Pakistan’s future seems like a spaghetti bowl
What looks likely is that Pakistan’s future will be shaped by its relations with China. What the Pakistani diplomacy could not achieve at the American front, it accomplished remarkably well with China
Anniversaries are occasions for assessments. Pakistan’s seventieth anniversary provides an opportunity to look back where we were, where we are now and where we shall be in the near future. While in other countries, “interesting times” are few and far between, in Pakistan, all times are “interesting times” as there is hardly a day without disorder or trouble. That is why some call it a “desperate place” where the political system has “frozen” between democracy and military autocracy in which the khakis enjoy the “right to intervene.” It is also a country whose ambitions are bigger than its capabilities, which made a US ambassador to remark, “I don’t know where Pakistan is heading, but once it gets there I will explain to you why it was inevitable.” As its dreams are wild—beating the emerging global power India, securing strategic depth in Afghanistan, becoming “the fort of Islam,” etc—failures and frustrations have made it an “insecure state.” In addition, to the mocking extremist militants, it is an “apostate” state because the very state that pampered them is now turning the screws on them. The conflicts within and without have pushed the country to the “edge” where “it has become a state in crisis, while its actions have created crises for other states.”
Pakistan’s problems are known and the list is long and depressing. Since its birth, an unending process of defining and redefining the raison d’etreof state has been going on a la General Zia’s “Islam First” and General Musharraf’s “Pakistan First” whereas the founding father, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of a moderate, democratic and liberal Pakistan is neither understood nor accepted except among the shrinking group of liberals. Moreover, every civil and military government has failed in fulfilling its development agenda whereas all institutions have been unsuccessful in resolving the foundational issues, mainly because the political and civil society organisations are weak to influence course correction.
The political parties are just “vertically integrated personality cults” committed not to collective but deeply personal agendas of their heads and visibly lack democracy even within. The popular Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is a case in point, because, when, just before her demise, its leader Benazir Bhutto was confronted about the absence of internal democracy, she retorted that her party was not yet ready for it rather it was more in need of a strong leader (herself) to keep the organisation together from the “assault” of a predatory Establishment. There are no two opinions that the harvest of religious militancy being reaped now was sown in the times of Zia, however, neither the governments of Benazir Bhutto nor Nawaz Sharif did anything substantial such as the building of a narrative of tolerant Islam to stem the tide of religious extremism, therefore, we have a whole crop of a “lost generation,” who were born after 1980 whereas General Musharraf’s promise to root out Islamic fundamentalism with “enlightened moderation” turned out to be as hollow as his political vision despite his early confidence to put the country on the right course by “fixing” the johnnies (corrupt and incompetent politicians and bureaucrats). The sad part is that both the secular PPP and the centrist Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the latter being claimant to Jinnah’s legacy, have actually supported the jihadi groups at one time or the other. No wonder, the alternation of these two parties in power from 1989 to 1999 is referred to as the “lost decade.”
Just imagine a country whose own house is in disorder yet aspires to become the “security manager” of its region. The proxy struggle in Afghanistan is likely to continue as long as we feel that any political settlement over there will give undue influence to India. We are bound by “India-centricity” which is beholden to the agony, fear and mistrust of the “partition generation” in both the countries, so, there is no chance of complete normalization in relations till this generation becomes history. Equally unwell is the state of affairs with the US in which the constant mismatch of perceptions and misreading of interests have generated anger and mistrust between the two. Divorce is not an option due to Pakistan’s geo-strategic position, fear of “loose nukes”, threat potential from its badlands in the north-west, that is why, immediately, after his inauguration as president, Obama directed a policy review meeting on Pakistan because he felt “that no issue on his foreign policy agenda was more important than the fate of Pakistan” and is reported to have promised the then Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani, “I will take it[bilateral relations] to the heights, where it has never been before.” That didn’t happen!
What looks likely is that Pakistan’s future will be shaped by its relations with China. What the Pakistani diplomacy could not achieve at the American front, it accomplished remarkably well with China, with whom a close and cooperative relationship was maintained even after Pakistan had signed the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) and Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), which were in essence military pacts to contain the communist threat posed by China and the erstwhile Soviet Union. One must credit the deftness and alacrity of Pakistan’s diplomacy because despite being the signatory of these anti-communist pacts, when Pakistan and India went to war in 1965, Chairman Mao Zedong pressed President Ayub Khan to continue the fight with the message, “If there is a nuclear war, it is Beijing that will be a target and not Rawalpindi,” however, we could not oblige Mao because the economic and diplomatic costs of continuing the war were beyond our means. Although there is a growing din of “win-win” Pak-China relationship these days, owing to the launching of the multi billion dollars China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, one should not forget Winston Churchill’s warning against looking too much in future: “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.”
As of now, Pakistan’s future seems like a spaghetti bowl with many uncertainties yet the state will remain intact as long as the army will remain militarily effective and the Punjab continues to hold as a strong core without breaking into conflicting zones. The talk of religious extremists taking over is unlikely because overall Pakistanis do not support militancy and although sizable sections of population in the Punjab and the Pashtun belt have radicalised, it would be wrong to assume that the whole state and society are radicalized. Those who wish to do some soul-searching on this Independence Day better read or reread“The future of Pakistan” by Stephen P Cohen because a hurtful truth is better than a pleasant lie as too many lies have been told about this country.