Building a New Democracy in Pakistan
In 2008, the people of Pakistan were successful in their struggle for democracy, even though we lost our leader, Benazir Bhutto, in the campaign against terrorism and extremism, as she bravely led the way to representative government.
As I fielded the rush of global messages condoling her death, I will never forget that the highest number came from the U.S. Congress extolling her lifelong, courageous fight, remembering her as an iconic champion for democracy.
Since then, we in Pakistan have traveled a long road on an arduous journey. Yet in the next six months, Pakistan will make history by going to the polls for the first peaceful and constitutional transfer of power in our 65-year history. This is only the beginning. As we are reminded every day on our streets and in our villages, achieving democracy is one thing; making it work is quite another. Even after two centuries of practice, the Congress is still accused of not delivering or listening to the people who elected it. It is no surprise that the democratic system in Pakistan is subject to stringent criticism as it evolves and protects institutions such as a nonpartisan electoral system, a president who devolves his powers to parliament, a federal government that passes power on to the provinces and a free, independent media that holds everyone accountable.
Behind the conflict-ridden headlines in the U.S., Pakistan’s democratic accomplishments are often forgotten. Apart from addressing longstanding constitutional and political issues that threatened the federation, the democratic government has taken full ownership of the fight against terrorism and given the people of Pakistan a stake in it. In an historic joint session, the parliament unanimously adopted a resolution condemning terrorism. Soon after, with the full support and force of the government and people of Pakistan, our military forces went into Swat, and subsequently into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), to flush out terrorists.
Although we paid a bruising price, as hundreds of thousands of our people were dislocated, the results have been acknowledged everywhere as impressive. Swat was cleansed of terrorists after a hard, bloody military operation. But many of the terrorists took refuge across the porous border in Afghanistan. Today they return to target innocent young schoolchildren like Malala Yusufzai, or to shoot at our military and police. Despite these challenges, we continued the fight and took it to FATA.
I am aware that Congress has a mixed view of Pakistan’s contributions and sacrifices against terrorism. The fact, however, remains that substantive progress in this area was made during the tenure of the democratic government, and as we speak, 145,000 of our soldiers are stationed in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan to fight a battle the world may soon forget about and walk away from. I appreciate U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson’s words that al Qaeda has largely been eliminated in the region due to joint Pak-U.S. efforts, and hope that this will trigger a more meaningful conversation on ending U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. They reverse the gains we have made in this relationship, and position the battle against terrorism as a sole U.S. endeavor, stripping it of the public ownership we work so hard to build. In the key battle for “hearts and minds,” the drone campaign has now become counterproductive to U.S. strategic interests.
I am deeply aware of the concern of members of the Congress about U.S. casualties in Afghanistan attributed to IEDs. The situation in Pakistan’s parliament is similar. We have suffered 15,851, 43 percent of all casualties in the past four years, just on account of IEDs. We, therefore, identify with the U.S. on this issue. Only one-tenth of 1 percent of calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN) produced in Pakistan as fertilizer is allegedly smuggled across the porous and extremely hard-to-police Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Pakistan is, therefore, effectively monitoring 99.9 percent of its production, while still waiting for matching interdiction on the other side. Nevertheless, we are still determined to keep our shoulder to this wheel and stop that leakage too. In the last meeting of the joint Pakistan-U.S. working group on law enforcement and counter-terrorism, held in D.C. in October 2012, the two sides discussed ways of strengthening coordination and communication; enhancing enforcement of existing laws on the transport and storage of IED precursors; disrupting financial flows that support these networks; and broadening interdiction dragnets. The U.S. State Department will testify to much of the significant progress that has been made.
The democratic government is also leading Pakistan through a regional policy pivot in South Asia. Legitimately concerned about its own security, under President Zardari’s specific initiatives, Islamabad is determined to send clear signals that bolster the security of others. It is, therefore, reaching out to all countries in the region, reassessing its own strategy and hoping to foster peace among others. Specifically, Pakistan is proactively moving ahead to build confidence based on opening sustained trade and dialogue spigots with our immediate neighbors, Afghanistan and India.
In the case of Afghanistan, as it makes an important security and political transition, we are working with the United States to facilitate an Afghan-owned and -led reconciliation process. Even at the lowest ebb of Pakistan-U.S. relations earlier this year, we made a conscious effort to shield the Pakistan-Afghanistan-United States trilateral process from adverse impact.
Despite progress on many fronts, we continue to face challenges at home. Democratic gains must be consolidated, and regardless of high global oil and food prices, we have to begin making a positive and visible impact on the quality of life of the ordinary Pakistani. Above all, the fight against terrorism must continue to be waged and won. Since we signed up to fight this battle, 46,000 civilians and soldiers have been martyred in the blowback. It is now our battle.
US friendship and support are essential in these endeavors. We certainly appreciate U.S. assistance to Pakistan in all its manifestations, even though the promised legislation on ROZs never materialized. And we realize that the long-term solution to our difficulties lies in enhanced trade, not aid.
As we turn the bend in our relations to a better space, and five bilateral working groups conclude productive sessions, we seek greater market access to the U.S. As has been reported by U.S. think tank studies, the impact of greater market access to Pakistan on U.S. jobs will be negligible. The economic impact on our side will be incalculable. It will spur economic activity, generate employment, give the country’s enormous youth cohort an avenue to earn a living, and above all, give ordinary Pakistanis a stake in an enduring Pakistan-U.S. relationship. The U.S. Congress has a leading role to play in this effort.
Sherry Rehman is Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States