War on Terror: Clash of realism and populism in Pakistan

Comment about the government’s policy on the war against terrorism is understandably rife in the media because of the sensitivity of the issue at hand. Some reporters speaking from areas of conflict are advising the government to “do what the people want”. Others are asking why there was no talk at the Foreign Office briefing to President Asif Zardari of the grave threat that continuous unilateral American strikes pose to the internal security of Pakistan. Indeed, the newspapers are full of rebuking articles about “national honour” that has been hurt by the American strikes. One brand of politicians and aspirants to national politics is using angry expressions to describe the “cowardice” of the government, which is allegedly unfocused on issues close to the hearts of the people. One aspirant to the presidency actually laid a bet on TV that there were no foreigners in the Tribal Areas because he had not seen them alive or dead on TV. One TV host referred to the latest show of defiance of the US in other parts of the world as a contrast to Pakistan’s passivity. A reference to the current trouble America is facing in South America was considered apt. Bolivia expelled the American ambassador after he refused to stop meeting the opposition leaders. This was followed by a “sympathetic” expulsion by Venezuela; and nearby Honduras told a US ambassador yet to present his credentials to stay out. This defiant conduct is apparently thought to be “ideal” and Pakistan’s government is being rebuked for not showing spine despite the fact that it is a nuclear power with a population of 170 million in contrast to the Latin American states with populations comparable to the city of Lahore. The debate recalled references made in the past by some intellectuals and politicians to the “nuclear defiance” of North Korea in contrast to Pakistan’s submissiveness today. [Of course, the same persons don’t mention North Korea as a model since it has become a lesson in how not to go nuclear. The example of the once-defiant oil-rich Libya is also not mentioned for obvious reasons.]

The stock answer to all foreign policy problems is: “go to the parliament” and do what the “national consensus” says should be done. But in parliament, politicians are on display and tend to read their diatribes out of newspaper reports. Should a relatively weak regional state consult the people in the street before deciding crucial foreign policy issues? How far should populism be followed before realism restrains rash action?

In the realm of foreign policy, action depends on a state’s ability to cause events to take place and prevent other states from doing so. In political science, some states have the leverage to dictate and some have the capacity to resist dictation, but most have to develop a flexibility of response to avoid damage from undue or provocative defiance.

Shouldn’t the “national interest” attached to the emotion of nationalism in a strong state be different from the cold-blooded national interest of a state that is trying to survive? Can Pakistan follow the lead of Venezuela and its two neighbours whom Venezuela can bail out easily for two reasons: one is the high price of oil which Venezuela produces and the other is the small populations of the two countries. Venezuela is aligned to Iran on how to use oil as an instrument of defiance. The presidents of both the oil-rich states use defiant rhetoric in line with the emotion of the people who want the state to assert itself. Can Pakistan perform this kind of defiant action without hurting itself? Given its economic situation, will an economically squeezed nation abstain from punishing the state after the act of bravado worsens the national economy?

Pakistan is a state with “ungoverned spaces” inside it that are occupied by anarchist gangs training an international network of terrorists. It is therefore hardly in a position to say boo to the world. Its nearly collapsed economy needs help from the rich states of the world at a time when most states are faced with their own food and energy squeeze; and one cannot get cash out of people if one is not prepared to give them a fair hearing in terms of their own national interest. The entire world knows that Pakistan can’t fight Al Qaeda on its own. But it also knows that if the NATO forces leave Afghanistan and foreign military assistance is switched off, Pakistan will not be able to stand up alone and prevent its nuclear weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

Last but not least is the tactic of using leverage. We can stop supplies to NATO, but then how will we get our tranche of dollars for the second quarter of the year (April-May-June) without which our army can’t carry on its operations in Swat and Bajaur? What if the NATO-ISAF forces withdraw from Afghanistan but use the Arabian Sea to target the terrorists with drones and missiles without any regard for Pakistan? Therefore realism must dawn. The government of Pakistan is approaching the problem in the right manner and has obtained the required pledge of restraint from Washington. It should be supported for its pragmatism rather than reproached for its lack of passion. (Daily Times, 16 September)