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Is this the problem?

March 27, 2013

IN an article titled ‘Is Pakistan’s condition terminal?’ published in Foreign Policy, Robert Hathaway, director of the Asian Programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, has reprimanded Pakistanis for tolerating “for too long shoddy governance, venal politicians, failing institutions and second-best performance.”

The writer adds: “Pakistan has failed abysmally in cultivating leadership, vision and a national commitment to turn around the fortunes of an ailing state.” He finds astonishing the equanimity with which Pakistanis accept bad governance. Mr Hathaway goes on to pronounce Pakistan to be in terminal decline.

No one would quarrel with the writer’s analysis, however bitter the truth may be. The fact is that we have failed miserably in producing leadership that can pull the country out of its present morass. This is basically our job.

But will we be left alone to do it? Mr Hathaway’s observation betrays a lack of historical perspective. The fact of the matter is that Pakistanis have not been allowed a free hand in exercising their political choices. We have ourselves to blame for inviting foreign meddling. But that does not absolve the US of its responsibility either in helping us create a mess.

Hathaway aptly describes decay as a “cumulative process”. It is also a long-drawn process. He observes, “America’s influence in Pakistan, for reasons good and bad, is vastly exaggerated. As Pakistan confronts its challenges, foreigners can make a difference only at the margins.”

However, a look at the history of US-Pakistan relations tells us another story. It is replete with instances of how America has used its power to influence Pakistan’s ‘establishment’ to its own advantage. This first became manifest in foreign policy matters. But as has been inevitable such control has penetrated domestic affairs. This trend began in the 1950s and it was not just a coincidence that governments that came into power after their predecessors had failed to toe the American line, proved to be more pliable vis-à-vis Washington.

How we joined the military pacts and became recipients of economic aid which came with strings attached and destroyed Pakistanis’ — both the rulers and the ruled — spirit of self-reliance is a long story. Foreign technology inducted indiscriminately into the national economy destroyed the strength of our indigenous systems. The emphasis was on aid and not trade, as the former helped the aid-givers control those they aided.

The role of the military in our politics is a continuing saga — at times overt and at other times covert — and this has enjoyed America’s blessings. How foreign policy issues seep into the everyday life of a people is best illustrated in the case of the rise of religious extremism and militancy in Pakistan.

No one would deny that elements with a fundamentalist approach have always operated in our society. But they remained on the fringes while the majority displayed more rationality. Afghanistan, especially the ‘jihad’ fought by the Mujahideen with American/Pakistani help, became the turning point in the rise of what we call terrorism today.

How did the Afghan problem assume the shape it ultimately did? Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, spilt the beans when he disclosed in an interview to Le Nouvel Observateur, (Paris, Jan 15-21, 1998), “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahideen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on Dec 24, 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed, it was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.”

When this really happened, as anticipated by Brzezinsky, he described the secret operation as an “excellent idea”. It was this “excellent idea” that transformed Pakistan’s society with the influx of Afghan refugees, arms and heroin.

Did the people of Pakistan have much of a choice when this secret operation was being planned? Mr Hathaway now says, “The sad reality is that outsiders can do precious little to staunch Pakistan’s slide to disfunctionality unless Pakistanis decide to seize control of their own destiny.” But when he says, “The United States — and the rest of the international community — can be only bit players in this drama”, I do wonder how little he understands Pakistan’s terminal illness.

Today, thanks to Mr Brzezinski’s excellent idea, Pakistan is a weaponised society. Foreigners continue to sponsor the gun-running in the country which they finance brazenly. They have their proxies in Pakistan — which include those in office — to play this terror game. And mind you, these are not “bit players”. If the government’s involvement were not there, deweaponisation — which civil society has been demanding — would not have been beyond our reach.

Whenever Pakistanis summon up the courage to seize their own destiny, there will be even more bloodshed than what we are witnessing today. The paradox is that these “bit players” do not want Pakistan to collapse entirely because, in Hathaway’s words, “the consequences of a wholesale Pakistani collapse — terrorism, poverty, loose nukes, refugees, deteriorating human rights, especially for women and girls, heightened tensions with its neighbours — are too fearful” for the country to “be casually written off”.

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