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The party is over

May 13, 2011

MUCH of the world’s goodwill and patience as regards Pakistan has run out. Let’s not kid anyone: for all the bravado being shown by the country’s discredited politicians and military brass, Pakistan’s reputation has hit rock bottom. It is not going to recover for some time unless the country’s leaders agree to make a fresh start.

Those who have got the country in this awful mess will most likely find safe haven elsewhere, leaving behind a nation shattered by the ruling classes’ duplicity and/or stupidity in failing to deal with religious extremism and mismanagement of the economy. Ever since Osama Bin Laden was killed, found living practically next door to the military academy in Abbottabad, like many other Pakistan-watchers, I have followed developments in Pakistan with a rising sense of anger, frustration — and grim amusement.

The Pakistani political and military establishment’s ability to delude themselves over their reputation and the country’s role in the world has always amazed me. My columns have often struggled to reflect how people outside Pakistan — including EU officials, ordinary Europeans and many members of the Pakistani diaspora — really view the country, what they actually say when the ministers and diplomats have left the room and they know they can talk freely and off-the-record to a journalist.

I’ve always believed it counterproductive to live in a state of denial. But that appears to be the permanent state of mind of many in Pakistan, the general belief being that if you say it loudly enough, often enough and to as many possible as possible, somehow an illusion can turn into reality. Unfortunately, the real world does not work like that. So here’s my modest attempt to distinguish between myth and reality in an honest worldview of post-Osama Pakistan.

— The US operation against Osama is an ‘embarrassment’ for Pakistan. No it isn’t: it is a humiliation, a slap in the face for the country’s leaders — civilian and military — who have been shown to be either duplicitous and/or clueless. I’m frankly not sure what is worse. Instead of trying to strut their stuff, Pakistani policymakers should be apologising to the nation — and to the rest of the world — for having willingly or unwittingly misled everyone for the last 10 years.

— As in the past, Pakistan will be able to overcome negative world opinion. Not really, not this time. Pakistan’s reputation — not really that bright at the best of times — has taken a very strong blow. Rebuilding global goodwill will be an uphill struggle for even the best-paid American PR firms, not to mention Pakistan’s beleaguered diplomats.

— People forget. Again, not this time. There have always been suspicions about the Pakistani security services’ ability to ‘look two ways’: clamp down on the terrorist groups that they do not like while helping and ‘nurturing’ those they see as ‘foreign policy tools’ to project Pakistani influence in Afghanistan and India. The Osama episode proves that global misgivings about Pakistan’s double game were right. Good luck to those who try correcting that impression.

— Pakistan is an important, indispensable nation. Whatever it does, it will be forgiven. After all, the US administration has promised to keep providing aid and the EU has said that the country needs “more support than ever”. Yes, some people do believe that Pakistan’s help is needed to stabilise Afghanistan, especially in view of US plans to withdraw in 2014. But others in the US and Europe — especially in Congress and the European Parliament — disagree with that view and believe it’s time to put relations with Islamabad on the back burner. The result of the debate will depend on how Pakistani leaders conduct themselves in the coming weeks and months.

— As Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said, this is an “intelligence failure of the world”. Well done, Mr Gilani. Passing the buck is an old Pakistani tactic and the speechwriter who came up with this argument probably deserves a medal. But this is really Pakistan’s failure. Mr Gilani and others should take responsibility for it, and do better in dealing with the many terrorist networks still operating inside and outside the country.

— The Pakistan Army works in the country’s national interest. It probably does but I have often wondered when Pakistan would wake up and question the myth that the army and security services are the only stabilising forces in Pakistan. Let’s be frank: Pakistan is in this mess over Osama — and more generally as regards the fragility of its institutions — because the security forces have played hide-and-seek with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and disseminated a fictional narrative of power and authority to Pakistanis and the rest of the world.

— The civilian leaders deserve world support. Yes, but only to a point. Civilian governments in Pakistan have given democracy a bad name, led a trusting population up the garden path and filled their pockets with ill-gotten gains. If they want public support, Pakistan’s civilian leaders must come clean over past mistakes, assert their authority over the military and get the economy in order.

In other words, it’s time to wake up and get to work. Pakistan’s ruling elite has to stop pretending it can keep living in a twilight world of ambiguity and half-truths. With honest leaders, countries can change their destinies and restore their reputations.

Pakistan’s long-suffering population deserves a better future.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.