Peace with India and Democracy Can Save Pakistan
Amb Kanwal Sibal

Increasingly, Pakistan is being viewed as a dysfunctional state by the international community. The assassination of another Pakistani Minister for opposing the pernicious blasphemy law is causing more soul searching within sections of the beleagured civil society about the country’s future direction. This segment does not want a theocratic state in Pakistan, with creeping talibanization of its mores. But, in the face of the Army’s continuing grip over political power, its unwillingness to altogether cut ties with the jihadi groups for external strategic reasons as well as internal political manoeuvring, the mounting disillusionment with the functioning of the political parties and the democratic system, topped by the country’s acute economic woes, these moderate elements are powerless to bring about a change of course.

The purpose and personality of Pakistan is not defined by these elements. They are a depleting class of people whose mental attitudes reflect aspects of our common history before 1947, and who, under the constant impact of contiguity, continue to share some political and social values with us, except on matters within the inner orbits of religion. The clinging to elements of democracy, the rule of law and freedom of expression is a sub-continental phenomenon, though more thinly rooted in Pakistan than in India. However, the more Pakistan has moved away from India in outlook and spirit since 1947, the lesser is the capacity of these elements to shape the political and social environment in Pakistan.

Friendly, normal relations between India and Pakistan would have saved Pakistan from the abyss it seems headed towards. Its sinking into greater religious extremism over recent decades is a direct consequence of its hostile policies toward India. If Pakistan must define itself as anti-India to have a sense of identity of its own, it has to then stress its Islamic identity. It cannot espouse democracy as the country’s mobilizing force, as genuine democracy has to be founded on secularism, pluralism, respect for minorities, constitutional law and subordination of the military to civilian power. A truly democratic Pakistan must therefore move inevitably toward reconciliation and settlement of differences with India in the larger public interest.

If for its politics of confrontation with India Pakistan has to rely on its Islamic vocation, which, in turn, releases constantly the toxins of extremism in the body politic of the country, the war in Afghanistan next door has aggravated Pakistan’s problems. The US and others fighting the insurgency on the ground in Afghanistan want Pakistan to join the combat more whole-heartedly against extremist forces from their end. The Al Qaida and the Taliban are fighting the West under the banner of Islam. Pakistan as an Islamic country, and one that takes its Islamic identity seriously, cannot have the same thinking and approach towards the religious warriors fighting the West as that of the westerners themselves.

Even if Pakistan’s decision makers at the highest level reject jihadi ideas, they have to be careful in not inflaming religious sentiments in the country by appearing to be willing instruments of the western governments against their fellow Muslims. Under pressure from the West to weed out the extremists more purposefully, and unable and unwilling to do so because of their own complicity in creating and manipulating these jihadi elements for attaining geo-strategic goals in Kashmir in India and in Afghanistan, as well as rising constraints of public opinion, Pakistan finds itself being accused of duplicity and, what is worse, the contradiction in which it finds itself is destabilizing its external relations as well as its domestic management.

It is ironic that, on the one hand, Pakistan receives massive economic and military aid from the US and is its non-NATO strategic ally, and, on the other, according to public opinion polls, it is the most unpopular country with the Pakistani people. To what extent can a government do the bidding of a foreign country that is seen so adversely by the public at large? Whereas other pro-western governments of Islamic countries suppress religious extremism, Pakistan is the only country headed by a supposedly pro-western government that actually promotes religious extremism as an instrument of state policy. This lies at the heart of the tensions that are growing between the US and Pakistan in the context of the American embroilment in the region.

The US violates Pakistan’s sovereignty with its drone attacks against extremists sheltering in Pakistan; the Pakistan government is complicit in this but cannot avow its complaisance in public. The Raymond Davis affair has exposed the disjunction between the sovereignty-infringing demands that the US makes on its Pakistani partner in combatting terrorism and the raw, nationalistic, anti-US public sentiment in the country. Pakistan ends up by deceiving its US partner as well as its own public by running with the hare and hunting with the hound, hiding its compromises with the the US from the public and its complicity with the extremists from the US. The Pakistan government does not have control over public opinion as the Chinese government has; nor is it compelled to take full cognizance of it as it’s not a genuine democracy. The political management of Pakistan’s situation can be better appreciated if one considers, by contrast, the functioning of India’s democracy. The US is very popular as a country with the Indian public but the government nonetheless finds itself constrained in pursuing policies that may be seen as too pro-American!

Pakistan has to take into account that those fighting the US/NATO troops are Afghan Pashtuns with close tribal links with the Pakistani Pashtuns, and this ethnic population straddles the historically porous, and indeed, ungoverned and ungovernable Pakistan-Afghanistan border which, to top it all, is contested by the Afghans. Again, Pakistan cannot fight the Afghan Taliban with the same spirit and calculation as the US/NATO forces, as it would then run the risk of alienating its own Pushtun population with serious repercussions for the country’s territorial integrity. Moreover if, as is believed, the new generation of Afghan Taliban leaders is more radical and less under Pakistan’s grip, then the potential consquences for Pakistan for confronting the Afghan Taliban more frontally can be severe for its future interests in Afghanistan. But then, Pakistan created the Taliban in the first place to capture Afghanistan politically. It is Pakistan’s dangerous, anti-Indian ambitions in Afghanistan that are recoiling on it today, with the Pakistani Taliban as an off shoot of the country’s chosen tryst with its anti-Indian destiny.

For Pakistan to become functional again it has to be rejigged from the inside, with democracy and friendship with India as tools.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary.
Published in Mail Today dated March 8, 2011

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