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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.