say whether this is meant as a pressure point for Musharraf or Washington is positioning itself for an inevitable change of scenario in Pakistan.

To conclude, the factors that brought President Musharraf to power and that will deprive him of it are primarily domestic. Of course, the American connection has helped, just as US help or the lack of it has been a factor in the strength or weakness of various regimes in Pakistan. But this has been one factor among many. It cannot override the fundamental reality of Pakistan’s internal dynamics that seems to be approaching a critical mass of some kind.

The writer is adjunct professor at Georgetown University, Washington

Saving for the rainy day

By Zubeida Mustafa

PAKISTAN is a bundle of contradictions and it is difficult to make out what the finance managers want from the people. On the one hand, they are constantly complaining that Pakistanis are not in the habit of saving and the country’s saving rate is deplorably low.

The website of the Pakistan Savings Organisation carries a saying of the Quaid-i-Azam exhorting the people to save and invest in saving certificates. “Thrift as a national asset is going to play an important part in the building up of the state,” the father of the nation had said, we are told.

On the other hand, we have our policymakers attempting to pay homage to the market economy. To sustain it they feel the urgent need to give a fillip to consumerism. The attractive credit schemes — they are not necessarily attractive but are made to look so — only encourage profligacy with the state’s blessings. After having bought a car with a loan from a leasing company or a house with a bank loan which he can hardly afford and trapped in the debt cycle, can you expect the poor man to follow the Quaid’s dictum to buy certificates? The numerous shopping plazas coming up also confirm that the government’s strategy of encouraging the consumerist craze and giving a boost to the economy with demand driven growth is succeeding.

Then why expect the average Pakistani to save? The fact is that frugality has never been the cultural forte of our people. The poor can be forgiven for not saving because they live from hand to mouth and have nothing left at the end of the month to set aside for the proverbial rainy day. Most of them live on overdraft from their employers or credit from their mohalla shopkeepers, the unscrupulous among whom exploit the indebted. Hence evils like bonded labour. Even the rich who are in a position to save invest only a small proportion of their income in saving schemes or long term deposits in banks because they have their ostentatious lifestyles to pay for. It would be instructive if a study were to be undertaken on how much Pakistanis spend on weddings, dowries, jewellery and other items of conspicuous consumption.

Hence should we be surprised when the State Bank governor complains of the saving rate being barely 16 per cent of the GDP? According to the director Central Directorate of National Savings (CDNS) in 2006 his directorate had one trillion rupees in gross receipts. It was Rs939 billion in 2005 after having fallen to Rs761 billion in 2001.

If the government really wants to give the saving rate a boost it will have to pay serious attention to the saving schemes. In 2004 it was announced, under IMF pressure it is believed, that the CDNS would be converted into an autonomous corporation called National Savings. This has not been done so far. With an autonomous status, the performance of the saving centres would improve. They could then undertake mobilisation campaigns and devise schemes to mop up small savings, especially from housewives, students and youth. A system of paying commission to those saving centres staff who mobilise savings, as the insurance companies and banks do, should also be explored.

Karachi generates 15 per cent of the national savings. In 2006 the seven schemes in vogue at present and the seven defunct schemes (that still have some funds) had gross receipts of Rs145.5 billion. A break-up of the area-wise collection shows that most of the savings came from the affluent residential localities such as Defence Society and Clifton or business centres such as Habib Square, Savings House and Saddar. That indicates that there is much scope to access the small and medium savers.

The State Bank Report 2005-06 presents innovative suggestions which can generate savings if implemented. It talks of the need to expand the network of banks, microfinance institutions and postal savings to far-flung areas. It also calls for a friendly atmosphere for the small depositors who can be over-awed by an institution that is not user friendly. This would require the centres to be equipped with basic facilities such as a comfortable waiting area and the provision for expediting transactions that is possible only with an efficient and sufficient manpower to attend to the clients. There is also the need to launch a drive to explain to the public the value of saving money — a realisation that is woefully missing.

With the CDNS controlled by the federal ministry of finance, these improvements will take long in coming, that is if they ever come. If the central directorate were to be converted into an autonomous corporation, the prospects of a transformation would visibly improve.

In the final analysis, however, the incentive to save is determined by the rate of return the saving schemes offer. Over the years the government has reduced the profits on all schemes which were pretty lucrative at one time — 15 per cent per annum -- and brought them close to the bank rates. Unsurprisingly, the quantum of savings fell. With the profits below the inflation rate the saver was left in the unhappy situation of the purchasing power of his savings actually being eroded with the passage of time.

