Relevant front?

Published September 18, 2017
The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.
The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.

NOTWITHSTANDING Pakistan’s response to mounting US pressure with a series of steps on the foreign policy front, the challenges faced by the country primarily remain on the home front. In the wake of Donald Trump’s warning, Pakistani envoys from key locations were summoned for consultations while the newly appointed foreign minister was dispatched to four capitals beginning with Beijing, followed by Tehran, Ankara and Moscow.

Attending the annual session of the UN General Assembly, the main objective of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif will be to reduce friction with the US.

Once again however, Pakistan’s policymakers are in danger of failure to comprehend the root of the challenges besieging the country. Beyond the matter of more than Pakistan’s regular share of internal policy failures lies the equally obvious matter of resolving issues that have run the country’s system of governance and key elements of the economy into the ground.

The rulers fail to understand the roots of our slide.

A failure to urgently grasp the gravity of Pakistan’s internal erosion will weaken the country further at a time when national unity is needed to face an array of challenges.

Though the security establishment here has often been criticised for nurturing militant elements that have come to haunt the country’s future, there’s more to this dismal outlook than just a conscious choice by key decision-makers. A failure to address the many gaps surrounding Pakistan’s framework of internal security and policing is equally responsible for the state’s poor capacity to build safeguards to halt the slide.

In recent weeks, two examples of the ways in which Pakistan’s higher educational system continues to slide illustrated an oft-ignored story in the power corridors of Islamabad.

First came the news of a Karachi university student whose alleged involvement in a failed assassination attempt on MQM leader Khawaja Izharul Hasan put the spotlight on inroads made by radicals in institutions of higher learning. The case has prompted an array of prescriptions ranging from a revival of unions for students to gain greater responsibility of their own affairs, to handing over of data of students to intelligence agencies and the police. Clearly, there is a pressing need to revitalise places of learning across Pakistan, though exactly how that will be done remains unclear.

Second, news from the annually published Times Higher Education University Rankings this year included just four Pakistani universities among the top 1,000, down from seven a year ago. That in itself is much worse than a simple national embarrassment. It is a powerful reminder of the ways in which the quality of state-provided higher education in Pakistan is in a shambles, with the ruling structure too obsessed with matters of concrete, including infrastructure like fancy bus projects, speed trains, new airports and big roads rather than empowerment of forums like universities to energise young minds.

This anomaly speaks volumes for not just the failure of successive governments to embrace priorities where they would matter the most to ordinary Pakistanis. Such gaps also underline the harsh consequences for the economy and development of society.

With Pakistan’s literacy level trailing significantly behind that of successful developing countries, the country can bid goodbye to promising prospects of a fast-paced period of industrial growth or the sustained and impressive revival of a sector like agriculture. Pakistan’s recent census has concluded that almost two-thirds of the country’s population are rural dwellers — a fact that has once again reinforced the significance of agriculture in Pakistan’s overall economic framework.

And last but not least, the failure of successive governments to revitalise education at the school level or healthcare in the public sector has only given an impetus to the same services provided by the private sector. Tragically, however, such basics across Pakistan remain well beyond the reach of the country’s mainstream population.

Such trends together reinforce the notion of Pakistan’s weakening as a state, given its failure to provide adequately for its subjects. Moreover, the state’s abdication of responsibility over time with regard to parts of the country was the very element that created space for non-state groups such as militants driven by a hard-line interpretation of religion to seize control.

Ultimately, it is hardly surprising that Pakistan finds itself under attack on the foreign policy front. In view of the Pakistani state’s failure to see to its own responsibilities, non-state elements appear to be moving in.

Though the threat from Washington forced Prime Minister Abbasi to assemble Pakistan’s top diplomatic resources for a comprehensive response, the ruling structure cannot remain oblivious to the gaps within. Ultimately, Pakistan’s salvation will only come from its ability to take charge of its own turf.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.

farhanbokhari@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2017

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