Pakistan’s Place in World Politics

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Ashraf Jehangir Qazi*

There are slightly less than 200 member states of the United Nations. Pakistan is one of them. In terms of population, at slightly less than 200 million, Pakistan is the sixth largest country in the world, and by 2020 it is scheduled to become the fifth largest surpassing Brazil. At almost 800,000 square kilometers the country is large but not among the largest and nowhere near the continental sized countries. Its resource/mineral base is not insignificant but it is in no danger of becoming a rentier economy because of its per capita mineral wealth. But unfortunately, it is ruled by a rentier power elite and a collaborating class at the expense of its masses who have been systematically denied adequate basic services, protection systems and opportunities to escape abject poverty. Rentier, a French word, translates into English as “free rider,” and into Urdu as muft khor.

These  classes  have  been  responsible  for:  (i)  the  militarization of national decision-making which has prioritized security above development, and elite-conceived ideological and strategic interests above  national cohesion and welfare interests; (ii) the degree and extent of corruption as measured by several indices including those of Transparency International; (iii) the inane and insipid quality of discourse, debate, discussion and political behavior in the national and provincial assemblies; (iv) the disconnect between  elite zero-sum political games justified as democratic process and the utterly miserable lives of the masses; (v)the deep alienation of whole regions and segments of the population; (vi) the inability or refusal to widen the tax base and/ or substantially raise the tax/GDP ratio to finance development and basic service provision expenditures out of national revenue resources; (vii) the permanently non-viable state of the macro-financial and micro- productive economy, and the constant dependence on external bail-outs and foreign assistance at the inevitable cost of national independence and sovereignty; (viii) the dominance of the black/informal economy, including smuggling and other criminal, illegal and socially harmful activities which provides livelihoods, jobs and basic resilience to the economy, but which also fails to provide revenue or to channel resources into human resource development and infrastructure; (ix) the perception in many quarters of a longer term inability to safeguard nuclear weapons/ materials or to exercise policy restraint and responsibility as a nuclear weapons power; (x) the perception that it has ceded considerable parts of its territory as safe havens and whole areas under the effective control of local and international terrorist organizations which it cannot or will not eradicate; (xi) the dishonest and twisted ideologies and mindsets that have distorted the core of Islam as a faith of balance, moderation and humanity and, instead, have inculcated a culture of killing and barbaric intolerance as the way to salvation; and (xii) the general world media assessment that Pakistan has become the most irresponsibly governed country in the world .

All of the above have combined to present to the world an image of Pakistan as a dangerously dysfunctional and failing state that is a danger to itself, its neighbourhood and the international community. This disgraceful state of affairs cannot be simply denied by do-nothing emotional verbal vehemence without a shred of action to address the situation or calling to account the parasitical and predatory ruling classes and institutions that are responsible for it. They have made Pakistan what Kissinger once described Bangladesh as being: an international basket case.

Nevertheless, Pakistan occupies what is called a strategic location. This, of course, begs the question of what is a strategic location, and which countries are not situated in one. Is a strategic location a permanent status? Pakistan’s history suggests that it is not. The West, and particularly the US, initially viewed Pakistan as an essential component of its strategy to contain Soviet expansion through its inclusion in military alliances such as the Baghdad Pact – later CENTO – and SEATO. But when Pakistan tried to convert this into a security guarantee against India it failed. Later Pakistan was seen as providing a window to the world for an emerging People’s Republic of China, and a means for a US rapprochement with China in order to jointly counter Soviet aggression. None of this, of course, could counterbalance the disastrous consequences of murderous and suicidal policies in East Pakistan. After the defeat and breakup of Pakistan, however, China saw rump Pakistan as a necessary counter to a triumphant and assertive India which nursed a score to settle with China ever since its defeat in the border war of 1962.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan was seen by the West, China, and the Islamic world as an essential conduit to effect first a containment and then a reversal of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as well as the overall weakening of the Soviet Union. After the success of this enterprise, Pakistan lost its strategic value and was promptly sanctioned and abandoned. But when Pakistan followed India in becoming a nuclear weapons country, it was seen as a country that had potentially resolved its external security problems, provided it was able to improve the quality of its domestic governance, finance a necessary complementary conventional deterrence capability while remaining a development and welfare state, and followed a policy of restraint with regard to unresolved issues with India. This, of course, remained beyond the imagination, competence and commitment of our elected and unelected rulers.

Since 9/11 Pakistan has been seen by the US and the West as simultaneously an essential partner in the so-called war on terror and complicit in providing safe havens and essential protection for the Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Kashmir-related terrorist groups. More recently, Pakistan is seen as essential to bringing about an Afghan settlement that will allow the US to withdraw from Afghanistan before the 2012 elections with its credibility in tact while at the same time it is seen as consorting, aiding and abetting elements that are irretrievably anti-US and pro-Al Qaeda who are waiting to take over Afghanistan as soon as the US is out of it. Pakistan, accordingly, is by and large seen by the international community as simultaneously a strategic asset and liability without being a stable and sovereign country able to follow an independent policy in the interests of its own people.

