Every few years Pakistanis go through angry phases of self-righteous indignation over the country’s dependence on foreign aid. The ‘Ghairat’ (national honour) lobby, led by Islamist political parties, retired generals and the newly empowered right wing conspiracy theorists serving as television anchors have worked up the nation once again in the “honour is more important than aid” slogan mongering.
Now that the controversy relating to the Kerry-Lugar Bill is de-escalating, it is time to understand the economic and security compulsions that have made us a dependent nation. Since 1947, when soon after independence the father of the nation Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah himself appealed for US aid, each one of Pakistan’s budgets has depended on external flows mainly because our own resources are limited and over-stretched.
Notwithstanding the evolution of our indigenous defence capabilities, much of our military equipment still comes from the US or from China. Pakistan needs aid and no amount of hyper nationalist chest-thumping can change the fact that with huge unavoidable defence expenditure, growing unproductive population and a bloated government we have no option but to seek aid for development.
The ‘Ghairat’ lobby, always eager to mobilize street protests of the “Go America Go” variety, never runs a campaign to get the nation to pay taxes. Ditto for the industrialists and traders that support the various factions of the Pakistan Muslim League and the landowners that are incharge of the Pakistan People’s Party. Few Pakistanis know we have a tax-to-GDP ratio of 8%, even below Ghana, which collects 15% of its GDP as revenue.
It is fashionable to say we will break the proverbial begging bowl (kashkol) and tighten our belts. This is a good populist slogan much beloved of some Urdu columnists. As prime minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif championed this view and became rather popular among middle class urban Pakistanis. He started the National Debt Relief Program with the explicit purpose of raising donations from overseas and rich Pakistanis. Only $178.3 million were collected against the then outstanding national debt of $35 billion. Of this only $28 million was in donations, $1.6 million in Qarz-e-Hasana, and $148 million was in profit bearing deposits. So much for ‘Ghairat’ and hyper nationalism trumping economic realities.
The economies of nations grow through aid, trade, investment and productivity, That is how Japan and Germany overcame the destruction of World War II and South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia all became Asian tigers. Pakistan’s problem has been that we are aid dependent but instead of completing the cycle and moving towards the large scale investment and productivity stage our ‘Ghairat’ makes us abandon and restarts the cycle periodically.
There are national security needs too that dictate our gravitation towards the US but that requires a separate detailed discussion. Suffice it to say that when hyper-nationalists and their Jihadism brought Pakistan to the brink of full-scale war during the unfortunate Kargil episode in 1999, Mian Nawaz Sharif travelled to the United States to seek a bailout. Then, those in the media claiming to speak for the military and intelligence agencies termed his action a “betrayal” only to bow to the US again after the October 1999 coup d’etat.
Once again the PML is talking of foregoing US aid, to “slap the US in its face for insulting language in the Kerry-Lugar Bill” as one PML-N hothead put it on television. Of course, slapping the US on the face means not just losing US aid but also taking a hit in inflows from America’s allies, the IMF, the ADB and the World Bank. With national pride as its main asset, no wonder Sharif’s first government left only $1 billion in foreign exchange reserves in 1993.
Just before he was ousted from power in General Musharraf’s military coup, foreign exchange reserves under Sharif’s second government had fallen to $700 million. The pro-Americanism of Shaukat Aziz and Musharraf might not have brought much satisfaction to Jamaat-e-Islami and pro-Taliban columnists and anchors but by January 2008, Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves stood at $16 billion.
Similarly, President Asif Zardari’s whirlwind foreign tours for mobilizing aid might not please those who speak in the name of national pride and honour on almost daily basis. But they have brought back the foreign reserve position back to $14 billion by September 2009. With the Kerry-Lugar aid money we will be bale to invest more in our social sectors while keeping our current level national security spending intact.
Now that ‘Ghairat’ is being invoked again to try and trip President Zardari over the Kerry-Lugar Bill, we need to review our history and thank God that for most of our history as an independent nation we have pursued realism and not allowed the ‘Ghairat’ chanting to dictate policy. Here is a look at the historic relationship between today’s ‘Ghairat’ lobby and conditional foreign aid:
The Jamaat-e-Islami was too busy opposing the creation of Pakistan to notice that in November 1947 Quaid-e-Azam sent Mir Laik Ali (of Hyderabad Deccan) to Washington to ask for $2 billion in aid from the Americans. Pakistan, however, only received $10 million, only 0.5% of the original request.
