Conference on Pakistan highlights both faults and gains
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: A one-day conference on Pakistan on Monday highlighted both the political weaknesses of the present military-controlled arrangement and the impressive improvements made by the national economy in the last four years.
The three panels made up of experts both from here and Pakistan looked at Pak-US relations, use and abuse of religion, the country’s political economy, socio-economic change, private investment and Pakistan’s post 9/11 economy. The conference, organised by the Johns Hopkins University’s South Asia studies programme, featured PPP MNA Ms Sherry Rehman, noted South Asia experts Robert Hathaway, Walter Andersen and Ms Teresita Schaffer, journalists Husain Haqqani, Talat Aslam and Sushant Sareen from India, academics Prof. Charles Amjad Ali, Zia Mian of Princeton, Prof. Lubna Chaudhry, Prof. Shahnaz Rouse, Prof. Shahrukh Rafi Khan, Prof. Akbar Zaidi and development experts and economists Nadeem ul Haque and Arvind Subramanian of the IMF, Karachi urban planner Arif Hasan, Ijaz Nabi and Imran Khalid-Khan from the World Bank and Mohammad Sadiq Charge d’Affaires of the Pakistan embassy. The conference was also addressed by Umar Ahmad Ghuman, minister of state for investment and privatisation. Ambassador designate Jahangir Karamat was due to open the conference but his arrival in Washington has been delayed by a week or so.
Mohammad Sadiq of the Pakistan embassy extolled the achievements of the Musharraf regime and claimed that the “silent revolution” it has ushered in enjoyed the support of the Pakistani people “across the board.” Among its achievements, he listed the “empowerment” of women, reduction in defence spending from a high of 6.9 percent of GDP to 3.8 percent of GDP, stabilisation of a tottering economy and freedom of the press. He complained that the projection of Pakistan in the American medai was more in the nature of a “caricature” than reflective of “the real” Pakistan. He came out with the somewhat strange theory that criticism of Pakistan was governed by the demand-supply principle. When there was a demand for criticism, its supply was ensured. He did not say at whose behest those strings were pulled.
PPP member of the National Assembly Ms Sherry Rehman denied that there had been any reduction in defence spending because the lower figure quoted by the official was misleading since it has been arrived at after the vast outlay on armed forces’ pensions had been taken out of the defence budget in order to create the impression that spending on the armed forces had been cut. She regretted that the elected representatives were not permitted to question the defence budget which she described as a “two-line item” in the larger national budget document. She lambasted Washington for supporting the military regime in Islamabad, adding that the people of Pakistan “not being children of a lesser God” deserved better. She said it was the second time in recent history that the United States had bought into a questionable bargain in Pakistan. The first time it was the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan; this time it was the “war on terrorism”. This had proved in both cases a shot in the arm for the military ruler. She said Pakistan stands divided today, but such is the hold of the regime on institutions that there are no competing forums where the people’s resentment and rejection of the regime’s policies can be effectively projected. This, she warned, was a serious challenge to national stability. The fight against terrorism should not be confined to the search for “high value targets”, she said, but so fashioned as to identify the root causes of the phenomenon.
Ms Rehman said it was because of the regime’s policies that Pakhtun nationalism had been “Islamised”. Today there was a resurgence of Talibanisation in Quetta, Chaman and Peshawar. Washington and the Pakistani establishment were trying to use “moderate Taliban” to stabilise the Karzai government in Kabul. This could only be attributed to a “failure of imagination”. She pointed out that it was because of such short-sighted policies and actions that anti-Americanism has become the “ideology of discontent.” The young felt disenfranchised and devoid of a future. It was no wonder some of them sought refuge in radicalism. She accused the regime of failure to grapple with growing Islamism. Osama bin Laden, she added, is only a symbol and the tip of the iceberg. She said the government had failed to implement its reform agenda and all the repressive and discriminatory laws brought in by the Zia regime remained in place. The regime has no political will, she charged. She said the fact was that Gen. Musharraf was unwilling to broaden the base of his support by taking progressive actions and following enlightened policies.
