Cant Skirt Pakistan

Indian Express , August 29, 2007

Within days of celebrating the 60th anniversary of Pakistan’s emergence as an independent country, Pakistanis have been repeatedly reminded of the limitations of their independence.

The pursuit of grandiose strategy by politicised generals at the expense of internal strength has so compromised Pakistan that many key decisions are taken only after the intervention of foreign actors.

And under General Musharraf’s rule, the tendency to look towards outsiders for settling essentially domestic political issues has expanded to a point where nothing seems to be a purely internal affair of Pakistan any more.

Musharraf allowed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to go into exile only after a vague agreement guaranteed by an unnamed international personality. It didn’t matter to the general that barring a citizen of Pakistan from returning home under an agreement with a foreign national lacked any legal basis, a fact attested to by Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

There is something clearly wrong with the thinking of Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex that finds it easier to negotiate domestic policy through rich foreign potentates instead of adopting a policy of reconciliation with Pakistanis for the sake of Pakistan.

In the aftermath of 9/11, after an admonition from the United States — ‘Are you with us or against us?’ — Musharraf turned around Pakistan’s mistaken policy of supporting Afghanistan’s Taliban. For several years before the fateful 2001 terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre, quite a few patriotic Pakistanis who had warned about the dangers of Talibanisation had been condemned as alarmists or traitors by Pakistan’s establishment.

Musharraf woke up to the peril of religious extremism only when US officials threatened his regime with dire consequences, in addition to promising billions of dollars in aid.

And again, Pakistan was recently saved from the imposition of a state of emergency after a midnight phone call from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Although opposition to emergency has been widespread within Pakistan, clearly it does not carry the same weight as the same advice coming from senior American officials.

General Musharraf’s off and on negotiations with Benazir Bhutto, leader of Pakistan’s largest national political party, are also said to have materialised only after encouragement from Britain and the US. Bhutto has in exile for about a decade. Although many liberal Pakistanis have criticised Bhutto for negotiating with a military dictator, she continues to refuse to accept Musharraf’s right to rule in uniform and appears willing only to work out a settlement that reverts Pakistan to democracy.

Transition to democracy in an orderly manner requires some personal concessions from Musharraf. But even at this stage of widespread unpopularity and lack of domestic legitimacy, Musharraf does not seem to be negotiating with the opposition in good faith.

The regime’s negotiating position with Bhutto has changed several times, and settled issues have been regularly reopened and promises not kept. Once again, the general seems to be trying to buy time and to confuse and divide his opponents. Instead of treating his critics as enemies, Musharraf should look upon them as Pakistanis deserving of respect in view of popular support.

Their claims to monopoly over patriotism notwithstanding, each one of Pakistan’s military dictators has shown greater willingness to listen to foreign voices of influence than to heed the opinions of Pakistan’s own thinkers or politicians.

Pakistan’s internal issues can best be resolved through national discourse that takes into account international opinion but does not let external players lead the way. The Pakistani establishment’s willingness to negotiate with foreigners while refusing to compromise with the country’s own leaders diminishes Pakistan’s sovereignty. Pakistan’s establishment needs to rethink its inability to maintain dialogue with the country’s key political actors while allowing foreigners to negotiate domestic political issues.