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Independence Day blues

August 18, 2012

WHEN I first went to Turkey as a student some 50 years ago (how time flies!) it was gratifying to see how many Turks had a good opinion of Pakistan.

Over numerous trips to Turkey since then, I have watched these positive feelings decline with great sadness. Heroin dealing, people smuggling and insane levels of extremist violence have all taken their toll on Turkish public opinion about Pakistan.

Now, according to a Pew survey, as many as 43 per cent of Turks disapprove of Pakistan while only 37 per cent have positive feelings about it. But these numbers aren’t as bad as those prevailing in another friend of ours: in China as many as 52 per cent disapprove of Pakistan while only 31 per cent approve.

Understandably, 59 per cent of Indians surveyed had negative views about us, but things aren’t much better in Muslim countries. In Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, the majority thinks poorly of Pakistan. In the United States the majority views Pakistan as an enemy.

The negative opinions cited here are accurate reflections of our standing in the world. Over the years, contradictions and cancers have bubbled to the surface. We are now widely seen as the epicentre of Islamic terrorism. Worse, we are also viewed as a dysfunctional state that is constantly demanding handouts from the rest of the world.

Many Pakistanis, with some justification, think these perceptions are both unfair and inaccurate. But clearly they are rooted in reality. Countries and people do not acquire poor reputations without reason. In our case, a succession of events and trends ranging from repeated bouts of military rule to our growing religiosity to our reputation for corruption have all tarnished our image. Neither has our cause been helped by the awful treatment our minorities and women receive.

As Pakistan has just turned 65, it would useful to reflect on why and how it has all gone so horribly wrong. After all, we started off with a groundswell of sympathy and support from the international community in 1947. Although the rest of the world was only vaguely aware of where Pakistan was, there was no initial hostility towards us.

Even Pakistan’s first martial law was not widely condemned: Ayub Khan was regarded as a modernising and secular leader, and we were widely praised as a model for the developing world. It wasn’t until the bloody civil war of 1971 that the mask of military dictatorship slipped. The reality of the military and the mullahs terrorising ordinary people under Zia became the image of Pakistan abroad.

Although we got a respite due to our frontline status during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, our nuclear programme soon led to sanctions. Since the 1990s, it has been downhill all the way: even 9/11 and Musharraf’s famous U-turn won us few friends. And our reputation as nuclear proliferators has made brand Pakistan a toxic one. So here we are, the bad boys of the international community.

The purpose of diplomacy is to neutralise foes through a network of alliances and close relationships. It is also supposed to project a positive image of the country while downplaying negative aspects. Over the years, politicians and the media have tended to blame our diplomats for failing in these basic tasks.

The real problem, however, is that a bad product is hard to sell. If the country’s a mess, it’s difficult to convince outsiders that all is well. In these days of 24/7 news over satellite TV and the Internet, very little can be kept secret. No amount of spin can conceal reality.

When I was a diplomat in Washington in the late 1980s, my primary function was to deal with the media, and I was constantly questioned about the widespread stories of corruption in the PPP government. I would have had no credibility if I had merely denied these allegations, so I just put them down to the facts of life in a developing country.

But these charges have kept growing over the years. Things have got so bad that even in the aftermath of natural disasters, foreigners who would like to help now hesitate as they don’t trust the government. Even states now prefer to channel their assistance through NGOs or oversee its utilisation through their own agencies.

Another fallout from our pariah status is our diplomatic isolation. We presently cannot rely on any country to stand with us in our dispute with India over Kashmir. Nor do any of our neighbours see eye-to-eye with us on a resolution of the Afghan conflict. So here we are, a nation with nearly 200 million people, with barely a say in the affairs of the world.

And yet it was not always so: not that long ago, Pakistan punched above its weight and was a respected voice in international forums. But as Pakistan is steadily diminished at home, so too has its clout decreased: to project purpose and authority abroad, a state must be in full and effective control over its territory and people.

Alas, the writ of the state has been steadily eroded, largely because of its own policies. In order to preserve a degree of deniability, Pakistan has used armed groups in Afghanistan, Kashmir and elsewhere to further its agenda. Having gained in strength and legitimacy, these extremist militants now challenge the authority of the state in large swathes of the country.

And by continuing the British strategy of allowing tribes in Fata to rule according to their own code and tradition, we have ensured that there will be little development and huge law and order problems there. The combination of these two policies has come to haunt us in the shape of numerous mutating jihadi groups that are now destabilising the whole country.

As we grapple with these demons, there is little consensus on the most basic issues. But instead of trying to forge unity in the face of this growing existential danger, our leaders are too busy squabbling over non-issues to come to grips with problems that are probably beyond their capabilities.

Perhaps the most telling sign of our enfeebled state is that to mark Independence, thousands of Pakistanis now fire off millions of rounds into the air. Most of the guns used in this mindless celebration are unlicensed.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West. irfan.husain@gmail.com