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Wait and watch, and suffer

Pakistan’s problems are not new. But the manner in which it deals with them today will determine its future. Amitabh Mattoo writes.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:38 IST

Few incidents can exemplify the deep turmoil within Pakistan than the murder of the investigative reporter, Syed Saleem Shahzad. Part of a brave and often audacious community of journalists in Pakistan, Shahzad was targeted apparently because he exposed links between al-Qaeda and key parts of the Pakistani establishment, a nexus that has acquired a new salience since the killing of Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad. It is critical, at virtually this eleventh hour, that Pakistan’s people, and the world outside — the country’s friends and even foes — coalesce to forge a common agenda for the future of the country.

While the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s angst-ridden recent visit to Islamabad may suggest a new urgency, Washington’s policies continue to be driven by short-term considerations of political expediency, especially the need to secure the Pakistan army’s support to ensure an early exit out of Afghanistan. What is often not recognised is that today the second-largest Muslim State, with the fastest growing nuclear arsenal, is confronting the most serious challenge to its existence as a coherent nation-state probably since independence and certainly since Bangladesh separated from it in 1971.

Five fundamental questions, and the manner in which the people of Pakistan and their leaders respond to these almost-Manichean choices, will determine — to a large extent — the future of the country.

First, will the idea of Pakistan, as a nation-state, remain rooted in the world view of its founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah or will it continue to be driven by the ideology of the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled the country from 1977 to 1988? Let us be clear that Jinnah demanded Pakistan as a home for the Muslim minority of the Indian subcontinent, but having secured a separate State wanted religion to become a private affair, with little role in public life. While we may quibble over Jinnah’s view on religion, there is no doubt that he had hoped that the country would become a modern and moderate Muslim State. In contrast, the deep Islamic radicalisation of parts of Pakistan, and its descent into extremism, is a product of Zia’s political machinations aided by the US and its allies during the Cold War.

Second, will Pakistan’s army seek to cement the fractured nation or will itself become a source of further splintering? Pakistan’s army has, for decades, been seen as the most professional, well integrated, disciplined, least corrupt and most powerful institution in the country. And yet today it is clear that it is the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate that has sponsored many of the militant groups that are deeply undermining the stability of Pakistan. It is the army again that has the strongest vested interest in continuing conflict with India; given that it is this rivalry that has allowed it to expand to a point where it’s become an empire within a State. In turn, the army’s credibility has been deeply eroded among the vast majority of the people. Will the army permanently disconnect itself from the jihadis and cleanse itself of radical subversive elements within its ranks or will it preside over Pakistan’s collapse into anarchy?

Third, will the relationship with the US be based on a convergence of long-term values and interests or will it continue to be based on tactical opportunism? No other external relationship has been as important to Pakistan as the relationship with the US. It is also one of the highest recipients of American aid. And yet there are few countries that are more unpopular in Pakistan than the US. Almost every survey of public opinion suggests that Barack Obama has less support than bin Laden in most parts of Pakistan. The belief that America treats Pakistan like a condom, to be used and discarded, is all pervasive and unless this traditionally patron-client relationship transforms itself, anti-Americanism will continue to inspire further radicalisation of the polity and the society.

Fourth, will there be a grand reconciliation with India or will the historical legacy of enmity over the past 60-odd years continue to dominate south Asia? If there is a silver bullet that could almost miraculously transform Pakistan, it would be reconciliation with India. The India-Pakistan relationship is, and has been, about almost everything that matters: history, memory, prejudice, territory, identity, religion, sovereignty, ideology, insecurity, trust, betrayal and much, much more. While India’s size and the scale of its economy has prevented the conflict with its western neighbour from clouding its future, Pakistan has been strangulated by the rivalry with a vast majority of its resources being spent on matching India’s considerable military prowess. Ironically, there is no prime minister more willing to make peace with Pakistan than India’s Manmohan Singh, even to the extent of making unilateral concessions, wherever needed to satisfy Pakistan’s hardliners. Will Pakistan grab this opportunity in its own self-interest?

Fifth, will the media, the judiciary and the institutions of civil society grow and expand their influence or will they be also squeezed into inertia? Pakistan’s greatest strength, in recent years, has been the growth of a robust and fiercely independent media, and its brave and often audacious NGO community (including a significant human rights and women’s movement). They have been the biggest bulwark against Pakistan’s otherwise imminent collapse into Talibanism. The influence exercised by these groups will be an important determinant of Pakistan’s future.

Pakistan’s friends must understand that its future will be primarily determined by the manner in which it addresses these questions, most of which have been plaguing it since its independence as a separate nation-state. And the best service they can do to help Pakistan is to make its leaders recognise not just the gravity of the crises that they are facing, but to ensure that they reflect on these questions and chart out a course based on an honest assessment of what is good for the country. The world, including India, can no longer afford to just wait and watch.

Amitabh Mattoo is professor of International Relations, University of Melbourne. The views expressed by the author are personal.