There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought about what the international community should do next to help alleviate the chaos consuming Pakistan. One was emphasised by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian – that we should never seek to interfere in the internal affairs of a country, and that, as is his usual claim, we are the architect of our own misfortune. The other is being taken up by the bulk of US presidential candidates – that the US should be ready to bomb Pakistan if its nuclear sites look threatened by the Islamists, and that the UK and US should provide oversight control of Pakistan’s nuclear programme (a policy advocated by Hillary Clinton).
While I have more sympathy with the Clinton argument, both points of view are a little naïve – the US is not going to sit idly by while Islamist extremists overrun the world’s sixth most populous country armed with WMD, nor are they likely to be able to completely overturn Pakistan’s sovereignty when it comes to security issues. One of the lessons from the Iran nuclear case is that patient diplomacy, which the EU has spearheaded, combined with a carrot and stick approach can yield positive results. As the recent US intelligence report emphasised, it persuaded Iran to suspend its nuclear weapons programme in 2003. One of the great mistakes that have been made in the past in relation to Pakistan is the outside obsession with individuals over institutions. John Negroponte was guilty of this recently, in his overtures to both Musharraf and Bhutto.
With the tragic death of Benazhir Bhutto, the inevitable focus of the commentariat and policy makers has turned to the young Oxford student Bilawal Bhutto, or the tough army general, Ashfaq Kiyani. But this obsession with personalities over institutions will always leave the leadership of Pakistan vulnerable to interference and even overthrow from the 3 As – the Army, America or Allah (i.e. the Islamists). Bilawal is clearly smart, but is he ready to take on the mantle of leadership, when he has spent so little time in Pakistan and struggles to speak Urdu?
Neither outside force or even a strong leader can build a vibrant democracy. That’s not to say the international community is powerless to effect change, but it needs to take local people with them. Supporting democratic institutions, grassroots NGOs and political parties, as well as groups that advocate human rights, women’s issues and support for marginalised communities will do far more to engender a democratic culture in the long term.
The UK, in partnership with our EU allies could be doing more. While it may seem somewhat ironic these days, Westminster was the ‘mother of all parliaments’ – influencing the establishment of legislatures across the world in past centuries. It’s important that our modern foreign policy is also focussed on democracy building – and not cautioned by the problems in Iraq. It’s not just FCO or DfiD support though – visits by parliamentarians, NGOs and academics can all help to foster a more democratic atmosphere.
The Commonwealth, which has an important relationship with Pakistan, is one of the few international institutions to suspend or expel its member countries when democracy or human rights are seriously threatened, and did so in November when Pakistan implemented martial law. It would be helpful if other international institutions such as the UN and the World Bank would have the courage of their rhetoric to similarly put pressure on countries that subvert democratic norms.
Pakistan is not the basket case some have made out – and Musharraf is hardly on a par with Saddam or Mugabe. The country's economy has improved dramatically in the past five years, thanks in part to the stewardship of former Prime Minister Aziz, but it hasn’t translated as much as it should do into poverty reduction for ordinary people.
Even though its popularity is damaged, the army will always play its part in Pakistani politics, as it has done frequently since the 1950s. Often, it is to maintain Pakistan’s stability and status as a relatively secular democracy. The challenge is to ensure that the other representative democratic institutions are powerful enough to compete with it.