By Shahid Javed Burki
IF there were any doubts in the minds of the new set of Islamabad policymakers, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s recent visit to Washington should have dispelled them. The Americans — not just the White House and those working in the government but also those who operate in the various think tanks — are worried about the direction in which Pakistan is headed. This is not a worry about an errant satrap who needs to be disciplined. The worry is about the impact on the United States of a Pakistan that has gone out of control.
A consensus on important issues seldom develops in the United States. The Americans are naturally argumentative but when it concerns matters affecting their security they quickly fall in line. The most recent example of this was the remarkable consensus that developed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In the initial phase of the American response to that event, President George W. Bush’s approval ratings went into the stratosphere, unmatched by any president in recent history.
The Americans wanted their government to act to achieve two ends: to punish the perpetrators of the attacks and to ensure that a similar assault on America never occurred again. Neither objective has been achieved and the reason why that has not happened is not attributed to the failure of public policy; the blame is being laid at Pakistan’s doorstep.
There are several parts of the case that is being built against Pakistan. The most important of these is the perceived failure on the part of Islamabad to get the extremists out of the tribal belt bordering on Afghanistan. These people are seen to be operating without any checks by the Pakistani state. Islamabad seems to have abandoned any serious attempt to enforce its writ in these areas. The US worry is not that such a development will hurt the security, perhaps even integrity, of the Pakistani state. What bothers those in policymaking and policy-influencing positions in Washington is that leaving the tribal areas alone is creating a dangerous situation for America’s operations in Afghanistan.
For two months in a row, America has lost more soldiers in Afghanistan than in Iraq. This is clearly unacceptable and Islamabad is being blamed for the sharp increase in violence. There is also the belief that if another terrorist attack is perpetrated against the United States, it will be planned and executed by Al Qaeda now operating out of the tribal areas. Obviously, this too troubles Washington.
Where is all this leading? I have been to several think tank meetings in the last few weeks. Some of these are engaged in developing position papers for the two candidates for the American presidency. In those position papers America’s Pakistan policy is a central issue. While there is agreement on what is considered to be the ‘fact’ of Pakistan’s responsibility for the worsening situation in Afghanistan, there is still some doubt as to why certain things are happening. Are the Pakistani authorities playing on both sides of the road? Is there so much incompetence in Islamabad that different actors are proceeding on their own, following their own narrow agendas?
The direction of the evolving American approach will depend on how these two questions are answered. If some of the acts unacceptable to the Americans and to the rest of the world are being perpetrated with the knowledge of those who run the Pakistani state, then there will be one kind of response. If it turns out that the problem is a case of system failure then the response will be of a different kind. In the first case, Pakistan will be punished in some way. In the latter, the Americans will begin to develop some ideas about the management of the Pakistani state. Since my own impression is that what is happening is the result of the confusion that prevails among those who govern, it might be useful to reflect on what kind of advice Islamabad will be given.
In spite of the promise made by President George W. Bush in his second inaugural address that his administration will work hard to bring democracy and liberty to all parts of the world — particularly to the world’s Muslim countries — he and his close associates have begun to have second thoughts. The exercise of democracy, wherever that has happened, has not produced encouraging results for the Bush government.
Elections brought Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip. It strengthened Hezbollah in Lebanon and in Pakistan it has weakened the authority of the state. Since extremists can’t be controlled by a weak state, it might not be in the American interest to direct the Muslim world towards fair elections, a fair press, a vibrant civil society and democracy in general. In fact, Washington may begin to support the rule of a strong man in countries in Pakistan’s situation. Given this change of heart, what should be the Pakistani stance?
Like a number of other modern economists I have also wrestled with the question: what is the most appropriate political system for bringing economic growth to backward societies? Having worked on China for a number of years and having watched the extraordinary economic progress made by the East Asian countries, I came to believe that limiting democracy until sustained growth was achieved was perhaps the right strategy to adopt.
It is for this reason that for a few years after General Pervez Musharraf assumed power in Pakistan, I thought that he would be able to repeat in his country what a number of strong leaders in East Asia had achieved in theirs. That did not happen. There had been a misreading of the history of East Asia by me and others who also thought that strong leadership delivers economic progress in the early phases of development.
That happened in those countries since their initial conditions were very different from those in Pakistan. The East Asians had much higher levels of human development than Pakistan has achieved even after 60 years of independence. Income and asset distribution in those countries was much more equitable than in Pakistan.
Limiting democracy in a situation such as Pakistan’s does not promote the development of political institutions that are needed not only for the evolution of democracy but also for economic progress. The East Asian approach won’t work for Pakistan. Therefore, even if the American pressure for going the democratic route eases for Pakistan, the country should not reverse its course.
Source: Dawn, Karachi