By Zafar Hilaly
June 16, 2011
Perhaps one of the reasons why we don’t seem to be getting anywhere when dealing with the problems that confront us is because we insist on marrying old opinions to new facts. We do this subconsciously in order to minimise the jolt and maximise our sense of comfort and continuity. Regardless of the changes that occur in our collective and individual beliefs, much of the old order still remains standing.
To take one example, the one thing that we know for sure unites us and was indeed responsible for our creation, is our religion. We believe, as a people and a nation that our common religion – Islam – helps us gel. True we always had the lunatic fringe and the odd spat between shias and Sunnis would occasionally pull us apart. But these were exceptional lapses and would soon tide over.
Today, however, Muslims are literally slaughtering each other and Pakistan is in danger of being rent asunder not in the name of ethnic or linguistic nationalism, but in the name of Islam itself.
Faced with this dilemma we are at a loss when it comes to crafting a response, and unable or unwilling to identify the cause. We forget that while history is full of religious wars it is not the multiplicity of religions that produced these wars but the intolerant spirit which animated violence fuelled mostly by greed or ambition.
Another fast growing misconception is that the present conflict being basically America’s war, the departure of the US and/or our disassociation with the war would drain much of the poison and since the remaining protagonists are Muslims, and mostly fellow countrymen, resolving our differences should not pose too much of a problem.
America’s departure from the region would be welcomed by all sides in the conflict and it would undoubtedly improve the prospects of a peaceful resolution. But the fact of the matter is that, as the TTP has clearly stated, its war against Pakistan will continue until its peculiar version of the Shariah becomes the law of the land.
In other words, even if we completely ceased to have a working relationship with Washington, that would not be enough for the TTP; not even if, by some miracle, peace came to Afghanistan. The TTP has left its friends and adversaries in no doubt that it intends to achieve its goal come hell or high water, regardless of the means used.
Such an extreme mindset is, as we know, the expression of empty souls. The trouble with such dehumanised people is that if rational thinking enters their minds it is instinctively rejected. The Taliban and their credo will fare no better, but then that’s all in the future whereas the present is what most concerns us.
Were we to close shop with America it would create new challenges. For example the TTP and Al-Qaeda would likely become more emboldened using their propaganda network to press harder for their ambitions. Religion in their hands is an instrument of intimidation, depredation and oppression as we saw in full display in Swat and in Afghanistan.
Another challenge would be that other regional players, some at loggerheads with us, would increase their footprint while we would still be trying to find a way out of extremism and terrorism. There are quite a lot of extremists both foreigners and locals within our territory who would be viewed by the outside world as posing a serious threat to them, including countries like China, our only ally. Nor is the US going to wash its hands off completely even if it decides to scale back its presence. So it is naïve to think that the outside world would leave us alone or that Al-Qaeda and the TTP would follow suit if the Americans leave. It is just as credulous to think that we are capable of meeting the challenge entirely on our own.
Many of us hold views that reflect a dangerously naive understanding of international relations. Whether we like it or not there is no alternative but to sharpen our understanding and our skills in order to operate more effectively in the swirling world of international politics. Emotionalism will not do neither will a one sided approach that focuses on others while ignoring our own failings. Just as others are impure and have defiled their hands so have we and in a way that has come to haunt us. Just ask the Afghans who have been at the receiving end of our ‘strategic depth’ policy for more than two decades.
Emotionalism and one sidedness have also penetrated politics and polemics, completely overshadowing our economic interests. We simply cannot deal with any of our problems, as our socio-economic conditions deteriorate and as governance becomes more difficult in such circumstances, without first focusing on our economy and without asking ourselves what it would take to rebuild it.
Another New World challenge is that economic progress increasingly depends on cooperation with other economies, especially through structures of collaboration with those in the region itself. We are lucky in this respect on account of our location but luck alone will not take us far as we have seen to our dismay in the decades lost due to our shortsighted notions of what best serves our security interests.
The TTP is not only the biggest danger to peace and stability in the country but also to our economic prospects. Apart from the damage it has already done directly by destroying schools and infrastructure, it has created a climate of insecurity so much so that investments have virtually disappeared. And if we are to cut our dependence on foreign aid we must do whatever it takes to generate investments. The state cannot create jobs and reduce the rising cost of energy and food by throwing printed money at these problems that impact our daily lives so severely. We are past that stage. We are too indebted now and our economy is so feeble that our only hope lies in triggering private investments. It is only when economic growth picks up on a sustained basis that the state can cut its debt from the increased revenue it will receive from taxes and from widening the income tax base and continually improving tax collection capabilities.
We don’t have oil, gas, or other precious natural resource that can make up for our failure to generate wealth through economic activity. So we must give our economy our utmost attention and then work our way backward in terms of what must be done politically in order to free our economic future.
While those who influence public opinion have an important role to play to get us back on track as a cohesive nation, the lead must come from our decision makers, especially those who are in charge of strategic policy. Alas, our ultimate arbiters have achieved little beyond carrying on with their outmoded ideas.
It is tragic that while we have not been able to resolve any of our Old World problems, even issues like Sir Creek, the New World problems are fast catching up with us. One of these challenges relates to climate change, particularly its impact on our agriculture, energy generation and water for consumption and industrial use. All three are critical. And yet another New World challenge is that we must shift from relying inordinately on old military doctrines of full-blown conventional wars to asymmetrical conflicts, our nukes notwithstanding.
All these challenges require a degree of dynamism that is sorely absent right now but our survival will depend increasingly on fully grasping the reality of these growing challenges and on measuring up to them quickly. In this matter, the public is much less important than those who exercise power, especially when it comes to critical strategic issues.
Instead of getting caught up in a vortex both decision makers and civil society activists should start thinking out of the box first by perceiving themselves as being in the same boat and in very choppy waters. Infighting will only rock the boat, threatening to capsize it while it is still in narrow straits between the mythical rocks of Scylla and Charybdis. Coordination is vital when rowing a boat. And when in choppy waters, it is especially critical to survival and making a landfall.
As to how we will fare, ask yourself, do we have anyone in the current line up even remotely capable of guiding the boat? Do we even have a ‘cox’ in reserve?
The writer is a former ambassador.
Source: The News, Pakistan