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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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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After a year of chaos, MPs from all parties are trying to stop an extreme Brexit

The Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit.

One year ago today, I stood on Westminster Bridge as the sun rose over a changed country. By a narrow margin, on an unexpectedly high turnout, a majority of people in Britain had chosen to leave the EU. It wasn’t easy for those of us on the losing side – especially after such scaremongering from the leaders of the Leave campaign – but 23 June 2016 showed the power of a voting opportunity where every vote counted.

A year on from the vote, and the process is in chaos. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The Leave campaign deliberately never spelled out any detailed plan for Brexit, and senior figures fought internal battles over which model they preferred. One minute Britain would be like Norway, then we’d be like Canada – and then we’d be unique. After the vote Theresa May promised us a "Red, White and Blue Brexit" – and then her ministers kept threatening the EU with walking away with no deal at all which, in fairness, would be unique(ly) reckless. 

We now have our future being negotiated by a government who have just had their majority wiped out. More than half of voters opted for progressive parties at the last election – yet the people representing us in Brussels are the right-wing hardliners David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.

Despite widespread opposition, the government has steadfastly refused to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens their rights. This week it has shown its disregard for the environment as it published a Queen’s Speech with no specific plans for environmental protection in the Brexit process either. 

Amid such chaos there is, however, a glimmer of hope. MPs from all parties are working together to stop an extreme Brexit. Labour’s position seems to be softening, and it looks likely that the Scottish Parliament will have a say on the final deal too. The Democratic Unionist Party is regressive in many ways, but there’s a good chance that the government relying on it will soften Brexit for Northern Ireland, at least because of the DUP's insistence on keeping the border with Ireland open. My amendments to the Queen’s speech to give full rights to EU nationals and create an Environmental Protection Act have cross-party support.

With such political instability here at home – and a growing sense among the public that people deserve a final say on any deal - it seems that everything is up for grabs. The government has no mandate for pushing ahead with an extreme Brexit. As the democratic reformers Unlock Democracy said in a recent report “The failure of any party to gain a majority in the recent election has made the need for an inclusive, consensus based working even more imperative.” The referendum should have been the start of a democratic process, not the end of one.

That’s why Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit, in order to ensure that voices from across the political spectrum are heard in the process. And it’s why we continue to push for a ratification referendum on the final deal negotiated by the government - we want the whole country to have the last word on this, not just the 650 MPs elected to the Parliament via an extremely unrepresentative electoral system.

No one predicted what would happen over the last year. From the referendum, to Theresa May’s disastrous leadership and a progressive majority at a general election. And no one knows exactly what will happen next. But what’s clear is that people across this country should be at the centre of the coming debate over our future – it can’t be stitched up behind closed doors by ministers without a mandate.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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