Natural selection is history’s critical method to choose survivors. And yet, the outcome of the rigorous pruning process seems more and more unbelievable with every passing day. You think a nation with little and mostly troubling history may not survive the test of time and yet here it stands in the arena undefeated despite a thousand devastating blows. Pakistan quite evidently fits the bill.
The world is well aware today that during its few decades of existence the country has made some rotten and unfortunate choices. But what it does not recognise is the legacy of endurance and survival. To understand the matter fully you need to look at what is going on in the Arab world. Only a few decades ago Libya, Iraq and Syria appeared to be stable countries with clear historical identities. And yet today crises have all but effaced their individuality. What many do not understand is that Pakistan also had to endure many of such upheavals in the past but it has lived to tell the tale. Reason? Institutions and depth. Despite repeated military takeovers, decade and a half long devastating fight against terrorism, being sandwiched between a hostile India and Soviet Union in the heyday of the Cold War, corruption and manifest parochialism of the religious elite, the society has managed to stay incredibly nuanced. And there lies its strength.
You can talk about the military takeovers of the past as much as you like but the fact is, no dictator survived in that position for very long. Only two out of total four managed to survive for a decade and even they had to go through motions to show they were not anti-democracy. Something brings us back to democracy. And even on religious front the society refuses to let sectarianism divide it. Despite decades-long efforts of extremist groups the man on the street wants to stay away from the divide that is haunting the rest of the Muslim countries. In fact, the only time the country’s electorate rewarded the religious political parties when they managed to overcome the sectarian divide in the shape of MMA where extremist groups sat together.
And yet, despite all these positive elements, you cannot wish away the burden of bad choices made in the past. When the entire West was obsessed with countering the red menace, America and Saudi Arabia bankrolled the country’s dangerous experiments with religion. It was in our labs that the weapons grade extremism, that afflicts most of the world today, was first created. It is the only country also with the direct access to the base code of the virus. As the plague of extremism moves from ruined parts of the Arab world to Europe and the United States, Pakistan can play a critical role in finding a cure if it sincerely wishes to.
But here you come across three problems. Owing to its low self-esteem the country exists in a dual, Dr Jackyll and Mr Hyde mode. So when properly engaged it can be a very useful ally. When abandoned or ostracised it can be a seriously negative influence. The second problem is of not understanding its actual area of strength. For the past 15 years, the world has sought only physical support, not intellectual assistance. And to be fair as social anxiety during a prolonged war at home turf gripped the country its ability to think clearly went out of the window. Now that the sanity is being restored the state has come up with an elaborate national action plan to overcome the radicalisation in society. It needs support and constant engagement so that it stays in Dr Jackyll mode until proper cure is developed.
And engagement clearly works. After the Bush regime’s two terms of miscalculation, this administration decided to engage the country’s civil and military leadership simultaneously and as a result it is on a steady path to democratisation. Meanwhile, quality of actions against terrorists has also improved. If the country’s intelligence community can also be engaged the battle is already won.
And here comes the third challenge. Since Pakistan is in a make or break stage of its economic career, any further engagement will make it more and more viable as a nation. Hence the bullies next door keep throwing tantrums. When it suited New Delhi it conveniently chose to be de-hyphenated from Pakistan and milked it to death. Today, when the going got tough, India wants the old equation back. But as they say you cannot have your cake and eat it too.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 27th, 2016.