Not surprisingly, the ISI, which among its other activities, is reputed to run Pakistan’s external policy instead of the Foreign Ministry, has been recently ranked as the top of the pops as an intelligence agency while Pakistan is regarded as a country caught in the quick-sands of its own creation. As Pakistan sinks, strategic rabbits are pulled out of the hat and hailed as policy triumphs! The trick is negative leverage. Pakistan has used this to build up its conventional military capability, become a nuclear weapons country, counter Indian suppression of Kashmiri rights and the imposition of unchallenged Indian hegemony in Kashmir, and extract both emergency financial and development assistance from the international community to keep growing, until recently, at a rate significantly above the population growth rate. Meanwhile the country is drowning in debt which is foolishly expected to be eventually written off because of its indispensible strategic value. A documented, viable and working economy can carry debt – up to a point. But a largely undocumented economy with a large black, informal non-revenue generating economy at its core cannot carry significant amounts of debt. It is unviable.

Pakistan’s contingency based strategies have been tantamount to choosing destabilizing policy options, and then through tactical and diplomatic skill, successfully presenting itself as crucial to containing their adverse consequences. In certain circumstances, and especially for countries with a range of fall back options (which Pakistan does not have), this may be “smart” policy. But only for the short run. Like any high wire act you can only keep this going for so long. Ultimately, the risk of miscalculation with the safety net withdrawn rises dangerously, with disastrous and possibly fatal consequences for the country – except for the chosen corrupt who have their rapid exit strategies prepared and kept under constant review. Pakistan in the meanwhile is reduced to a circus of the absurd.

As a result, the strategic importance of Pakistan, or its place in world politics, has stemmed not from its intrinsic value, i.e., the value of its markets and buying power, the hi-tech value of its product and service exports, the quality of its educational and health systems which can provide models for other developing countries, the development of its cultural or “soft power,” the success of its external and internal policies in preventing issues from becoming crises and conflict situations, the political stability it provides for the implementation of major regional economic projects, etc. This intrinsic value of Pakistan has been deliberately and irresponsibly neglected. Instead, it has been compelled to rely on its contingent value as the basis of its strategic value. This is its value with reference to regional and international crises, and the role it discharges on behalf of the strategic interests of foreign powers instead of developing any intrinsic value for the benefit of its own people. This is the strategy of the hired gun. And, by the way, what is the likely future of a hired gun? How does he generally end up? What respect does he command?

The contingent strategic significance of Pakistan has, not surprisingly, failed to translate into any lasting benefit for the vast majority of its people. It was never meant to. But it has, as intended, been a source of systemic corruption, the stunting of the political process and the massive enrichment of the power elite. The country is not without the resources to build a modern and equitable economy. But its government collects no revenue to spend on bringing the masses into the political, social and development mainstream. Instead, its power elite have acquired a combined asset value that would be the envy of a whole class of high rollers in far more developed countries. While all policies necessarily have contingent aspects, for strategic policies to be based on contingent or nuisance value is no way to transform a traditional poor country into a modernizing and developing country. Pakistan, of course, is not without its achievements. But they are so much less than what they should have been and so inadequate to the basic needs of its people.

Some patronizing or polite friends compliment Pakistan for not having altogether disappeared as a result of the cumulative effects of sustained bad governance. They point to the fact that the people are not exactly starving and no one expects the people to rise in bloody revolution. They see Pakistan caught in what development economists call a “low level equilibrium trap.” No danger of going down the tube anytime soon! But surviving in such a trap is hardly a solution to the people’s problems or the realization of the vision that lay behind the Pakistan Movement. Nor does it do much for Pakistan’s international standing, especially when it is seen by much of the international community as partly pariah, partly beggar, partly asset and partly liability, with the proportions of each part varying from contingency to contingency.

What is Pakistan’s standing in the Islamic world even with its size and nuclear weapons? Is it seen as a model or strategic asset by them? Do they rely on it for the solution or alleviation of challenges facing them? Has Pakistan come up with ideas or practical solutions that could facilitate brother Arab and Muslim countries in coming to terms and coping with the imperatives of the 21st  century? Have Pakistani universities and centers of learning, other than military and a few others, achieved a status that attracts their students? Pakistan certainly has contributed to the development and training requirements of some Muslim countries. But that was a while ago. More recently it has been a provider of cheap and increasingly obsolescent labour, and it has been a supplicant. After the break-up of the Soviet Union all the Central Asian states looked to Pakistan for a range of assistance to stand on their feet. MOUs were signed, but there was no follow up. Nothing happened. Pakistan’s standing with these countries has never recovered. Yes, among the people of the Islamic world there is a genuine warmth of feeling and sympathy towards Pakistan and its people. But this does not translate into admiration for its achievements or support for its policies. Most certainly Pakistan is not seen as a leader or an example for these countries. The foreign minister of a significant Muslim country told me that his country had many problems but, thank God, it did not have the problems of Pakistan!

