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A door opens for reform in Pakistan - Part I

By Paula Newberg - posted Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Before the ink was dry on President Pervez Musharraf's resignation letter, and before Pakistanis could celebrate the end of his nine-year rule, remorse filled the air. Washington and New Delhi, both crucial to Pakistan's stability, quickly lamented the end of one-stop diplomacy, prefacing their official statements with "let's wait and see what democracy brings". With strife threatening Pakistan's borders and its economy limping, the danger is not that India and the US have lost a comfortable relationship with Musharraf, but that nostalgia will blind them to the opportunities that political change might bring.

Self-fulfilling prophecy is a familiar handmaiden to failed policies in this corner of Asia. Although the false promise of clean and efficient military rule has all too frequently disappointed Pakistanis and their patrons, pliant donors have often invested the military with the attributes they want and hope to see. After 2001, Musharraf was expediently billed as the saviour who could save the economy, align Pakistan with the West, stop terrorism and rid the country of tainted politics. This was myth masquerading as fact in a place where everything, including nuclear technology, was for sale.

By sidestepping the critical relationships that bind citizens to their state - the very politics Musharraf eschewed so contemptuously - Pakistan lost its bearings. Costumed variously as the tone-deaf general who led the state and the chief executive who ran the army, Musharraf led Pakistan through rapid cycles of cross-border enmity, institutional degradation, political corruption and civil strife that inevitably eluded the "reconciliation" he now claims to have sought.


The narrative of the past nine years echoed those of earlier eras: neighbourhood wars and domestic inequities gave sanction to army rule, thwarting civilian politicians whose clumsy attempts at statecraft led to the army's return. Sixty years after independence, Pakistan’s tribes and sects still crave a credible accommodation with the state over longstanding grievances and inequities, its politicians still search for meaningful participation, and its leaders seek a place in the region and world.

These needs and intentions - conflicting, overlapping, firm and fretful - define the state more acutely than its often violated constitution. The dominant story is therefore about the unfinished business of citizenship, about who governs whom, and how and why, and what citizens can expect from their state. The troubling arena of domestic politics is also where Pakistan collides with its neighbours, allies, patrons and the broader interests of global security.

Pakistan has long viewed its eastern and western borders as frontlines for its domestic politics, transposing the failures of its electoral politics into campaigns to achieve strategic advantage. Nowhere is this clearer than in the lightly governed, highly corrupted western border region, where global ambitions encounter local necessity. Here, an anti-terror campaign aims to stop the kinds of extremism that make their way westward - al-Qaida cells that seek to undermine Afghanistan and Pakistan, and redesign global mores.

Where the West sees criminals, however, Pakistan sees its own citizens, renegade and under-represented though they may be - staunch sectarians exiting the international state system and equally stalwart secular nationalists trying to enter it, now caught up in retrograde militancy when their own provincial allegiances fail them.

The conditions of borderland battle, however, have set tribes and militants against one other and everyone else: the Pakistan army, NATO and the United States on one side, extremist sympathisers within the Pakistan military and intelligence establishments on another, and now, separately, local residents who decry militancy, sectarianism and the incapacity of successively weak Pakistan governments to contain, mitigate and dispel these explosive grievances. Filled with victims of violence and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, the borderlands have spun out of control partly because Pakistan can't decide whom to please - the Americans fighting al-Qaida, its own army reluctant to fight other Pakistanis, a jumble of insurgents who are nonetheless citizens in name if not deed - and how best to understand its own interests. To Afghanistan and the West, however, split attention is seen as weakness and, more likely, deception.

Similar failures dog Pakistan's dealings with India. Although Musharraf is retrospectively credited by New Delhi with stabilising Indo-Pakistani relations, his own intelligence forces have been implicated in attacks in India, on Indian civilians working in Afghanistan, a bombing in India's Kabul Embassy and of course, the Kashmir insurgency. Pakistan reads Kashmir's unrest through the lenses of its own instabilities, seeing in Hindu-Muslim tensions the same incomplete promises of citizenship that colour Pakistani society. It's an accurate appraisal, unseen ironies notwithstanding.


But when it leads to interference in Kashmir or in India - and surreptitiously justifies using foreign military assistance to seek an elusive parity with India's military rather than fight terror on its western border - this analysis embraces hostility and duplicity.

Pakistan can afford neither, but it needs more than Musharraf's departure to alter its foreign policy fortunes. The impetus for that change, from the periphery of its governance, offers a ray of hope for the future.

It’s rare for citizens to speak truth to power and rarer to win, but Pakistan's civil society overturned Musharraf's abuse of civil liberties, dislodged the president and set the tone and content - if not a sure path to success - for Pakistan's parliament and parties. Other groups have now followed, including villagers who have chased militants from their homes in the Frontier. Politicians from minority provinces are planning to contest for the presidency.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online - - (c) 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

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About the Author

Paula Newberg has covered Pakistan’s politics for almost three decades and is the author of Judging the State: Courts and Constitutional Politics in Pakistan.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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