I have now lived and worked in Pakistan for more than six years. In that time, I have taken part in or listened to many discussions on the country's future. They have reached no solid outcome. People here like to stress the importance of Pakistan's 'strategic geo-political position'. They refer to the concept of the so-called 'corridor of energy and trade' from Central to South Asia or from the Persian Gulf to China. Yet to date there is no effective concrete plan for making that concept a reality.
People in Pakistan like to blame the weaknesses in the country's performance on others, especially the United States, India and Israel. Anti-American sentiment is strong, although al-Qaeda's popularity is waning. When there is a suicide blast, people want immediately to criticise America even without convincing reasons for doing so.
Westerners find it difficult to fully understand Pakistan. Even Pakistani people are often confused by the stories their own media carry. This is not surprising because the media itself does not always have access to the details of incidents, and articles can be based merely on rumour or a limited grasp of the facts. Local and Western media can produce very different versions of the same event.
In Pakistan, there appears to be a strong belief that Washington's primary goal has been to destabilise Pakistan and to weaken and divide the Islamic world. That is how people explain why the Taliban is not often blamed for atrocities but America usually is. And this is despite polls suggesting that 80 per cent of Pakistan's population regards al-Qaeda and the Taliban (more often referred to as 'militants', not terrorists) as the destructive forces that are damaging political and economic stability.
In reality, the struggle taking place in Pakistan is not an ideological war. It is a conflict between very small groups of terrorists, whose only weapons are fear and the threat of assassination, and a very large group of innocent people who are poorly equipped to protect themselves.
There is no reason why Pakistan's future should be shaped by extremism. Despite all its massive problems, Pakistan has a strong secular foundation; a religious dictatorship is hard to imagine given deep divisions between Shiite and Sunni and within Sunni. The society is naturally resistant to extremist ideas and the use of violence. That dislike of extremism is what protects Pakistan from falling completely under the control of terrorism. It explains why terrorists may strike regularly in the heart of Pakistan's urban centres, but they cannot and will not ever constitute a genuine political force. Without the support of a serious political apparatus and the general sympathy of the people, the only weapon the terrorists have at their disposal is indiscriminate murder (suicide terrorist attacks), which has already claimed more than 7000 victims and will surely claim more. Each victim is a tragic loss.
Pakistan is a country of 180 million people. On more than 25 TV news channels, resort to violent extremism is rejected in poll after poll. In fact people prefer to talk politics rather than discuss the latest terrorist attack. Pakistani people do not appreciate that each such attack helps strengthen the risk that the country is in danger of being seen to be or actually becoming a 'failed' state. Instead, their approach tends to be: 'the more terrorist attacks that occur, the more justified is our request for outside financial assistance'. The belief seems to be that without the repeated terrorist incidents that are occurring, the international community may not consider that Pakistan really needs substantial help, and urgently.
Contrast the situation in China. Some people there and perhaps elsewhere do not understand why China does not use military force to win back the territory (both sea and land territories) occupied by some neighbouring countries or disputed with others. But Chinas leaders from the time of Deng Xiao-ping have stressed to their people that the stability of society and the political system, the strength of the economy, and an effective defence structure are always at the top of the priority list for China's policy-makers. Recently Chinese President Hu Jin-tao said 'without stability, we could do nothing'. China's leadership is collectively strong. There is not the reliance on one individual wise leader as used to be the case before 1978. All significant policy decisions are now made by the collective leadership through deliberate discussions and much detailed preparation and research. Two objectives have not changed in China: one is to press on with opening to the world and achieving economic growth, and the other is to insist on internal stability.
At this point in its history the most important goal for Pakistan should be stability. I mean political and economic stability, social, ethnic and religious stability, certainty about people's living standards, an adequate security framework, and military and diplomatic stability. If Pakistan had those assets as its aggregate national capital resource, it would have everything going for it; without that stable base it could risk losing everything.
I ask many Pakistani friends 'why do you hate America so much?' They reply that it was America which created the Taliban and al-Qaeda; to them, past and present American actions seem to lie at the roots of terrorism. But the reality is that almost all the victims of the terrorists' suicide and murderous attacks are Muslims; they are not Americans. Another curious Pakistani claim is that the United States has sent spies and uses propaganda to mislead the Taliban, and this only encourages some bad Taliban to commit deeds that serve to destabilise Pakistan. I get little response when I ask people 'why should Pakistan in chaos be a good thing for the United States?'
I asked some university students why they were not critical of the Taliban? I was told that nobody dared to criticise either the Taliban or al-Qaeda because it was not possible to know who around you might have direct or indirect relations with them. To be openly critical could bring the danger of becoming a target. But to criticise America, India or Israel did not carry that risk and was a cheap way to win applause. Of course this does not stop the critics from applying for visas to visit the United States and they are always happy to go there. The fact is that people fear the Taliban more than they fear America. And people are also reluctant to criticise the Taliban in the media because the Taliban are thought to be Muslim, and therefore cannot be all bad. Even in the national and provincial assemblies, no-one likes to blame the Taliban, no matter how many people are killed or injured in suicide attacks. Instead and as a way of highlighting the federal and local authorities' inability to protect personal safety, tragic events are used as the opportunity to attack the ruling party or the government.
