Pakistan’s Troubles

[escenic_image id="554952"]

One way to begin to understand the depth of Pakistan’s troubles is to consider how diverse the challenges to its internal security really are. Let us suppose that all the suicide bombers disappeared. Let us also suppose that fighting between Pakistani troops and Al-Qaeda and Taliban in the tribal areas of FATA ended overnight. Finally, let’s suppose that Swat and nearby districts are all returned to the fragile authority of the Pakistani government. If all these things were to happen, it is almost certain that US President Barack Obama would then declare that his country’s mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan, “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens”, has been accomplished.

Pakistan may then fall off the front page of the world’s great and most widely read newspapers. Yet, victory for the US, and the end of Al-Qaeda would not mean much for the security of the people of Pakistan. The separatist sentiments of the Baloch people in Balochistan province are fuelling a violent revolt against the state there defined by sporadic but paralyzing violence. Ethnic tensions in Karachi meanwhile claimed nearly 50 lives on April 29, 2009. The two foremost mainstream ethnic parties, are locked in intermittent urban warfare —the MQM, representing Urdu-speaking Muhajirs, versus the ANP, representing the Pashto-speaking Pakhtuns.

The Pakistan problem, therefore, is not limited to Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban. Nor is it limited to the complex relationships that the Pakistani establishment, including its military and intelligence services, have had with friendly countries like the United States, Saudi Arabia, and China. The Pakistan problem is an intergenerational one. Only a sustained and deeply committed engagement with the challenges will enable Pakistan to emerge from its crises. The bloodshed, ethnic cleavages, administrative dysfunction, poor state credibility and absence of a compelling national discourse, notwithstanding, there is hope. The reasons for optimism are located within Pakistan’s faint, but very real and organic resilience against violent extremists. Pakistan’s resilience to the violent extremism of radicals is the engine that will not only help defeat them, but indeed defeat other challenges to the country too.

Where is this resilience coming from? It is coming from Pakistan’s increasingly global and increasingly fed up cities. Despite significant and substantive reasons to be radicalized, urban Pakistanis and particularly urban youth are more likely to be offended at the Talibans’ appetite for destroying civil liberties and freedoms, than they are by the state’s utter failure to deliver any kind of services at all to young people. The cities not only represent the epicentres of cultural innovation and creativity, they also are home to Pakistan’s small, but increasingly vocal and visible English-language liberals. It is easier to denote the urban quasi-elite as irrelevant in other countries, but much less so in Pakistan. Here, even the founder of the country, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was a sophisticate whose command over the English language, and appetite for Savile Row suits and Craven ‘A’ cigarettes was legendary. For the first time in the memory of newly politically conscious Pakistanis, the liberal crowd in Pakistan is risking suntans, brushes with ordinary folks, and the threat of being maimed or killed by suicide attacks, to protest the creeping Talibanization of the country.

Perhaps most importantly however, it is not the shrill and cavalier quasi-elite of the city that will be the key drivers of change in Pakistan. Instead, like in any society, it will be the middle class. The Pakistani middle class, akin to a needle in a haystack for most of the country’s existence, is now estimated to be around 30 million people strong. These newly “enriched” middle class traders, business people, professionals and returning expatriates are the most transformational thing to have happened to Pakistan in at least the last quarter century. Traditionally, the middle class was demonized for having served as the advocates and proponents of the intellectual basis for military interventions in the country. That was then. The new Pakistani middle class is the most potent reason for the military to not come out of the barracks. The Pakistani military knows the power of this middle class for two reasons. First, so many of today’s Pakistani middle class is a product of first and second generation, Pakistani military officers. More importantly however, the military has suffered three deeply embarrassing thuds in its faceoff with the middle class. First, it watched as the military chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s decision to fire the chief justice in March 2007, was overturned by the Supreme Court, and condemned across the country through mass protests. Second, it watched as the same chief was forced not only to give up his uniform, under unprecedented political pressure, but also the office of President altogether. Third, and most recently, it watched as the same chief justice (who was fired once again by Musharraf in the interim) was once again reinstated, this time through the political process. In short, the military now knows that there is finally an institution that is as determined as it is, in its struggle for its version of a better Pakistan.

The reason the middle class will be a potent warrior in the battle for a stable and secure Pakistan, in the short and medium run, and a functional and just Pakistan in the long run, is simple. Self-preservation. The middle class and its enjoyment of the fruits of hard work, innovation, risk-taking and enterprise depend entirely on a country where business can grow. As long as violence plagues the country, there can be no real growth. Beyond the immediate concerns about security however are questions of infrastructure, rules of the game, and transaction costs of business. The middle class will drive reform in these areas, and beyond—such as schools, drinking water and health—because its very survival depends on them. The platform is burning, and the middle class’s feet are at the fire.

Even with a venue for the fight for Pakistan (its cities), an instrument (the middle class) and a rationale (necessity), the actual process will require skills that Pakistan, as a country, does not possess. This is where the international community comes in. The stakes in Pakistan could not be higher. Nuclear weapons, a behemoth neighbour that can scarcely afford instability and an international nightmare in the shape of an unresolved Afghanistan, all conflate the Pakistan problem quite dramatically. If ever there was international priority to get right, Pakistan is it. Ultimately, seductive as headlines about Pakistan’s demise might be, the world needs a strong, stable and secure Pakistan. Using Pakistan’s cities, its middle class, and reform-starved institutions, the world might just manage to get it right.

Mosharraf Zaidi – Writes for the News (Pakistan) and Al-Shorouk (Egypt). He is an international development expert and has advised the UN, EU, World Bank and several governments on politics, governance and public policy in Pakistan, Afghanistan and South Asia.

Subscribe to the discussion