Is Obama’s concern justified?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

NOTWITHSTANDING the rumpus created by President Barack Obama`s remarks about the Zardari government being “extremely fragile” the latter observation should provide some food for thought to Pakistanis.

In a damage-control attempt the US special envoy Richard Holbrooke tried to explain off the reports on the president`s statement as being “journalistic garbage, journalistic gobbledygook”.

But whatever Ambassador Holbrooke`s second opinion about the government in Islamabad being a “fine group of people”, one cannot ignore the “grave concern” voiced by his boss, nor the validity of the original remark. Mr Obama clearly said, “The civilian government there right now is very fragile and [doesn`t] seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services, schools, healthcare, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of the people.”

The problem for us is that he is right. If the Americans are perturbed by the failure of the Zardari government to deliver it is clear that this concern is not born out of any innate altruism or sympathy with the millions in Pakistan who live below the poverty line and do not have access to basic facilities that civilised societies take for granted. If Washington is concerned, it is because it knows that a failed government cannot “gain the support and loyalty” of the people.

After years and years of supporting military dictatorships in the country and promoting World Bank formulae that slashed subsidies and hurt the poor, the US has come round to realising that a government must enjoy public support to wage a successful war — especially a war that has to be fought on its own soil against an insidious enemy who mingles with the population and tries to enlist popular support by fair means or foul.

The possibility of Pakistan`s failure in countering the insurgency gives rise to Washington`s next concern. What if Pakistan`s nuclear weapons fall into the hands of the militants? Taliban armed with nukes would pose a mortal danger to the world.

This analysis cannot be disputed. The problem for us is that we do not know how the US plans to address the issue of the “fragility” and “inability” of the government. The US has pumped in massive sums into the country — the latest initiative envisages another $7.5bn over five years. But it now realises that foreign assistance by itself is not enough. It lines a few pockets — in Pakistan as well as in America — and does not always trickle down to the common man to win his loyalty for those at the helm. It is the government in Islamabad that must put the funds to sensible and honest use for the benefit of the common man. Thus alone can he be made to feel he has a stake in the system.

The international media latched on to President Obama`s statement to interpret it as a hint by Washington to work for regime change in Islamabad. Will there be another round of external meddling? We hope not. Is it too much to ask every party leader — including the army chief — to tell Washington, “No thank you, we will resolve our own differences?”

What should be our concern in this debate? While the war is our war too we cannot deny the allegations levelled at the government about its failure to deliver basic services to the people. It should be added that it is not just this government that has failed. Its predecessors performed no better, including the military regimes that have enjoyed Washington`s blessings. Our social and economic statistics speak louder than Mr Obama`s damning words.

The government`s failure to give the people a sense of belonging and create a stake for them in the state is the biggest calamity to have occurred in Pakistan. That would explain the public apathy one witnesses here since the war on terror was launched. It is the same apathy that people display vis-Ã -vis politics and elections. Whoever wins it will make no difference to our life which is so nasty, brutish and short, they say. Many are not on the side of the Taliban but feel whoever takes over would mean nothing for them.

The need is to create an interest in people from all walks of life in this country. Let them feel that this is their own country which will provide them a life of dignity and self-esteem.

Mercifully, there are positive signs of stirring. There are people who feel they have something to lose if the Taliban come. Women fear the loss of the public space they have created after a struggle spanning several decades. The middle classes who have managed to create a comfortable way of life for themselves fear it will be affected by a Taliban takeover. The youth of Pakistan who have achieved something feel vulnerable.

Even religious-minded and orthodox Muslims now fear for the sanctity of their faith. Has there been any consensus on the interpretation of the Sharia? Sufi Mohammad`s interviews now being aired freely on television channels have jolted people causing many to ponder the implications of Talibanism now that it is at our door. But what about the masses?

While it may not be a walkover for the Taliban, the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Pakistanis remains to be won. The need of the hour is to revive the people`s faith in the state.

We have given up hope in the state because represented as it is by the government it has proved unable to perform for the majority. By handing over its responsibilities to the private sector it has only promoted the welfare of a small privileged class. Can the government convince the people that the state will act in the interest of the people?

The state comprises all functionaries of the administration acting collectively. There are among them some who have performed their duty conscientiously and even made an impact in a small way on the lives of the poor. Let this good be institutionalised and expanded and the newly unleashed energy be focused on empowering ordinary Pakistanis so that the process of change can begin.