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Pakistan: What next?

Good sense - and even some hope - at last night's Intelligence 2 debate

A distinguished panel, including the chief of the general staff, General Sir David Richards, the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, Professor Anatole Lieven, US political analyst Jonathan Paris, Chatham House's Farzana Shaikh, the NS South Asia correspondent William Dalrymple and India's former Foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, discussed this question at Cadogan Hall in Chelsea last night.

Despite media reports such as the one last year that labelled Pakistan "the world's most dangerous country", the tone was pragmatically, if cautiously upbeat.

Imran Khan made a passionate plea for observers to understand that "the real enemy" was and is al-Qaeda, and not the Pakistani Taliban. The latter may be religious fundamentalists, he said, but "no Pushtun has ever been involved in acts of international terrorism. The streets of Britain are not going to be made safe by targeting the Taliban. You must separate the real ideologues from our own tribal people."

Khan and Lieven both pointed out that it is Western policies and action -- such as what Khan called the "insanity and immorality" of using unmanned drone aircraft to carry out attacks in the border areas, causing, as he rightly said, "so-called collateral damage" (oh, bitter euphemism) -- that are driving radicalisation.

There was a consensus that far from being a force that could push Pakistan to become a "failed state", the country's Taliban could ultimately be a key diplomatic player in the region; that left to its own devices, the Pakistani government could negotiate with them, and through them with the Afghan Taliban. Overall, General Richards said, "Pakistan could hold the key to stability, not just in the region but across the Muslim world."

Leaving aside that larger claim for the moment, the most impressive speaker was Jaswant Singh, whose words carried the dignity of age and the courage of a politician unafraid to defy his party - he was expelled from the Hindu nationalist BJP last year for writing a book deemed too favourable to Pakistan's founding leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. "India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were born of the same womb," he said, "but it was not a natural birth - it was a Caesarian section."

He too regarded Pakistani security not just as a matter for that country alone but for the region. William Dalrymple quipped that Pakistan was "the only American ally that the US regularly bombs" -- a good line, but it was Singh's gentle, rueful, chiding that struck home. Sixty years after the birth of these nations, he said, in a tone of mild wonder, "we are still subject to the whims and fancies of the West."

If democracy is part of "what's next" for Pakistan, there was very little mention of it. Dalrymple did point out that the country's religious parties have never received more than a tiny percentage of the vote, so there was no need to fear them taking over and turning the country into a theocratic state.

But I thought then of two other Muslim democracies, Malaysia and Indonesia. Both have histories of relatively fair elections (obviously more recently in Indonesia's case, although elections of sorts did take place under Suharto), and in neither do religious parties have any chance of winning overall majorities - but they don't have to. Their very presence has an effect on the moderate mainstream, where parties constantly feel the need to burnish their Islamic credentials so as not to be outflanked by those who wish to see no divide between religion and politics.

Not one of those countries' founding fathers - Jinnah in Pakistan, Tunku Abdul Rahman in Malaysia and Sukarno in Indonesia - would be acceptable as leaders in their states today. They would be seen as far too liberal and secular, and in the case of Jinnah and the Tunku, disgracefully fond of whisky as well.

Maybe yearning after some return to the more plural, tolerant polity Jinnah seemed to envision is unrealistic. A stable, peaceful Pakistan which other countries do not try to use as a pawn to further their own geo-political ambitions is a big enough wish in itself -- but one which last night's panel seemed to suggest we may dare hope for.

 

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