Poor Pakistan is best helped by providing aid with strings attached

POOR Pakistan: only on the cricket field does it ever seem to have any luck.

First a series of leaked classified US military documents left its government scrambling to deny suggestions its secret service was covertly supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Then a plane on a domestic flight crashed in bad weather, killing all 150 passengers on board. Meanwhile, the country’s commercial capital, Karachi, has been gripped by riots following the assassination of a local politician, leaving dozens dead. Now the Pakistani government – unpopular to begin with – is being criticised for its slow response to the appalling recent floods, the worst in decades.

The Irish Government has pledged more than €500,000 in relief aid, but the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, jetted off on a grand tour of Europe, somehow finding time to drop by his vast French chateau. He also spoke at a political rally in Birmingham organised by the Pakistan People’s Party – more a monarchical dynasty than a political movement – of which he and his son, Bilawal, are co-chairmen.

Zardari is a polo-obsessed businessman with a reputedly voracious appetite for kickbacks, infamously seeking while his wife was in power a fee of $200 million for a French jet fighter deal that never took place. Benazir was duly ousted in 1995 before the plans could be implemented. She personally wasn’t above feudal plunder either.

President Zardari himself might be politically tone deaf, but Pakistan itself never has its troubles to seek. The country has not had an easy history. Partition, as Ireland knows – whatever the reasons for its imposition – is never easy to live with. For Pakistan, separation from India – even if it sought as much – brought its own challenges.

At least Northern Ireland could never totally deny its Irishness, even if some might have wanted to. Pakistan, however, by embracing a new name and a state religion, turned its back entirely on its past. It lost all claims to centuries of heritage that are now known to the world purely as Indian, never as Pakistani.

More than 60 years later, few – even Pakistanis themselves – really know what Pakistan stands for, except being Muslim and not being India. Throughout its comparatively short history, it has struggled with corrupt regimes and a jittery economy, continually battling inflation and unemployment. No investor ever mentions Pakistan in the same breath as India or China – or even the likes of Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey.

Comparisons with India hurt most of all, of course. While Indians manage multiple identities – high caste and Indian, low caste and Indian, Tamil and Indian, Sikh and Indian and so on – Pakistan struggles to claim its own nationalism. Religious and provincial identities too often supersede a Pakistani national identity.

Instead, Pakistan is a country at war with itself, caught between the twin poles of the military and the mullahs. Fundamentalism gnaws at the heels of the state while democracy is a poor, undernourished creature. Pakistan might have been a state since 1947, but is not a nation. Pakistan is a place and a people inside a certain geographical boundary but lacking the crucial components needed for nationhood: a strong common identity and a shared sense of history and purpose.

The lack of nationhood can be traced to the genesis of Pakistan and the single factor that drove it – religious identity. The founder of Pakistan, Mohamed Ali Jinnah, based the struggle for Pakistan on the simple premise that Hindus and Muslims could never live together peacefully within one nation state.

So what is Pakistan supposed to be then, beyond being a homeland for Muslims? Decades after the horrific bloodbath of partition, the subject remains hotly debated. Jinnah himself died in 1948 leaving little behind by way of an ideology. Some hold him up as a liberal secularist, others as a proto-Islamist.

The country’s basis in religious identity soon led to painful paradoxes. An overbearing West Pakistan rode roughshod over East Pakistan and became despised, leading to the creation – with Indian assistance – of Bangladesh in the early 1970s.

What Pakistan stood for suddenly became clear: revenge. Benazir Bhutto’s father, prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, promised a “war of a thousand years” against India and started Pakistan’s quest for the atomic bomb in 1972. While this served temporarily as a rallying cry, General Zia’s military coup of 1977 that sent him to the gallows soon revived the identity issue.

Zia was determined to end once and for all the confusion about Pakistan’s outlook. He sought to create an Islamic state – not just a Muslim one – where Sharia law would reign supreme. It was to be nothing less than a Pakistani version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Secular principles went out of the window, democracy was denigrated as unIslamic and religion was put front and centre of every sphere of life, public and private.

The effects of this revolution are now clearly felt. Having been schooled using textbooks that glorify martyrdom and malign all outsiders, the half of Pakistanis under the age of 18 are increasingly militant. Thousands of youngsters emerge from the dilapidated schooling system every year, unskilled and unprepared, cannot find jobs and eventually revert to distorted forms of religion when all else disappoints. Waiting for them with open arms are religious opportunists promising paradise for those who become suicide bombers for Islam.

Is it any wonder that a recent survey of young Pakistanis found that three-quarters identify themselves primarily as Muslims, while just 14% chose to define themselves primarily as citizens of Pakistan. With such deep concerns about the economic situation and corruption, though, is it any wonder so many see religion as an anchor and violent change as the answer to their country’s problems?

WHAT’S needed is some nation-building. That means becoming a true democracy rather than a militarised state where the conflict with India over Kashmir is used as an excuse for the use of force against ordinary Pakistanis, sucking up all the country’s resources and leaving it dependent on handouts.

The army has become powerful way beyond the realm of defence. Senior officers own vast assets including banks, estates, airlines and insurance companies. That needs to change, as does the concentration of power in Islamabad. A country with such a diverse and rapidly expanding population cannot be run without significant devolution of powers to the provinces.

The central government needs to stop micro-managing and concentrate on tax collecting: Pakistanis take their cue from their leaders and avoid paying their dues if they possibly can.

If and when the government can increase its revenues and divert them away from the army, it needs to boost spending on education – better schools with facilities for more than learning the Koran, as well as more status for teachers and a broader curriculum that encourages children to think for themselves.

It’s tempting to give up on Pakistan as a failed state and the path to making a Pakistani nation is undoubtedly going to be difficult. But the international community cannot afford to ignore such a populous country, especially one with nuclear weapons. Perhaps the international community’s assistance recovering from the recent flooding will provide an opportunity for some subtle pressure to bear.


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