Prof. Charles Amjad Ali spoke about the treatment of minorities in Pakistan and found it ironical that a country that had come into being for the protection of the rights of the Muslim minority in India had treated its own minorities so “atrociously.” He said it was the army that had created “Islamism”. It was also regrettable that Washington had always supported army generals who took the country over. Pakistan, he pointed out, was a disparate, heterogeneous country and should be so seen. He said it was a pity that Islam had been used by successive governments to “beat down dissidents.” Husain Haqqani in his comments stressed that from the beginning Pakistan had been a “rent-seeking state”. The ruling elite never cared for the masses or what lay in their interest. The military establishment made it a point to crush any popular party that appeared on the scene. He said “corruption” on the part of civilians had been used as an excuse to stage coup d’etats, but that should have been no reason to take over. Pakistan after all was not the only country where the phenomenon of corruption existed. It was a pity that the issue of corruption had been used to block democracy. Ironically, those who took over in the name of cleansing the system turned out to be more corrupt that those they had thrown out. Sushant Sareen from New Delhi said Pakistan thought of itself as God’s gift for the Muslim world, while India thought of itself as God’s gift to the entire world. He said the current peace process deserves to succeed. Tourism, for instance, could become a major catalyst, a “fabulous opportunity” for the region’s prosperity. He disclosed that the 10,000 or so Indians who came to Pakistan to watch cricket matches collectively spend around Rs 400 crore in Pakistan. He said there was no economic rationale for not throwing open the doors and letting trade flourish. Major Indian industrial houses were keen to set up joint ventures in Pakistan, he disclosed. He also underscored the urgent need to work jointly for the improvement of the environment as failure to do so would have “frightening” consequences. Zia Mian, physicist from Princeton University and anti-nuclear campaigner, said greater trade between India and Pakistan will not necessarily lead to peace. He did not think better relations with India will lead to a cut in Pakistan’s military spending. He was skeptical about the military letting a civilian system function freely as it would like to keep its hold on the levers of power.
Arif Hasan, a well-known urban planner from Karachi, told the conference that the urban-rural divide in Pakistan had sharpened and the central government had become powerful at the expense of the provinces which was not a good sign. He stressed that the establishment encourages divisions in order to stay in power. He was also critical of the devolution system brought in by the Musharraf government and said that there were no checks or balances on the Nazims’ exercise of power. Talat Aslam, editor of the monthly Herald, Karachi, told the meeting that the Pakistani youth suffered from “schizophrenia”. On the one hand, it hankered after all the trappings of modern living while at the same time accepting the dark and retrogressive concepts drilled into their minds since Zia-ul-Haq’s “Islamisation”. The well-endowed Pakistani elite had opted out of the state-funded educational system which was in a shambles. Shahrukh Rafi Khan told the conference that overall, the Musharraf government had “outperformed” its civilian predecessors in the economic area, but the social indicators of Pakistan remained poor. In terms of human development, Pakistan was now the at the bottom in South Asia. He was doubtful the country would be able to retain its recent GDP ranking. Ijaz Nabi of the World Bank while expressing satisfaction with some of the country’s recent economic achievements, warned of challenges that lay in the future. He pointed out that investment remained restricted and part of the blame for that might lie in certain “residual factors”. He also pointed out that decisionmaking at the middle level of the civil service needed to be improved. He noted that some of the positive results witnessed today flowed from the steps taken by the political governments that held office in the 1980s and 1990s. He said short-term exigencies notwithstanding, without meaningful land reforms, the desired results would not come about.
Nadeem ul Haque of the IMF in his comments on a paper submitted by a State Bank official said Pakistan has a well-developed financial sector which looks “very good”. He said there was need to question why investment was going into real estate rather than economically productive activities. Was it because there were no investment avenues open in Pakistan today? He made a strong case for rejouvenating the construction industry which could become an engine of growth but regretted that the regulatory agencies were a hindrance in the way. A review of current regulations was the need of the hour, he added. WAPDA reform, he noted, had been talked about for two years, but there had been no movement on that. He also mentioned a bad law and order situation as another reason for lack of investment. He pointed out that the property rights infrastructure in the country needed to be built and strengthened. The “land-grab” mafias must be dealt with in an effective way, he added. He said Pakistanis were always “benign” to their policymakers who were responsible for some disastrous policies. Instead, the tendency was to blame external factors and external actors. Of the gains made in recent years, he said unless credible, long-term economic decisions were taken now, those gains would proved to be temporary.
Imran Khalid-Khan of the World Bank described the economic reform agenda of the government as “robust” and “credible”. However, he found it “highly ironic” that international funding institutions gave money for governance reform to military rulers. He was of the view that the respite given to Pakistan on the Dr A.Q. Khan affair may turn out to be short-lived. It should be realised that Washington’s real strategic interest lies not with Pakistan but with India. Calling Pakistan’s social indicators “lamentable”, he wondered if the army will divert money to extend and strengthen the social sector. He added that in his view, the army was “unlikely” to do that.