Why I love Pakistan

Despite its terrible troubles, this part of the western subcontinent is lively, beautiful and misund

I've worked in Mumbai and been in India many times, but have always had an ill-concealed soft spot for Pakistan, which sits in the west of the subcontinent.

Pakistan has a much longer history than its three-generational link to 1947 -- it's the land of Gandhara Buddhism, Ashoka and his pillars, the lovely city of Lahore and the archaeological remains of Mohenjo Daro as well as the Indus Valley civilisation. And, like India, it's a land of stunning landscapes, peaceful farming lands and a tight bond between land and people.

It is also at this moment a troubled part of the world. Like India, Pakistan has been able to do little about the rising poverty of its rural poor. Unlike India, it has a long way to go to expand the educated middle class which, over the border, has been responsible in great measure for a buoyant and expanding economy.

Pakistan trains fantastic lawyers (often called to the Bar in London), doctors, engineers, bio scientists, economists and statisticians, teachers and IT specialists, but they often struggle to find the rewarding careers that would be theirs in the west. However, this is beginning to change, largely due to the return of a young generation of American-educated go-getters.

Crucially, the middle classes have also found it difficult to penetrate politics through the National Assembly, where zaminder (landowning) interests and opaque power deals between the army and religious parties predominate. As in India, you need deep pockets and good connections to enter politics. As Salman Rushdie said in Shame (1983): "You can get anywhere in Pakistan if you know people, even into jail."

If India mutters about the ever-present "foreign hand" interfering -- with justification, as both the KGB and the CIA have held sway in New Delhi at different times -- Pakistan has it for real.

Saudi Arabia's charming export of Wahhabism (latterly in the form of the Taliban and al-Qaeda) has been wreaking havoc in the region for decades, destroying the indigenous and centuries-old subcontinental Sunni Sufi mysticism and putting pressure on Pakistan's courtly and aristocratic Shia intelligentsia as well as its Ahmadi, Hindu and Christian minorities.

It would have needed an exceptionally strong, moral, good, worldly and intelligent leader of Pakistan in the 1970s to avoid the lure and trap of Saudi money, which was accepted to improve the country's infrastructure and real estate. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was not it.

While Pakistan's international image has suffered immeasurably in the intervening years, I would urge all who love the subcontinent to look past the headlines and the international analysis, and see a country which, for the moment at least, is cut off from its continental neighbour. Here are my own reasons for loving Pakistan:

1. Women are noisily at the centre of Pakistani life. Challenging and vocal, they sit at the heart of the family and have made good progress into professional and political life.

Declan Walsh reported the terrible attack on the Ahmadi community in June, and noted that it was three women from different parties -- ANP's Bushra Rehman, MQM's Khushbakht Shujaat and PPP's Farahnaz Ispahani -- led by the former PPP minister Sherry Rehman, who crossed the floor in the National Assembly and made sure the legislature said "no".

In human rights and the state's nurturing of all religions and religious minorities, Pakistan has never gone far enough. But with 30 per cent of seats in the National Assembly occupied by women (India has 10 per cent), they are playing a more significant role in the legislature. That may help bring the country back to Jinnah's original ideals of a tolerant, secular nation.

2. Pakistan has a line in very attractive men, from old heart-throbs such as Tariq Ali and Imran Khan to a younger generation such as Lahore's most happening export to Bollywood, Ali Zafar.

Outlook India recently ran a fascinating piece about the film history of Peshawar: Shashi Kapoor and Shahrukh Khan's families were from this region. I very much hope that Sanjeev Bhaskar won't mind if I put his handsome features down to west Punjab, where his family lived for centuries (his father's ancestral village was Badhoki Gosaiyan).

And you will be hard pressed to find sweeter coverage than the respectful and affectionate writing about women in the weekend papers.

3. Pakistan has a varied and lively media, though perhaps not always on the side of the angels. But probably more than India, it has a range of sophisticated English-language newspapers (firmly on the side of the angels), including Najam Sethi's PEN Award-winning Friday Times and Karachi's Dawn. (Their closest competitors in India are Vinod Mehta's Outlook India and the Hindu.) Both are written in classic, poised prose and boast incisive columnists as well as world-class books, arts and cultural coverage.

In Mohammed Hanif, Ali Sethi, Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie, Pakistan has a growing raft of writers (some of them Harvard-educated) who explore political and social themes.

4. The country survives daily life on humour, a curious cross-blend of the subcontinental and something rather like Oxbridge Private Eye. But if in the west the well of ribaldry comes from the misfortune of others, in Pakistan, the humour is rather more subtly how people try to find their way out of that misfortune.

It's a richer hoard altogether that provides endless material at social gatherings, as well as for TV star transvestites such as Begum Nawazish Ali.

Over the border in India, the vaudeville slapstick of Mr Bean appeals greatly to audiences. Pakistan finds itself closer to Yes Minister.

5. Pakistanis adore their children: to be born into a settled family in the subcontinent is to enter a very happy world of love and adoration. Only Italians compare in their child-worship. It's not such a strange thing to mention, because in the west there are still hints of Victoriana in our upbringing -- don't talk with your mouth full, don't point, it's rude to stare, say you're sorry.

If you're a boy in Pakistan or India, you're on a winning ticket. Not only will be you adored and pampered, but you'll be allowed just as rich an emotional life as the girls. By contrast, British boys are expected to rein it in. Pakistani fathers are proud as Punch of their girls and their ability to outshine the boys with top marks at school and university.

6. It is a country that thrives on mixed metaphors. So, for those to the west of the border, the song I choose for you is the hauntingly beautiful "Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai" ("What Is This World to Me?").

It comes from the film about mistaken identity and lack of life's essentials Pyaasa (Thirst, 1957), directed by and featuring Guru Dutt, a Hindu whose melancholy perhaps made him an honorary subcontinental Muslim. The melody was written by S D Burman (a Bengali Hindu), the lyrics were written by the Urdu poet Saahir (Abdul Hayee, a Punjabi Muslim) and they were sung by Mohammed Rafi (another Punjabi Muslim). You can watch it here.

It's worth remembering that although the song does not have a happy ending, the film does.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.