The statements made by the President and ministers after suicide blasts always denounce the terrorists. But there is little sign of much improvement in the success the security services have in finding clues as to the whereabouts of the terrorists after an attack. Prior warnings are often given in urban areas, but these cannot be relied upon. As a result, people are not persuaded that either the government or the law enforcement agencies have the capacity to give protection. Some people feel desperate in this situation. And the political parties' own agendas in the National Assembly overwhelm other considerations, including security issues. The religious parties criticise the government but ignore any crimes committed by the Taliban. Unless the underlying causes of political instability are addressed, conditions in Pakistan in the near future could go from bad to worse.
Again looking at China for comparison, there has been a strong focus there on development for the past ten years. The people's lives have substantially improved, so they may wholeheartedly support the Chinese leaders and their policies, not because of their personal charm but to recognise their successful achievement of China's economic rise. The reality is that people may be willing to support their leaders for a short time without reward, but unless they see and enjoy the benefits of economic progress no regime will last long whether it is a military dictatorship or a democratically elected government.
The Pakistan government and political parties do not seem to attach high priority to economic development. The National Assembly rarely discusses such critical subjects as energy shortages, the lack of operating funds, the sky-high price of flour and sugar, and the frequent electricity blackouts. But when it comes to matters to do with the landlords' own property and other material interests, they are ready to argue at length. Pakistan's legislative policy-makers are not preoccupied with finding ways to protect common people from being attacked, but those within the establishment enjoy substantial protection. There is a big gap between, on the one hand, the military and innocent people being killed from one suicide attack after another amidst threats of economic crisis and, on the other hand, the political parties with time to quarrel endlessly in the assembly, wasting precious time that should be spent on tackling the country's basic problems.
I was invited to watch a documentary movie made by a Pakistani non-governmental organisation that is claimed to expose 'the dark side of the Pakistani migration'. The documentary is well made and contains distressing details. But like many such documentaries the focus is on the negative aspects; there is little guidance for people on what the correct direction actually is and where better prospects could be found. In other words, the question of what is 'the bright side of migration for Pakistan?' remains unanswered. The more that people are exposed to the darker picture, the less confidence they have in the country's future.
People in Pakistan like to express their feelings about the country's leadership and strongly so. For example, former President Musharraf is now often described as a dictator and blamed for many of the present difficulties the country is facing. He is given no credit for leading Pakistan's economic recovery over six years. Current President Zardari did not enjoy a good reputation ten years ago, and today people are reluctant to acknowledge that he is also democratically elected in accordance with the Pakistan Constitution, and that he has actually done some positive things for Pakistan since he took office. All this is because of what I see as a lack of tolerance and unprejudiced thinking in the country. I wonder even whether deep-down people really believe in democracy, even though they sing its praises. They certainly believe in a single, great and powerful leader such as Zia ul-Haq was. Internal political and ethnic divisions within the country appear certain to continue, given that most of Pakistan's political parties are based around particular family alliances or have an ethnic base.
Pakistan's leaders and people need to better understand what really lies behind the country's major problems and who the real enemies currently are. It would be a step forward if there was acceptance that the latter are the parties responsible for killing innocent people in suicide attacks. Those within the establishment afraid to criticise the Taliban and who prefer to locate 'the enemy' outside the country should ask themselves whether they are best serving the interests of the population at large.
My conclusions are, first, that Pakistan urgently needs political and ethnic stability. Second, there needs to be a consensus on how to address the issues around countering terrorism and the Taliban. Third, improvement of peoples' living standards and achieving sustainable economic development must be a higher policy priority. In summary, all the elements currently sabotaging the country's future stability, no matter whether they have origins overseas or locally, whatever their source, need to be eliminated. Last but not least, every effort must be made to attract serious international help to lift Pakistan out of the economic and security abyss into which it is sinking.
Pakistan's future remains uncertain--in part because its people remain confused about the direction that should be followed. There is a tendency to blame the United States for the country's ills, even though most recognise that al-Queda and the Taliban are responsible for the on- going political and economic instability. Pakistan's most important goal should be stability-- social, ethnic and religious. It should aim at providing certainty about people's living standards, an adequate security framework and military and diplomatic stability. The government must attach higher priority to economic development, encourage consensus on how to address the issues around countering terrorism and the Taliban, and seek international help in addressing its problems.
Professor Zhou Rong is the chief of the Islamabad Bureau of the Chinese Guang Ming newspaper and guest professor at Fudan University and Sichuan University. He is a regular contributor on CCTV China, and is regarded as the top Chinese specialist on Pakistan among Chinese academics.…