The past week has seen a rare moment of intense diplomatic activity in the centre of Islamabad, as high-ranking delegations representing the world’s ‘D8’ member states converged upon the Pakistani capital for a summit meeting.
The group, which consists of Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Nigeria and Egypt as its members, was established to promote economic relations between its member countries.
For Pakistan though in addition to the economic gains, the event also presented an opportunity to build up the country’s credentials just as its ruling structure struggles to reverse its losses across the streets of the country.
Yet, the unprecedented and mammoth security surrounding the event offered a highly illustrative view of Pakistan’s continuing security crisis. Across Islamabad, motorists could easily double their driving time for reaching some destinations across the capital, as the security services and police were leaving nothing to chance to protect the visiting dignitaries.
However, the more compelling reality was the sharp contrast between the push by the regime of President Asif Ali Zardari to finally receive some global recognition and the sorry state of affairs across the country. As Pakistan’s election fever begins to come together ahead of parliamentary polls, expected by the middle of next year, ordinary Pakistanis lament the multi-faceted crisis surrounding the country.
For the moment, there appears to be some relief on matters like the long duration electricity cuts that provoked unprecedented protests just this past summer. If Pakistan’s political pundits are right in forecasting that elections are due to take place on April 4 next year, the issue of electricity may not be too far away from their thoughts.
The April 4 date is significant for Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) as it serves as a powerful reminder of the PPP’s tragic past. In 1979, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the party’s founding father, was hanged on a controversial charge of ordering the assassination of a political foe, just two years after his removal as prime minister in a military coup.
However, another part of the reality is just not lost upon long-term observers of the streets across Pakistan. Elections in spring will indeed allow the PPP to avoid the risk of holding the event in the scorching summer when the popular anger level will likely be high — thanks to pronounced electricity cuts.
Elsewhere across Pakistan, there is much evidence of an increasingly dismal outlook under Zardari’s watch. In the midst of a generally tense security environment, novel concepts have emerged across Pakistan. For instance, shutting down of mobile phone signals in cities under the threat of terrorist violence or indeed ordering motorcyclists to stay at home as a way to block any likely terrorist attack, are increasingly becoming the norm. Faced with such odds, the pivotal need for a government to rise to the occasion is indeed the missing element.
Now in its fifth year since Pakistan’s ruling structure began its tenure after the 2008 elections, the parliament is yet to agree on a well-thought-out and debated national security policy. As conditions aggravate on multiple fronts, including security, Pakistan’s elected politicians remain detached from actively searching for solutions to begin making a difference.
In this background, the push by the Zardari-led ruling structure to acquire greater diplomatic space among members of the global community will likely remain in doubt. Indeed, any country which fails to hold itself together will just not find the space to stake a claim beyond its frontiers.
The challenge of satisfying Pakistan’s foreign partners will likely grow in the next 12 to 24 months. It is highly unlikely that a government known more for its failure to reform will even remotely begin embracing reforms that have been sought for years by Pakistan’s foreign partners.
Perhaps more troubling for Pakistan’s external partners will indeed be the run-up to a US plan for drawing down of troops from Afghanistan by 2014. That exercise will require considerable support from Pakistan in ways such as a pressing ahead with support for a credible peace initiative in Afghanistan, which not only allows an orderly withdrawal of US-led western forces from that country, but more importantly, a new peace plan will have to hold together so that conditions in Afghanistan gradually but surely begin returning to normal. While Pakistan remains a key stakeholder in that conflict and has long-term knowledge of Afghanistan and Afghan groups, the country’s own disarray raises the dangerous possibility of Islamabad remaining just too embroiled on its domestic front to be able ti make any real difference to a key foreign policy challenge. That unhappy prospect is just too important to be ignored in spite of the glamour which came in tandem with last week’s ‘D8’ gathering.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.