Transforming Pakistan

What do we do about Pakistan? Because I am a Pakistani-American who recently spent several months there, people in the US are constantly trying to get me to answer that question. One of the most important things I can offer them is a reality check.

I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, but my family moved to Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, in the early 1990s. Those were Karachi’s worst years and constitute my earliest memories of terrorism.

Political and ethnic violence wracked the city, becoming, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan today, an excuse for every type of crime — shootings in mosques, kidnappings, violent break-ins and streetside executions if you belonged to the wrong ethnic group. By 1996, my family gave up on Pakistan and came back to the US. By 1999, Pervez Musharraf gave up on Pakistan and overthrew the government.

Worse than the violence, for a Pakistani-American child, was that Pakistan was boring. As far as I am concerned, Pizza Hut was the only good thing that happened to Pakistan in those years. Prior to that, there was no American fast food in Karachi, let alone malls or highways. You couldn’t even find a decent candy bar.

And as I got older, I grew increasingly irked by the conservatism. Pakistan, I felt, was easily the most closed country in the world — traditional dress was mandatory, girls were either stuck at home or harassed in the streets, and I almost never saw a foreigner.

I never imagined that I would see Pakistan the way I saw it this summer, after a mere 14 years. Karachi today looks like any major, cosmopolitan city — movie theatres, restaurants, and cafes full of boys and girls smoking, in jeans, mingling together.

More women are finishing college and getting jobs, and they have traded traditional baggy salwars for trousers and capris. The city has been aggressively transformed by a mayor so impressively capable that he seems misplaced in a culture of corrupt politicians and broken bureaucracies.

If I sound like a wide-eyed Pakistani-American, it’s because I am. Pakistan today is more open and progressive than Pakistani communities in the US. My parents’ generation in America has worked hard to preserve the Pakistan they left behind in the 1980s.

Pakistani-Americans whisper and shake their heads about the wild parties they hear go on in Pakistan today. It’s true: alcohol, although illegal, is everywhere. And when I celebrated Christmas in Karachi this December, it was a Pakistani-American girl I met there who commented disapprovingly.

Welcome change

This is the change we need in Pakistan, but no US policy or aid programme could have brought it about. The desire that many Pakistanis have for a more open and liberal society, and the local leaders and businesses that are making it possible, are our best bet for stability and security in the region.

More importantly, progress in Pakistan — strengthening economic growth, governance and liberal values — takes years to realise but only a few American airstrikes or Taliban bombings to destroy. American mistakes in the region have been aggravating public sentiments for years and fuelled fundamentalism in the mainstream. In the 1990s, none of my aunts wore burkas. Now, they all do. And Taliban bombings in the cities are leading to a flight of people with means, usually the most progressive and educated, and capital.

How do we harness and support positive trends in Pakistan? If Washington can put good people to work on that question, who will also factor in the limits of American understanding and ground capabilities in Pakistan, they will come to a better question: How can we protect the progress that Pakistanis have already made?

Instead of fixing ‘Af-Pak,’ the best thing America can do for the region is stop it from getting more fouled up than it already is.

So my answer to the question ‘what do we Americans do?’ is to first understand what we have done already: US war policies are inadvertently undermining the social and economic progress that Pakistanis have made over the years.

Finally, we need realistic objectives, which will end up looking more like damage control than the magic bullet against the Taliban that everyone is looking for.

Pakistan is a different story from Afghanistan — it is far more developed and modern. Afghans may not have the ability to lead themselves out of this mess, but Pakistanis do. After all, Pakistanis are the ones who suffer the most when their cities are bombed and their soldiers killed.

If the United States continues to distort the situation through aggressive policy demands, then we are only reinforcing anti-Americanism and the breakdown of Pakistani institutions. What's worse, if US attention remains fixated on narrow measures of military success, Pakistan will become collateral damage of the Afghan war.

(The writer is a former national security aide in the US Senate)

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