The fathers and grandfathers of most of the Pakistan Muslim League leaders (both N and Q) were in Pakistan Muslim League Convention when Field Marshal Ayub Khan secured large amounts of aid to build Pakistan’s Air Force (which saved our neck in 1965), create the agricultural revolution and build huge projects like the Mangla and Tarbela Dams.
All of Ayub’s social and economic achievements were because of American aid, which always brings other aid. Aid from the World Bank and other institutions for many projects including the Indus waters system were amongst the many benefits at that time. Had ‘Ghairat’ trumped aid, we would be short of a lot more than what we face today.
We are lucky that Brigadier Imtiaz Billa and Lt Gen Hamid Gul were still in service and Irfan Siddiqi and Haroonur Rashid had not yet become as influential as they are today during the rule of Ziaul Haq when we got massive amounts of aid enabling us to build huge airports, secure F-16s and covertly build the nuclear programme. Had their slogan mongering of today been national policy in the 1980s even the ISI would not have become the formidable intelligence service it has become because, after all, that all happened because of US assistance.
If ‘Ghairat’ had been such an issue during General Zia’s period then our anchors would have been screaming each time Zia drove himself in his car to meet the American ambassador in complete violation of protocol, as reported in Lt Gen KM Arif’s book. But no one can dare question the patriotism of a coup-making four-star general. It is only civilians who are periodically suspect.
Another recent addition to the ‘Ghairat’ lobby, former ISI chief Lt Gen Javed Ashraf Qazi was happy to be Minister of Railways in Musharraf’s era, gladly spending the money coming in as US aid. He did not bother to read the terms of American aid provided in 2001 and 2007 that included humiliating and insulting certification that Pakistan “had closed all known terrorist camps operating in Pakistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir.”
Azad Kashmir was referred to as Pakistan occupied Kashmir in an American aid bill, under direct military rule with all the current commanders holding senior positions, and no one had problems because aid was more important. In addition US aid legislation required that Pakistan takes “tangible serious and identifiable measures to prohibit and prevent the infiltration of Islamic extremists across the Line of Control (Loc) into India,” implying that the US Congress considered Azad Kashmir as Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Indian occupied Kashmir as India. Again our ‘Ghairat’ lobby had no problems with any of these conditions, partly because the professionals in the foreign office and the army knew that it was not binding nor did it create international law.
The ‘Ghairat’ lobby is going ballistic with the Kerry-Lugar Bill, saying that the Americans want to dictate and control “our army” but the same lobby had no problems when in 2007 US aid was provided only when the American President certified that Pakistan had agreed to “undertake a comprehensive military, legal, economic, and political campaign to” “eliminate” groups like Taliban, al-Qaeda and others and Americans saw proof of the same.
The language of the bill at the time stated that it was necessary that Pakistan “is currently making demonstrated, significant, and sustained progress toward eliminating safe haven or support for terrorists.”
The ‘Ghairat’ lobby sees the Kerry-Lugar Bill as imposing restrictions on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme when all it talks about is any future proliferation, protecting Dr AQ Khan’s shenanigans. However, in 2007 the Americans had said that all licenses under the Arms Export Control Act would be suspended unless Pakistan “satisfied US requests for assistance and information, including whether the US has asked and been granted direct investigatory access to key persons involved in nuclear proliferation network.”
How did our great ‘Ghairat’ lobby eat this humble pie in 2007? Or was it that some realists rightly thought aid was more important than ‘Ghairat’ and are now using the ‘Ghairat’ card simply to destabilize the elected civilian government?
The problem with the Kerry-Lugar Bill is not that it is insulting or an affront to national honour. The problem is that it has come under civilian rule and primarily for civilian purposes. Our military has made the correct decision to get out of politics and stay out of politics but some civilian superhawks want to drag it back in by raising the spectre of threats to national security in the garb of the Kerry-Lugar Bill. The loudest noise against the Kerry-Lugar Bill is coming from those who have wanted Asif Zardari out of the presidency from the day he was elected.
The game is to drive a wedge between the military and civilian leaderships, sow doubts about the patriotism of our elected leaders and their chosen officials and return the country to the point where only a handful of people with right wing political affiliations determine who is a patriot and who is not. And there is no chance whatsoever that even after this government is toppled or some heads rolled in the name of national honour Pakistan will stop seeking aid or that aid will be readily available without some insulting terms. The nation needs to know that it cannot eat ‘ghairat’ but which TV anchor is willing to have an honest debate on that subject?
Sadiq Saleem is a businessman and part-time analyst based in Toronto, Canada.