What if? The eternal question as one ages. What if I had done this instead of that? Would my life have been better or worse, richer or poorer, easier or harder, more loved or less loved? And so on. As for individuals, so for countries and nations. And so for Pakistan, which turns 70 this month.
The official birthday, August 14, will have passed three days before readers see this and two days after it is written. And after 70 years of living dangerously, Pakistanis should have a happy, joyous day of celebration. Yet, I cannot help reflect on the many inflection points that I know in Pakistani history (and I certainly do not know all of them, perhaps even the majority of them), and I am struck by the enormous list of “what if” points at which Pakistani history could have taken a different course.
The same is true for all countries, I presume, but I wonder if in most of these other countries, the number of such inflection points relative to the length of the country’s history are as great? In other words, have other countries missed as many opportunities to set themselves on a healthier path of development as Pakistan has.
But Pakistan perseveres. I have pointed out to my colleagues here in Washington that during the US election of 2008, the primary concern about Pakistan in the think tank community was the perception that it was a failing state. This fear was non-partisan, in the sense that conservative as well as liberal as well as non-partisan think thanks shared this view. I remember well participating at the same time in three different studies of Pakistan, by three different think tanks, designed in each case to influence the incoming administration, and based in each case on the assumption that Pakistan was failing before our eyes.
What if Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had used the opportunity of the devastating loss of East Pakistan in 1971, when the Army had blotted its copybook with the public almost beyond repair, to subordinate it and the other military forces institutionally to civilian control?
By 2016, that concern seemed to have completely disappeared. Yet Pakistan had not changed much in those eight years. The Army was still in charge, and still behind the veritable curtain provided by elected civilian governments and political parties. It still relied on and nurtured proxies to fight its battles against India and protect its interests in Afghanistan. Its economy was still operating well below par and corruption as well as deficient economic policies were ensuring it stayed below par. Energy shortages still plagued industry and the population (though that was getting better). Karachi was much less a volatile battlefield, but still a powder keg. Balochistan was still insurgent. What had failed was our attempt to make Pakistan even a closer ally, to help it through assistance programs to improve its governance and modernize its society and economy. Through this closer embrace, we hoped also to wean it away from dependence on proxies in Afghanistan and India.
It seems we learned, however, that while Pakistan might be not be in imminent danger of failure, it is not in imminent hope of root and branch political and/or economic reform either. In 2016, Pakistan’s political system of joint military-civilian governance and its economic weakness, as related above, continued to obtain. Also after a very rough patch in our relationship, we seem to have learned that Pakistan will not abandon what it perceives as its core national interests, the main one being that India is, was, and will always be the existential enemy, and reflecting this have adjusted our relationship to one that is strictly transactional, which with appropriately lowered expectations makes for more harmonious relationship.
But what about modernization, a more efficient and productive and much less corrupt economic and political system? What about the continual drag away from democracy of joint military-civilian rule? What about the much ballyhooed “youth dividend” that the enormous bulge in the young population could bring, if and only if the economy can grow to produce jobs for them and only if they are educated to the level to make Pakistan competitive in the globalized 21st century? What about the challenges of climate change specific to Pakistan, the melting of the Himalayan glaciers and the potential shortages of water for Pakistan’s productive agricultural sector?
How can Pakistan deal with these almost intractable challenges with its current dysfunctional governance, its continual guerilla warfare between the civilian and military halves of government, the continued threat of military intervention which provides incentive for corrupt civilian governance, its weak and sometimes erratic institutions which sometimes seem to side with the military against the civilian politicians, its undemocratic, dynastic political parties and their zero-sum political behavior, and all the other weaknesses that have characterized Pakistan dysfunction over 70 years.
If I knew the answers, I would provide them. The answers have to come from Pakistanis themselves. Here is where the “what ifs” become interesting. What if Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had used the opportunity of the devastating loss of East Pakistan in 1971, when the Army had blotted its copybook with the public almost beyond repair, to subordinate it and the other military forces institutionally to civilian control? He had the opportunity. He did not use it.
What if President/General Musharraf had not precipitated the constitutional crisis of 2007 and let ripen the agreement on Kashmir that his Foreign Office had worked out? Would not that have opened the way for wider agreements with India and at some point a relaxation of the tensions and the Indo-centricity that has hamstrung Pakistani policy for most of those 70 years. There are many other such “what ifs” though probably none so potentially potent going back to the constitutional debates of the early 1950s.
These “what ifs” didn’t happen. But Pakistani leaders and the public in general have to be alert to their possibility. Some serious breakthrough the present inertia will be necessary. Perhaps the present political crisis will offer some opportunity, who knows. But as the poet wrote, “of my threescore years and ten, twenty will not come again… and since to look at things in bloom, fifty springs are little room.” In other words, Seize the Day.
The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh