Seventy years old today, Pakistan is a country that has achieved much. Yet, there is an undeniable need for introspection and forward thinking. With Balochistan bleeding once again, this time from a suicide bomber targeting military personnel in Pishin, the country will celebrate another Independence Day with the sombre realisation that the long fight against militancy is nowhere close to an end. The geographically largest, least populated, most heavily militarised province in the country, Balochistan is also a symbol of the complexity of the militant threat to Pakistan and the difficulty in combating it. The existing strategy to fight militancy and secure Balochistan from a range of internal and external security threats has not worked. Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa may be right that the Pishin attack was an attempt to mar a celebratory mood in the country, but that does not explain why militants continue to operate seemingly with impunity in Balochistan. Indeed, from the last years of retired Gen Pervez Musharraf, all army chiefs have gone to Balochistan and vowed to establish peace in the province. None has succeeded.
Undeniably, the problems of today are rooted in the mistakes of the past. The rise of extremism and the spread of militancy are linked to the many wrong choices the country has made in its first seven decades of existence. Externally, a national security and foreign policy agenda that is alarmist and mired in self-serving notions of a Pakistan surrounded by enemies has helped nurture policies that have wrought great harm and limited the country’s prospects of economic growth. Internally, the unwillingness to recognise that a secular, constitutional, democratic path is the only route to social stability and cohesion has allowed virulent and hateful ideologies to flourish. It is a measure of the denial in which policymakers have cloaked themselves in that to even suggest a connection between Pakistan’s own choices and its struggles today is considered unpatriotic and draws allegations of anti-Pakistan agendas. Without an honest diagnosis of the problems that continue to plague Pakistan’s security and foreign policies, a true turnaround in the fortunes of the country is unlikely.
Institutionally, too, there is an imbalanced and weak landscape. The ongoing tussle between Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and state institutions, including the superior judiciary and the military leadership, is a direct result of institutions interfering in each other’s domains. Mr Sharif himself is acting in a self-serving manner with the belated realisation that the Constitution needs to be further cleansed. There is great irony in that claim; the PML-N has not once but twice amended the Constitution during the current parliament to create fundamentally anti-democratic military courts. The Constitution can and should be scrubbed clean of all anti-democratic distortions, but no amount of legislative tinkering will matter if the politicians do not embrace the ethos of democracy. Mr Sharif has now awakened to alleged miscarriages of justice, but where was the concern for reform of the justice system in the past four years? Indeed, a year of evasive responses and shifting explanations in the Panama Papers matter by the Sharif family hardly suggest that public accountability and a better quality of justice were at the heart of his political endeavours.
Certainly, the picture is not all bleak. Despite significant historical setbacks and profound ongoing challenges, there have been some successes. The polity has drifted towards polarisation, but there is undoubtedly more political participation and a greater interest in debating issues of public importance than there has been in a generation. Women’s rights have progressed and more progressive legislation than ever has been passed by the various assemblies. CPEC is a generational opportunity, and macroeconomic stability though built on shaky foundations, has created the space for significant reforms. A vibrant middle class can act as an engine of economic growth via the services sector and help reverse the tide of extremism. Perhaps most importantly, Pakistan has established itself as an irreversible reality and can now turn to the task of unlocking and increasing its potential. Institutions may be weak, but the demand for change is strong. The population may be large, but it can be a springboard to economic and social progress. The country may be half the size it was in 1947, but from reforms in Gilgit-Baltistan to Fata, the path now being chosen is one of greater integration. More than 70 years ago, Pakistan was nearly an impossible dream. It became possible because of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. It is time the nation fulfilled Mr Jinnah’s dream of a more inclusive, more progressive, more peaceful and more successful Pakistan.
Dawn News, August 14, 2017