A jilted lover is wooed again by America

“Some view the US-Pakistan relationship as a temporary marriage of convenience,” Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote in an op-ed published in two Pakistani newspapers during his latest visit to the region. But, he sought to assure sceptical Pakistanis, “Our partnership is for the long term.”

Most Pakistanis’ response will be this: What worth do words last, when they so easily perish? Pakistan is the burnt child, made timid from previously dashed hopes, certain that the nuclear capability that it developed as a response to India’s own nuclear programme will someday be the cause for America declaring it an enemy state.

Washington has previously forgiven Pakistan’s failures in democracy whenever forgiveness served short-term American purposes – say, while enlisting Pakistan’s help in wars in Afghanistan against communists or terrorists, or while maintaining Pakistan as a cold war bulwark while neighbouring India aligned itself with the Soviet Union. But whenever the American need for Pakistan has been less urgent, congressmen and lobbyists punish Pakistan through neglect or ponderous sanctions.

The Bush administration has taken a pummelling for its simplistic moral clarity, and deservedly so. But when it comes to Pakistan, it is infinitely suppler in its moral discernment than many sanctimonious American critics of its South Asian policy.

It is easy to say that Pakistan must be punished for its rogue intelligence agents and generals who have allegedly supported Al Qaeda secretly or for its rogue scientists who have shared nuclear technology with leaders of other nations. It’s too easy to say that American aid should be pulled back due to Pakistan’s slowness in making democracy work. It’s too easy to demand that Pakistan’s military president be “pushed” to enact political reforms more quickly.

Navigating a consistent course of American action is difficult, because Pakistan is where easy answers go to die. But Powell is right to say that now is the time to bring a consistent pragmatism in forging a productive relationship with Pakistan – an insecure nation sporting some 50 nuclear weapons and a Rolodex filled with the names of would-be Osamas who want to prove they care about it more than America does.

Poverty claims nearly half of Pakistan’s 150 million citizens, and religious extremism has its own claim. Pakistan’s own leaders balance noble goals with a corrupted government machinery and hard-core religious elements. General Pervez Musharraf made power-sharing compromises in December that should have earned applause both from religious parties and pro-democracy forces – but for his trouble he endured two assassination attempts in rapid succession.

Granted, Musharraf should be prodded to deliver on his goals of reform, but he must not be pushed to his doom by zealous congressmen.

Furthermore, Americans must recognise the difference between aiding a citizenry and aiding a particular regime. Sanctions against Pakistan failed to deter its leaders from developing nuclear weapons in the 1990s, but did help destroy the future of millions of children. Ongoing congressional threats to pull billions in promised American aid if Musharraf doesn’t jump high enough are just as damaging. Pakistan’s swords must be pounded into ploughshares, and this will happen when funding allows its religious madrasas to become true educational institutions. This takes development money, unfettered by politics.

Since Musharraf led a military coup in 1999, he has disappointed some Western observers by seeming to cling to power longer than may be necessary; but he recently announced he’ll vacate the headship of the military by the end of 2004. He has been walking his own tightrope, modelling moderation and secularisation, pushing back extremists as much as possible without triggering a reactionary torrent, easing the country onto a surer path to effective democracy, and even exploring the possibility of relations with Israel. His reward should be sufficiently consistent support to make it worth his while to stay aligned with Washington while dodging assassins’ bullets.

Finally, the entire world community must help Pakistan and India to balance legitimate differences with common economic goals. Both hover at the border between disaster and prosperity, both are astoundingly rich in intellectual capital and cultural heritage, and both are hemmed in by poverty and mutual dislike. But their short-term safety and the world’s long-term well-being demand nothing less than the kind of attention given to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Iraq isn’t the future of political Islam: Pakistan is. Created 56 years ago as an explicitly Muslim nation, Pakistan is a microcosm of modern Islam, an untapped gold mine, an atomic mix of moderation and fanaticism, a hotbed of Muslim frustration – and above all, a more important laboratory for 21st century Islam than any other country. If Pakistan moves forward, so too will the world. It’s time it were given a sustained push in the right direction.

The writer is an independent Pakistani-American journalist who lives in Los Angeles. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

This article article originally appeared in the Wednesday, April 7, 2004 edition of the Jordan Times. It is used here with permission.

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