Pakistan celebrates Independence Day today. It is a time for introspection. Have old challenges been contained? Have new ones arisen? Are there opportunities on the horizon? The results are mixed. Terrorism is a rising threat after the unpopular invasion of Afghanistan. It persists even though alarmist apprehensions have not been borne out.
This reflects the difference between perception and reality when it comes to Pakistan. On the surface, the country is beset with difficult challenges: terrorism and political uncertainty that are accentuated by discord between an assertive Supreme Court and the government, a fragile economy, an energy shortfall which has led to public unrest and varying pressures from America, India and Afghanistan.
But on the ground the picture is different. The territorial presence of terrorists has been reduced as have terrorist incidents. This does not mean that the overall law and order situation requires less focus. After the recent decade of military rule, the democratic system may have its flaws, but it is certainly vibrant while being put under a magnifying glass by a very independent media. Unlike almost anywhere else in the Muslim world, all opinion and religious parties are represented in the parliamentary process.
The Supreme Court, which has sent one prime minister home and may do the same to his successor, has become as important a player as the military. Some view this as a healthy check on a powerful executive. Others wish it would follow the precepts of US Supreme Court Justice John Roberts who, despite his conservative reputation, cast the deciding vote to save Barack Obama’s health care bill. He wrote: “It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.” This judgment was, however, handed down after almost 300 years of independence.
Pakistan’s economy may be fragile but an unprecedented rise in overseas workers’ remittances, estimated at $16 billion (Dh58.7 billion), provides a cushion. The energy shortfall acts as a brake on productivity across the industrial and agricultural spectrum. But as the two recent widespread blackouts in India have shown, this is a phenomenon common to South Asia and many other countries. The political impact may be reflected in the next elections although the record of no previous government, civilian or military, stands out in the resolution of energy issues.
In the field of foreign relations, there have been some gains. For most of the year, relations with America were at their lowest ebb with the overland transit route for military supplies to Afghanistan closed. With the reopening of that route tensions have been reduced, economic assistance restarted and efforts to work together for a stable transition in Afghanistan recommenced.
Pakistan has gone the extra mile to improve relations with India and New Delhi has reciprocated to some degree. Vladimir Putin’s imminent visit — the first by any Russian president, may herald an overdue readjustment to regional realpolitik. China remains the most reliable and supportive ally.
Relations with Afghanistan have always been problematic and not made easier by Afghan apprehensions as the US/ISAF/Nato drawdown accentuates. However, this has brought into focus the real meaning of the Hamid Karzai phrase of the two nations being “conjoined twins” — namely that the two countries must find a way to co-exist.
While critics erroneously allege that Pakistan wants influence in Afghanistan for strategic depth, Pakistan in fact provides this depth to its neighbour, hosting five million refugees for decades, giving free medical assistance in its government hospitals to poor Afghans, and establishing road and rail links and a network of ethnic ties.
Pakistan has also to be seen in the context of regional and international developments. Most of the Muslim world is in flux. The outcome of the Arab Spring is uncertain and stability is still an objective. Syria is being torn apart while Iran is under threat of attack.
In Europe, the currency union and the economic stability of its southern periphery remains tenuous. Globally, the economic recession is putting all countries under pressure, increasing unemployment, and threatening civic services and entitlements. Unpredictable weather patterns may cause food crises for some countries and for the poor in most developing countries.
In the global context, Pakistan is a more stable country than many others as well as a self-sufficient exporter of major cereal commodities. Lacking the fossil fuel reserves of its Middle East neighbours, its people have had to become more hard working and industrious. However, more resources have to be allocated and generated for education, social services and infrastructural development.
Pakistan and its people continue to demonstrate their prime characteristic of resilience. What they deserve above all else in the next year of their hard won independence is that their leaders put their country’s interest before their personal, party or institutional interests and work together for the nation’s cause.
Once Pakistan puts its house in order, the sky should be the limit.
Ambassador Tariq Osman Hyder is a former Pakistani diplomat.