Mar 7, 2009

A self-fulfilling prophecy

Dr Adeel Malik
Pakistan is gripped by a worsening cycle of violence. The most recent episode ? an attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team ? has damaged a revered symbol of national pride: cricket. Pakistan has witnessed numerous attacks on civilian targets during the past couple of years. How should one view Pakistan's destabilization from within? A common response is to pin the blame on growing radicalization within Pakistani society, the so-called threat of Talibanization. It is true that Pakistan is faced with a clear and present danger of Islamic militancy. But it is also important to recognize that other domestic and international forces may have direct stakes in the destabilization of Pakistan and can conveniently hide behind the banner of Taliban. Consider Benazir Bhutto's murder in December 2007. A cold blooded targeted assassination of a popular leader was quickly termed by authorities as a casualty of the war on terror. And, worse still, western stakeholders were quick to buy this story. The potential beneficiaries of this assassination were conveniently ignored and evidence swept under the carpet. It reminds one of the days of the cold war when the first suspect of every untoward incident happened to be the communist regime or its local sympathizers. Pakistan today is suffering from what economists once termed the East Asian crisis as, a 'self-fulfilling prophecy'. The worst expectations about this Muslim nation of 160 million people are being confirmed by happenings on the ground--and global policy responses to the problem are more hindrance than help. Pakistan has never been a paragon of economic and political stability, but compared to the chaos today the decade of 1990s was bliss. At least, there was no direct existential threat to the nation and its hapless civilians. All changed after the invasion of Afghanistan by United States in 2001. Seeing it as a political opportunity, Pervez Musharraf lent a helping hand and turned his military into a foot soldier for the US war. What we have witnessed since then is an unravelling of the nation and a greater destabilization of the country. The western response was to deal with the problem exclusively through military means. Far from stemming the tide, militancy has now grown to crisis proportions. Civilian casualties from these military operations are inflaming public opinion and marginalizing local populations. And, local economies are being destroyed as a result, which is creating further room for militancy. Analysts are predicting that the current wave of militancy may spread from NWFP to mainland Pakistan. In normal circumstances this should have led to some soul searching and a possible change of strategy. In Pakistan's case, the west and their domestic policy handlers are simply reinforcing failure. There is no sign that the west is prepared to shift its emphasis from a military to a political solution. One would have thought that the best long-term antidote to the threat of Talibanization is a vibrant civil society led by a strong and politically active middle class. Naïve observers had wished that western governments would quickly embrace the demands of the lawyers' movement, which had tirelessly fought for establishing rule of law in Pakistan. After all, these were men trained in the British tradition of common law and fighting for the cause of rule of law, rather than Sharia. Yet, not only did western governments refuse to offer any support, they actively intervened to ensure the chief justice was not restored. During the last days of Musharraf's rule, Sir Mark Lyall Grant of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office was comfortably stationed in Islamabad, finalizing deals between Musharraf and his military and political successors. The main item on the agenda was to secure indemnity to Musharraf's illegal actions. This clearly meant that a restoration of judiciary under the independent minded chief justice was a no-go area. A well-functioning democracy is the basic pre-requisite of long-term stability. The lesson I give to my students in Oxford, using respectable western academic sources, is that democracy prevents the emergence of extreme outcomes. Yet, in my own country, I see this logic being defied by the country's powerful establishment and their backers in Washington.All unifying symbols are under attack in Pakistan today -- be it politics, media, or cricket. During the past 8 years the world accepted dictatorship and political exclusion in the name of fighting terror, without realizing that politics is the most important unifying force in an ethnically diverse society. Politics is under threat even after Musharraf's exit, as the internecine power struggle between Punjab and the centre unfolds before our eyes. I am convinced that those who want to harm Pakistan will first target politics in this country. And it is in this perspective that Benazir Bhutto's murder should be viewed--despite all her failings, she was a powerful symbol of the federation. The terrorist attacks in Lahore have directly played into the hands of those who want to isolate the country and present it as a model of a failed state. Every day I read with great sadness western commentaries on the "Pakistan problem" that draw parallels between Pakistan and other failed states. Of course, none of these commentaries mention the western complicity in propping up failed regimes and inept leaderships in Pakistan. These commentaries also curiously shy away from containing references to the lawyers' movement, whose popularity in a largely illiterate society, is evidence that the Pakistani leadership may be incompetent but its society is vibrant. The trouble is that Pakistan is propelled into a war that it is not allowed to fight on its own terms. There is limited room for the political government to design its own strategy on counter-terrorism that is based on local realities, rather than diktats from Washington. The recent truce between the government and Taliban in Swat was one such attempt to search for a political solution. This truce opened up a new opportunity for the country's electronic media to project local perspectives from Swat--of villagers, traders, teachers, lawyers and ordinary citizens. But, before media could make sustainable inroads, one of the main local correspondents of Geo TV, Musa Khankhel, was abducted and brutally killed. It was a clear message to the media: stay away from the battlefield. Such attack on the media is significant, because it limits media's ability to alter the terms of the debate on terrorism. Ordinary Pakistanis are vexed by a troubling question these days: Are there elements other than the Taliban who are bent on destroying all symbols of unification and peace? So far, we only have conspiracy theories at work, no sound analysis. The writer is a lecturer in development economics and a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Inequality and Democracy, University of Oxford

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