What about neighbours? Pakistan has difficult relations with India and Afghanistan. It places a priority on resisting Indian hegemony just as Afghans place a priority on resisting Pakistani hegemony. What would Pakistanis think of an Indian desire for a government in Islamabad that agreed to provide it “strategic depth?” What would it think of an Indian attempt to minimize Chinese influence in Pakistan? And yet the government of Pakistan is mystified by the Afghan reaction to the perception that it is following similar policies towards Afghanistan. Gulbadin Hikmatyar at one time was perceived in decision making quarters as the only reliable friend of Pakistan. It made no difference that he was no friend of the Afghan people as his contribution to the devastation of Kabul proved. In fact, despite his extended sojourn in Iran, he is still regarded as a potential asset for Pakistani policy objectives in Afghanistan. No people were as indebted to another as the Afghans were to Pakistanis during the Soviet occupation of their country. By the time the Soviets were ousted almost every Afghan family had reason to be grateful and the degree of goodwill towards Pakistan was unprecedented. Yet, Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy makers managed to blow it all away within the space of a few years because of their arrogant, ignorant and preposterous attempts to reduce Afghanistan to some kind of strategic appendage of Pakistan. Today, Pakistan has considerable nuisance value for Afghanistan, particularly through the existence of insurgency safe havens and leverage provided by the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement. But it has made little or no contribution towards Afghanistan’s political stability, economic recovery, social development etc. It exercises little of any kind of “soft power” that would render it attractive to Afghans, including the Pashtun of Afghanistan. Cricket might be an exception!

Pakistan’s relations with India are a separate subject and India is at least as much responsible for their perennial sub-normal state. Nevertheless, how “efficient” has Pakistan’s policy been in managing differences with India in terms of the need to maximize space for its own  transformation into  a  modern  developing  society?  Or  indeed in terms of reducing the sufferings of the Kashmiri people for which Indian policies are primarily responsible? It has been grossly inefficient. As a result, a range of polls show that while the people of the Valley remain massively alienated by the prospect of permanent integration into India this no longer translates into a desire to accede to Pakistan. This is the weakness of Pakistan’s Kashmir policy which it has shown no ability to practically or seriously address – and the Kashmiris know it. Similarly the strategy of “matching” India’s military capacity allows India to use the same strategy towards Pakistan that the US used vis-a vis the Soviet Union to run its economy into the ground. Moreover, compared to Pakistan, the Soviet Union had an unlimited resource base. The alternative is not to trust Indian intentions – that mutual trust has to be built over time – but to utilize a much broader conceptual approach to national security, an approach that makes security policy a complement of development and welfare goals, not a counter to them, as has been the case with Pakistan.

What about the international community? Its response to the latest floods has been telling. Most of the international commentators have identified the image of Pakistan and the international “trust deficit” towards it as a major impediment in responding to the clarion calls of the UN for massive relief and reconstruction assistance. The international community has made it clear it has no confidence in the government to honestly handle and distribute the international assistance it receives. The US has entered into an agreement with Transparency International to monitor and evaluate its assistance to Pakistan. Senator Lugar has reported to Congress that around $ 133 million of cash assistance meant for displaced persons in Malakand and Swat have not reached the target population. Ironically, this sum is roughly equivalent to the alleged cost of luxury drive-up penthouse apartments in Knightsbridge overlooking Hyde Park! Previous attempts to monitor and evaluate the channeling and distribution of such assistance to Malakand and Swat met with obstructionism from senior concerned government officials with the argument that budgeted monies are not open to external monitoring. Well, what about credible and effective internal monitoring? Is it, accordingly, any surprise that the people of Pakistan have preferred to make their donations for flood relief and rehabilitation to funds established by persons of impeccable reputation such as Imran Khan and Abdul Sattar Edhi instead of government funds?

What can we expect the standing of a country to be that is ruled by people who pay no taxes, who seek to outwit their own people, who will not invest in human resource development and the provision of basic services, who regard electoral politics as heavenly paths to unlimited immunity and impunity, and equate the whole process to “democracy?” Why do violent extremists retain a measure of legitimacy in the eyes of so many people in Pakistan? If the government and politicians (which includes senior professional soldiers and civil servants on extension beyond retirement) do not bother to consider such questions, at least the so-called friends of Pakistan ought to, if they are indeed friends.

The tragedy is all the greater because there is an alternative before us. The vision spelled out by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a vision that can be revived. Not through farcical democracy with alternating sets of charlatans. Not through another barren round of direct or indirect military rule which, however welcome at the outset, unfailingly leaves the country far worse off. Not through technocratic governments with no links with the people and which will, therefore, always be beholden to the forces that brought them to office. Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan can only be revived through another people-centered Pakistan Movement which is the only credible and feasible alternative to chaos and blood- letting on an unprecedented scale. This could fatally destabilize the country and destabilize the region.  Should this happen, our strategic magicians will have played their last card.