Pakistan At A Crossroads

by Hijab Shah on January 29, 2013

Pakistan lost one of its bravest political leaders on December 22, 2012, when a suicide bomb killed Bashir Ahmed Bilour, a senior minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Tehrik-e-Taliban (TPP) claimed responsibility for the high-profile assassination, its fourth in recent years, including leaders such as former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, and  Minister Shahbaz Bhatti. Although these assassinations were significant blows to Pakistan’s fledgling democracy, the TTP and other associated militant groups are involved in something far more pernicious—they are attempting to cripple Pakistan’s ability to function and gradually undercut Pakistan’s resilience itself.

Pakistan’s militants have slowly undermined the writ of the government by killing off low and mid-level public servants. The police officers, judges, military recruits, polio vaccination teams and humanitarian workers who lost their lives in the past few years were not instantly recognizable, and their deaths did not make the headlines. Yet, people like them, barely holding together Pakistan’s fledgling national institutions and weak civil society, are being killed off every day. Civil institutions are teetering on the brink of collapse, and an overwhelming sense of despondency, defeatism and denial has set into the citizenry.

The loss of hardworking and honest civil servants in a system already rife with corruption and injustice has created an air of dismay within Pakistan’s working class. According to Pew polls, eighty-seven percent of the population is unhappy about the country’s state of affairs, with fifty-four percent pessimistic about Pakistan’s future. There is an increasing lack of motivation to participate in civil society; people fear for themselves and their families lest they cross the militants, and they cannot rely on protection from the government, which has seemingly ignored their plight. Given the opportunity, twenty-two percent of educated Pakistanis would leave the country for safety abroad. This draining of talent, motivation and dedication from its civil institutions, perpetuates the cycle of gloom.

Yet, the situation isn’t entirely irreparable, if Pakistanis shed their current state of despair and denial, and the Pakistani leadership pursues bold reform. Uniting the country for a common cause may bring the society back on its feet. It will take elite action backed by a groundswell of public support to rectify Pakistan’s current problems.

There is a glimmer of hope that Pakistan has been jolted out of its state of denial, as its citizens united behind a cause. The wake-up call for Pakistan came in the form of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old activist shot by members of the TTP for “promoting secularism,” and more recently, controversial whistleblower Tahir-ul-Qadri. Despite cries of foul play in both cases, there was enormous popular outcry against the attack on Malala, and significant support for Qadri’s call for greater governmental transparency and accountability. Malala has inspired a rare show of nationwide solidarity, with a slew of political figures visiting her and even naming a national holiday after her. And although many were wary of Qadri, and his January 14 “Long March” ended anticlimactically, his message resonated with enough people—many ordinary citizens not affiliated with the cleric—to bring the capital city to a standstill, and even forced the government into signing a hasty agreement to end the sit-in.

If all goes well, the upcoming general elections will mark the first transition of a democratically elected civilian government completing its full term in Pakistan’s history. The governing Pakistan People’s Party is expected to be ousted, allowing a new government to strive towards securing the support of a newly energized populace after an historic occasion, exorcise the demons of disillusionment, and change the trajectory of civil society.

Providing justice is the first step to regaining the faith of the populace and rebuilding Pakistan’s civil society. Chief Justice Iftikhar Ahmed Chaudhry has taken suo moto initiative to hear various cases—murder and missing persons cases amongst them—which may have otherwise been neglected for years. Chaudhry’s imminent retirement from the Supreme Court could bring a halt to the progress that has brought justice to ordinary Pakistanis, unless the courts reform significantly. Cases must be brought out of the severe backlog and handled not by suo moto justice, but by an efficient and accountable due process that prioritizes the recruitment and retention of lawyers, judges, and legal staff. In the long term, Pakistan must determine how to unify its fragmented legal system from “competing legal codes” into a coherent system across the country.

Security is perhaps the most pressing issue for the people of Pakistan. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani recently declared internal militancy as Pakistan’s greatest security threat, a significant and positive shift in rhetoric, if not policy. Pakistan’s police, military and special forces have been spread thin trying to protect the citizenry from the sporadic violence that erupts regularly across the country. More resources and personnel should be allocated to confront internal violence. This momentum must be coupled with long-term efforts to modernize and better equip police forces, bomb disposal squads, and paramilitary groups. When civil society believes that the government is doing all it can to protect the people, mistrust and disillusionment will begin to wane.

Finally, in order for Pakistan’s civil institutions to be effective, they must have buy-in from Pakistan’s youth, especially the rural masses that are often ignored. Increased recruitment for civil jobs from these groups must be complemented with the guarantee of equal opportunity, job security and adequate financial compensation—all of which have yet to be implemented fully. Pakistan needs a strategy for long-term capacity-building and institutionalization of the civil services, so that they do not have to rebuild with every transition of power.

Such transformative reform is a tall order. Yet, the spring of 2013 brings the country to a new election season, and with it, to a crossroads. Pakistan can either embark upon a long, winding path towards recovery, or the express lane to self-destruction. This realization should be enough of a wake-up call for the Pakistani leadership to step up and act.

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