By Themrise Khan
(HN, November 15, 2010) - Recently, I was transporting two brave ladies visiting Islamabad from Baluchistan province to their scheduled destination. They were key informants for a research project I was involved in and I took the opportunity to continue my discussion with them en route. The conversation was intense and horrific, as they recounted stories of violence and bloodshed in their hometowns.
Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest and most neglected province, is fast turning into a minefield of political terrorism - far removed but just as lethal as the extremist violence that has pervaded other parts of the country over recent years. It is one of the many internal conflicts that now plague almost all parts of Pakistan.
On the way back, my taxi driver who had been silent throughout the exchange, curiously asked me what I was doing with the two ladies. After briefly explaining my work, he expressed his shock at how the situation had deteriorated in Baluchistan.
“These are very brave women”, he remarked. He was equally impressed with the fact that in Quetta city, shops opened promptly at 9am and closed at 6pm, whereas everywhere else in the country, business doesn’t begin till at least noon. The fact was evident as we drove by lines of shops with their shutters down at a time nearing 11am. “We say we are God-fearing here but we are not”, he commented.
The conversation gradually gave way to his own frustration with the current state of the country. He was decidedly unhappy with the present government, to put it mildly. But he also seemed fairly unhappy with the previous one as well. “If (former President Pervez) Musharraf wants to start a political party, why doesn’t he do it here? Why is he starting it all the way in London?” he asked. “Everyone wants to steal from us but give us nothing in return."
But there did seem to be some things he was pleased with. The Chief Justice, because “he is clamping down on many aspects of bad government”; with the media, “because they have exposed all the corruption” and with (retired Pakistan cricketer and politician) Imran Khan, “because he is the only leader we have”.
The point of this extended anecdote, is to try and make sense of why Pakistan is still such a big deal to the rest of the world, given we now suffer from three complex maladies everyone would gladly steer clear of: insecurity, economic instability and weak governance.
Perhaps not the most obvious choice for a country of “strategic importance” for world super powers, recently suffering from their own complex maladies. Even a stranger choice for being wedged in between one nation in the west falling apart at the seams and another on the east that keeps growing more powerful by the day. Most analysts argue that’s exactly why Pakistan is so “strategic”.
Of late however, the usual arguments to support this claim are not really holding so true.
Domestic issues within the country, be they of peace and security, human rights and justice or economic blood-letting, have taken us far, far down the list of countries with even a bite-size of potential for economic growth or peace-building. This year, Transparency International listed Pakistan 34th on its Corruption Perception Index, up eight places from last years 42nd spot.
The corruption argument aside, the global financial crisis is sending rich countries of the world to those that can make it richer. Pakistan, unfortunately, cannot help in that department, considering we have always been positioning ourselves at the receiving end - flood disasters notwithstanding. Which is why Pakistan did not even warrant a pit-stop on US President Obama’s Asian (read Indian) recent tour. It's as simple as that.
But surely being a “strategic” ally must have some benefits for the country? Apart from the Kerry-Lugar financial settlement, most of which is going to the Pakistani military, they say there cannot be peace in the region without a stable Pakistan.
Most of all, Pakistanis want their country to be stable.
According to the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, suicide bombings, drone attacks and political and sectarian violence have cost the lives of over 3,000 Pakistanis and over 7,000 injuries in 2009 - a figure 48% higher than 2008. These are not casualties of an active war per se, but innocent bystanders, daily wage earners and security guards, women and children. People who leave for work in the morning and just never come back home. In Karachi, just political and sectarian target killings have cost the lives of almost 250 people this year alone.
But while we suffer domestically on a daily basis, this is the exact fuel the world needs to continue their “strategic” support to us. The murders and deaths of hundreds of Pakistani’s (and Afghans) warrants the presence of thousands of troops, international agencies, military resources and aid in Pakistan.
The conclusions one draws from this that if Pakistan were ever stabilized, many people in many countries would be at a loss over what to do next, not to mention out of a job. And so we continue to be “strategic”, “important” and of course, “unstable”, until the next violence-ravaged nation emerges to take the crown.
But where in this cycle of dependency do people like the women of Baluchistan, or the taxi driver in Islamabad come in? In an ideal world, they should be the ones calling the shots, making the decisions, being the watchdogs. But in this world, when the word on the streets is that basic economic survival is now a luxury only the very rich can afford, how can anyone expect them to play any part in turning the tide?
And so sadly, they remain nothing more than key informants in the larger scheme of things.
But this is probably where Pakistan’s biggest strength lies. In a country where almost 80% of the population is a captive audience to self-destruction with no exit strategies, the tide is bound to rise sometime. It remains to be seen whether this will be while Pakistan is still “strategically important” to its “allies”, or when we realize how “strategically important” we are to ourselves.
HUM Contributor Themrise Khan is a Karachi-based writer
Postscript: As I write this, an enormous blast has ripped through Karachi’s financial centre, shaking my own house almost 5 miles away. This is the second such attack in the city in the space of a month, joining hands with the pall of political violence that also pervades the city. This is hardly the “stable” Pakistan that everyone eulogizes about. In situations like this, it is hard to think about the US, India or the Taliban as the culprits. The issue may be international in nature, but the damage is purely domestic. We had better rise now before there isn’t much left of us.