The situation has somewhat improved with the upward revision of rates in the last two or so years. Yet they are not attractive enough. With inflation officially at 8.8 per cent (higher unofficially) the average returns of 9.24 per cent (which are lower after tax and zakat have been deducted) on most certificates are not good enough. Only Defence Saving Certificates and Bahbood Saving Certificates offer higher profits of 10 per cent or more but they are long term investments and the latter is restricted to senior citizens and has a ceiling of three million rupees.

Apparently, the government has exercised caution because it does not want to be caught on the wrong foot again. Higher profits might once again open the floodgates of malpractice by those with black money. But this can be controlled if the government institutes checks and screening to ensure that unauthorised funds do not find their way into the saving schemes.

This is possible only if the data is computerised on a nation-wide basis as has been done by Nadra. This should pre-empt cheating while it will encourage those with incomes from legally declared sources to invest in the saving schemes.

This once again highlights the need for expediting the establishment of National Savings — the autonomous corproration that was promised over two years ago.

Compulsory military duty

By Hafizur Rahman

IT is heartening to hear now and then from the president and the prime minister that Pakistan’s defences are quite in order, that we too can explode an atomic bomb whenever we want to, and that we needn’t have any fears about our military preparedness.

But I do wish they would initiate something on the lines of compulsory military service in the country. It would do our pampered young men a lot of good. This thought was actually motivated not by the sabre-rattling of some of the Hindu nationalist leaders of India but by a report some time ago in a British daily that a top tennis star of ex-Yugoslavia had received notice to get ready for compulsory military duty for a year. The tennis prodigy was also told that, apart from training, his job with the army would be that of a cook.

Apparently the Serbs, who were murderously vicious towards Bosnians, do not pamper their star sportsmen the way it is done in most other countries, including Pakistan. Nowadays top sportsmen are as much lionised the world over as film stars, and they are equally temperamental and vain, and rich, thanks to the adulation showered on them by the visual media.

The report about the Serbian tennis star did not say on what basis he had been assigned the duties of a cook in the army. Did he inform the army earlier that, as a hobby, he plays tennis with potatoes and turnips in his kitchen and was therefore entitled to a culinary appointment?

One would like to know if he would be cooking wholesale for the privates or will be making fancy dishes for gastronomically inclined officers. Will he be allowed to play tennis in his spare time and content himself with playing cards with the other cooks? No attempt was made in the news report to answer these questions.

We do not have universal military training in Pakistan. Perhaps that is why we civilians are so ignorant about military matters. Our own fault really. The armed forces gave us ample opportunity to know them from a close range whenever martial law was imposed, but we are so insular that we sedulously refused to acquire any of their traits, especially discipline. On the other hand, their men immediately started learning from us, civilians, and became proficient in things like red tape and malingering, and even corruption. There have been stories in the US press about the richest general in the world being a Pakistani.

Anyway, I was wondering what would happen if we too had compulsory military service in Pakistan, as so many well-meaning politicians have been suggesting in the past. Let us imagine for a moment that it has been enforced. We might then witness a variety of scenes in respect of some of our top sportsmen. For instance, Inzamamul Haq is about to go for batting against a visiting Indian team when he receives a telegram from GHQ asking him to report for duty in a unit of the Sindh Regiment posted at Khokrapar, where his duties will be to mow the lawns and trim the hedges of the officers’ mess.

Having heard that Inzamam knows something about cricket, it is decided by the GHQ to benefit from his experience by posting him as a fielder when the officers play cricket on Sundays and other holidays. Inzamam is so excited by the great news brought by the telegram, and at the thought of losing some of his fat by fielding, that he can hardly keep his eyes on the ball and comes back from the crease with a “duck.”

Another former superstar of our sports, Jansher Khan, also gets his turn. He too is called up for a year, his posting being for a year with the Frontier Corps in Razmak. Since Razmak is some 6,000 feet high, and firewood is constantly needed to keep the troops warm, his job will be to chop a certain quantity of pinewood every day for the fireplaces in the officers’ mess.

In his case too the GHQ has been informed of his involvement with squash, and, therefore, he has been given the additional chore of looking after the squash rackets of the Razmak Cadet College team. According to Jansher’s family, a week after getting the telegram he had not yet recovered from the shock.

You will say that I have allowed my imagination to run amok. No, not at all. There might be a little exaggeration in my conjuring up of the two events, but fundamentally they are possible and plausible. You must have heard that anything can happen in cricket and squash, to say nothing of the army.

