The dangers of oversimplifying the situation in Pakistan

Many of those who are quick to condemn the country have a limited understanding of its structures an

In the aftermath of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, big questions have emerged over Pakistan's role and its relations with the US.

John Brennan, a counterterrorism adviser to Barack Obama, told journalists that it was "inconceivable" that Bin Laden did not enjoy a "support system" in Pakistan. While both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have emphasised Pakistan's importance in fighting al-Qaeda, the circumstances of his discovery are damaging.

Carl Levin, a Democrat who heads the Senate armed services committee, summed up these concerns at a press conference:

I think the Pakistani army and intelligence have a lot of questions to answer given the location, the length of time and the apparent fact that this facility was actually built for Bin Laden and its closeness to the central location of the Pakistani army.

From the Pakistani side, there are questions, too – the US reportedly did not trust the ISI with news of Bin Laden's whereabouts, which will not go down well, given existing tension over increased numbers of CIA agents in the country and public anger at ongoing incursions on Pakistani soil in the form of drone attacks.

The former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf told CNN:

America coming to our territory and taking action is a violation of our sovereignty. Handling and execution of the operation [by US forces] is not correct. The Pakistani government should have been kept in the loop.

Clearly, there are murky waters here – and many questions that might not be answered publicly. Logging on to Twitter yesterday, I was disturbed to see many tweets of the "Get them!" variety, calling for action against Pakistan. But many of those passing comment clearly have very little knowledge of the country's state systems and the atmosphere there.

I've just returned from a trip to Karachi, where I was struck by quite how prevalent anti-American sentiment is. What might look to westerners like public sympathy for extremists is more often based on support for those holding their ground against the west, rather than agreement with extremist ideas. In an excellent article in today's Financial Times, Ahmed Rashid suggests that now might be the time to challenge this narrative:

He was a hero to some Pakistanis because he defied the west and because the country is desperately short of heroes. Perhaps Pakistan's leaders can now have the courage to turn around the mythology and show what Bin Laden really was – a political leech who introduced suicide bombing, helped to create the Pakistani Taliban and promoted intolerance in a country that was at relative peace with itself until he appeared on the scene.

Even the heavy death toll inflicted on Pakistan by terrorists is put at America's door – with some justification, given that the Taliban were all but absent from the country until the US invaded Afghanistan. The country has been ravaged by the war on terror. Since 2001, terrorists have killed nearly 15,000 people there – a number that doubles to more than 30,000 when counterterror violence is taken into account.

However, effectively challenging the perception of Bin Laden as a martyr is difficult, given that there is essentially no cohesive state in Pakistan. The state itself – as in central government – is remarkably weak, because Pakistan is and remains a tribal society, more dependent on local feudal powers than central systems. This goes some way towards explaining why it took so long to capture Bin Laden.

The separation of powers, held by varied forces in Pakistani society – the military, the ISI, the government and local tribes – certainly helps to explain the country's sometimes contradictory actions. This is why the government can co-operate with the US and sanction drone attacks even as the ISI fails to track extremists.

The intelligence service has a long history of alliance with extremist groups and, like the military, is reluctant to fight its own people. In the Times today, Anatol Lieven (£) draws a distinction between the ISI's "hard" treatment of international terrorists and its more tolerant attitude to home-grown insurgents.

What is beyond question is that the relationship between Islamabad and Washington is vital to both sides. Oversimplifying the situation on the ground in Pakistan with a reductive "us and them" narrative serves no one – least of all the people of Pakistan, who are the most likely targets for retaliation attacks.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change