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July 25, 2008

Counter-terrorism strategy for whom?


July 25, 2008

Perhaps Pakistan does have leadership after all. That would be the optimistic conclusion to draw from Prime Minister Gilani's announcement that the government will be drafting a counter terrorism strategy this week. The PM is a real politician with real stakes in making sure he delivers real outcomes for real people--a surprising novelty in a democracy. We can be almost certain that he is serious in putting together an effective counterterrorism strategy. But the PM is one man, managing a country with three million government employees, 160 million mouths to feed, too many seths and bankers fleeing to Dubai, and a non-existent policy-making apparatus.

Pakistan's efforts to devise a counter terrorism strategy are doomed to the same, slow and painful failure that most other strategies in this country tend to meet with. Producing a counterterrorism strategy will produce no results, if the production process mirrors the past. The inability of the state to produce effective strategies is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in the examples of the Poverty Reduction Strategy, and the National Social Protection Strategy--both of which, seemed like the kind of documents that Pakistan would do well, to do well. Surely reducing poverty and protecting the poor are easy sells. They make political sense, and they would do wonders for Pakistan's "soft image".

What has happened with these two strategies? Let's begin with the poverty reduction strategy programme, or PRSP. In November 2001, Pakistan wrote its first PRSP, largely to fulfill its lenders' requirements. That year the poverty rate in Pakistan was 32.1 per cent. What did the PRSP help Pakistan achieve? In 2005 the government claimed poverty had reduced to 23.9 per cent, ostensibly backed up by an endorsement from those lenders. Soon after those same lenders began to question that endorsement, and confirmed what "outside the loop" economists like Akmal Hussein, and Kaiser Bengali had known all along:

the government claims were exaggerated.

In 2006, the government failed to "update" the PRSP as it was supposed to. The government babus insisted that the new, PRSP 2, focus on economic growth (read: the rich), while the lenders and donors insisted it focus on the poor. Of course, nobody won -- Pakistan still has no updated PRSP 2.

It is now July 2008. The Mahbubul Haq Centre pegs the current poverty level at above 33 per cent. That's right, you guessed it, that's higher than it was in 2001 -- when the state wrote its first Poverty Reduction Strategy.

The net results of Pakistan's poverty reduction strategy? A total gain of 10 million poor people.

The example of social protection is linked to that of poverty. Social protection is a set of instruments used to shield citizens from the vagaries of the economy, and society. They are especially useful in times like this, when food prices reach for the skies. Pakistan has an array of these instruments, including baitul maal, zakat, and programmes like Tawana and Khushaal Pakistan.

In July of 2007, after almost ten years of coddling and cajoling, and millions of dollars from lenders and donors, Pakistan approved a national social protection strategy. The idea was to fix the existing instruments, and to create new ones to benefit the poor. A year later, it is July 2008, and nobody seriously believes that the baitul maal is doing better than it was before the strategy. In fact, the government is auditing several programmes fearing some truth in persistent rumours of corruption. Poor Pakistanis will have to be forgiven for rolling their eyes. They have seen this movie before. They are no closer to being "socially protected" than they were before the strategy. The government is awash in good intentions, but it is running a state drowning in a competence deficit. The newly-announced income support fund has no connection with, and no institutional links to the national social protection strategy. How will the income support fund behave differently from its predecessors? Short answer: It won't, and it can't.

Clearly, strategies to reduce poverty and improve social protection are failed strategies. A similar fate awaits Pakistan's counter terrorism strategy, unless decision-makers recognize why "strategies" in Pakistan fail. Strategies rarely fail because of their content. Instead, they fail because the system that produces them, and tries to implement them, does not work, and in desperation to make it work, decision-makers try to cheat the system. The system cannot be gamed. You cannot fake democratic traditions with speeches. You cannot replace real leadership with imported advisers. You cannot undo the damage of thirty cumulative years of dictatorship with half a dozen meetings in Murree, London and Dubai. In short, the broken system will take a long time to heal. What can be done in the here and now?

In developing counter-terror strategy, the government needs to protect the process from the state's habit of cheating the system. The ownership of the strategy is a good place to start. Most strategies in Pakistan that fail, fail because they are not really Pakistani. Successful Pakistani "strategies" succeed because they are fully owned subsidiaries of the people of Pakistan. They usually don't even get put together very strategically, but they have real power. You can't scare them away, you can't call them names and win, you can't shut them down, or shut them out. Can't think of any? Perhaps Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital, Pakistan's nukes, and the Bhutto family ring a bell?

A strategy owned by Pakistanis would have to be in a language most Pakistanis understand. That would rule out the Queen's English, and it would definitely rule out the embarrassing pseudo-babu English that is not only bad, but badly broken too. Indeed, when it comes to language, a good strategy would not only not be in English, it would almost certainly not be in Delhi Raj Urdu either. If you need a dictionary, it is probably not very 'street'. This is not a case for producing strategies in dozens of regional languages – but it is a call for common sense. If the average Pakistani doesn't understand how his country is going to tackle terror -- she cannot help in the process.

A strategy owned by Pakistanis would have to be authored by people who are connected in some way to ordinary Pakistanis. Simply put, the drafting of a strategy has to be vested in parliament, ideally through bipartisan cooperation, with wide representation. In a democracy, its embarrassing to have to even specify this point -- but it begs repetition, because too often the criteria for choosing a strategy drafting team is whether they can make colourful presentations, in finely tailored suits. Regular MNAs may not be as sophisticated as an articulate and aggressive man holding fort at Agra or in Washington DC -- but they do have real legitimacy. They represent real people. We need not be enamoured by every politician -- but it is certainly not too much to ask that they be accorded the respect that should come with having somehow gotten tens of thousands of real people -- regular folk -- to turn out to vote for them.

A strategy owned by Pakistanis would have to have been produced in a manner that is transparent. A transparent process would represent the greatest tool to counter the rhetorical poison of the agents of intolerance that have hijacked the peaceful religion that, despite all else, remains vital to Pakistan's past, present and future. There are many other important elements that would make a good strategy. Military expertise, bureaucratic buy-in, international support, and big-time financing -- but these are all secondary to the ownership of the strategy. Fixing how Pakistan does strategy has to begin with the principal of primary ownership. Writing sexy strategies that only babus understand may be quick and convenient -- but they don't beat poverty, and they won't win this war. Pakistan has been trying quick and convenient since October 1999 -- clearly, it does not work.

Strategies are defined by having a clear goal to begin with. If the goal is to assuage BBC anchors and the NY Times' editorial board, then it doesn't matter who owns strategy, it will probably be able to achieve the aim of shutting up the questioners (for a time). However, if the goal is to counter terror, to stop those who seek to terrorize ordinary Pakistanis, and to make the world safer, then the way forward is clear: by the people, for the people, of the people. Surely, that's not too alien a concept for Obama and McCain.

The writer is an independent political analyst. Email: [email protected]

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