If there is compulsory military training in Pakistan for a fixed age group, I suppose sons of the middle class families will be called up, while those of privileged families, especially politicians of the ruling party, will manage to get exemption. This exemption will naturally be on health grounds, and the fortunate boys will be promptly packed off by their loving parents to Europe to recover their health.

I literally writhed with envy when an Indian TV channel showed how young women in East Punjab visited the cantonments and tied raakhis on the wrists of soldiers on the eve of the festival of Rakhsha Bandhan, making them symbolic brothers. Love and admiration for the army were writ large on the faces of the girls.

We too could see such trust and affection up to the war of September 1965 and in the years following it. Then what happened? Did we do something to lose it, or did the armed forces fail to live up to it? As a Pakistani I desperately want that trust and affection back in my outlook, in fact in my very psyche. I yearn for the days when we wouldn’t miss a military parade for anything.

Even taking into account the possible exemptions, I honestly believe that compulsory military training is the best way to bring the people and the defence forces into a harmonious relationship. It is also the need of the hour. We must have a people’s army and we must do whatever we can to restore people’s pride and confidence in our defenders. Annual military training for all is the best way to do that and to involve the whole country in its defence.

It’s the war, stupid

WHATEVER the question you ask in American politics right now, the answer always comes back the same -- it's the war, stupid. George Bush's federal budget plan for 2008, released in Washington on Monday is no exception to that rule.

The budget calls on Congress for supplementary funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the current fiscal year, bringing the 2006-07 out-turn to $165 billion (not far short of what Britain spends annually on the NHS). Then, for 2007-08 -- the last full fiscal year of the Bush presidency -- the war is projected to consume a further $145 billion.

The total falls sharply to $50 billion in 2008-09 and finally disappears to nothing at all thereafter. If you think you may have heard this before, the answer is that you have. A big push now, sustained throughout next year, and then all scaled down to nothing in the year Mr Bush's successor moves into the White House. It is precisely the same optimistic "one last heave" scenario that Mr Bush offered Americans last month and which sceptical senators from both parties were preparing to reject last night. As an exercise in political fantasy, it is hard to beat.

Not surprisingly, the new federal budget is an exercise in fiscal fantasy too. But its rose-tinted view of US government spending goes well beyond the impact of Iraq. Five years ago, a combination of planned tax cuts and unplanned emergency spending after 9/11 combined to send the budget surplus that Mr Bush inherited from Bill Clinton plunging into a deficit. For a while, the administration and the voters swallowed the medicine because of the emergency.

Gradually, however, it has dawned on them both that there is a price to pay in terms of spending cuts on domestic programmes. And, as the Iraq war goes from bad to worse, sucking up extra spending for the military and the mission, Americans are understandably unwilling to pay that price indefinitely.

In Washington's present mood, it is hard to see Mr Bush's budget plan surviving more than a few hours. And no wonder. Why should a Democratic Congress that has been swept into office on a tide of anti-war feeling be expected to pass White House plans for eliminating the deficit that rests on hikes in war spending, plus a historically high overall Pentagon budget and a squeeze on government social and health programmes, while simultaneously rewarding the very rich with a network of permanent tax cuts?

Mr Bush may talk about learning the lessons of the midterm elections, but this is a defiant programme of rightwing business-as-usual.

The truth is that Mr Bush's budget only pays lip-service to the goal of getting the US government back into surplus by 2012.

His means of achieving that goal rest on distinctly shaky assumptions -- a continuation of the strong economic growth that generates the government's revenues, the steady run-down of costs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tightened government spending at home on pensions and health care for the poor.

It is a long time since anyone got rich by betting against the American economy, and even some disappointing recent manufacturing and unemployment statistics are unlikely to deflect the recent growth trend.

But federal revenues would look far healthier were it not for the tax cuts that Mr Bush has lavished on corporations and the super-rich.

If Congressional Budget Office figures are right, the continuation of the Bush tax cuts beyond their current cut-off point in 2010 makes all the difference between a surplus (if they are allowed to expire) and a deficit (if they are extended).

Republicans would love to paint the Democrats as a tax-raising party, and the Democrats will be keen to prevent them from doing so, especially before the 2008 election, but the fact remains that some time between now and 2010, US politicians will have to move beyond the war and decide if they can tolerate a budgetary dynamic which effectively steals money from the poor to give to the rich.

—The Guardian, London

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007