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February 22, 2011

Kicking the habit


February 22, 2011

“...thank God that I’m not aware. And thank God that I just don’t care. And I guess I just don’t know. And I guess I just don’t know.” - Heroin by Lou Reed.

Fans say Lou Reed and Velvet Underground never endorsed the use of drugs with the song “Heroin”. Critics say it was a fork-tongued endorsement of the use of narcotics.
In four days, it will be exactly a month since l’affaire Raymond Davis titillated, angered, amused and confounded Pakistan. One month of front-page news, leaks, admissions, submissions and threats flying in a cacophony of self-righteous posturing between two countries that have little to be proud of when it comes to diplomacy in the twenty-first century.
From the White House, to Aabpara, and from Langley to Raiwind – the saga has exposed how utterly unprepared Pakistan and the US are to be in any kind of “strategic dialogue”. Forget nuclear disarmament, peace in South-Asia, or democracy in Afghanistan, the US and Pakistan cannot even agree on what constitutes diplomatic immunity. These are two countries that share an embittered need for co-dependence, despite both countries’ gut instinct telling them to run the other way.
It has become part of convention in Washington DC to constantly invoke Pakistan’s dire fiscal need for US support. It has become convention in Islamabad and Rawalpindi to constantly invoke America’s dire need for land-access to Afghanistan. It does not take rocket science to figure out that neither of these are permanent needs. If Raymond Davis has taught us anything in this past month, it is that all the sugar-coating in the world can’t hide the uncomfortable realities of US-Pakistan relations. Despite the best efforts of champions like John Kerry, Husain Haqqani and others, this has been, remains, and for the foreseeable future, will continue to be a transactional relationship.
The anger and bitterness felt in Pakistan is palpable and real. When some of the smartest and

most incisive commentators in the country label these sentiments with derisive terms like “ghairat brigade” they’re not dealing with the root of the problem, which is a justifiable and necessary sense of autonomy and self-respect that Pakistanis have and must continue to cherish. They’re addressing the cynical and self-serving narrative machine located inside the Pakistani establishment, and peddled by mostly by the radical religious right-wing.
In this back and forth however, it is entirely possible that Lou Reed’s song is about Pakistan, and this country’s habitual ability to tie itself up in knots over issues that are, at best, secondary to the primary structural and existential challenges the country faces.
Pakistan’s total population of unenrolled children between the ages of five and 18, is 40 million. They have been deprived of education for many reasons. But Raymond Davis’ trigger-happy ways are not among them.
The disjoint between the provincial governments and the centre was wide before the 18th amendment, it is increasingly looking like it is becoming wider in its aftermath. There is no viable set of mechanisms or instruments to deal with jurisdictional issues – because the inter-provincial ministry is, for lack of a better term, dedicated to big picture, macro issues. Yet, a lot of the Standard Operating Procedures for making a mooth transition to a post-18th amendment world, simply don’t exist, and where they do, have not been tested.
What is worse, is that the corrective course measures for mistakes or miscalculations, such as too much or too little devolution of administrative, fiscal or political power, are so tortuous and politically fraught, that the likelihood of policy drift is great. Policy drift is what caused Pakistan to take 37 years to “fix” the federal-provincial imbalance. It is what happens when problems are not dealt with, but deferred, and delayed. Evading structural challenges is something the bureaucracy has developed an expertise in. The cost however, has been the correct way of doing things. A heavy cost, indeed.
While we invest reams of newsprint and terabytes of data into meaningless tirades about either the existence or non-existence of Davis’ immunity, Pakistan’s economic chill, has grown into a full-blown infection. “The State of Pakistan’s Economy – First Quarterly Report 2010 - 2011” issued by the State Bank of Pakistan makes for depressing reading.
But nobody reads anymore. It is much more invigorating to be serenaded by the cynicism and anger that constitutes the inner core of news television. The report demonstrates the impossible task of running Pakistan in 2011, stating that: “Being conscious of the spending needs for reconstruction and rehabilitation activities, the government scaled down and re-prioritised spending introducing steep cuts in development spending. However, the potential gains from these measures could only be partially realised due to sharp fall in non-tax revenues during Q1-FY11”. In short, even when the government starts to pull up its socks, it runs into a deeper ravine. Or in very short, the Pakistani state has no money.
This is an issue that Paksitanis of all political persuasions need to think deeply about. There’s no need to get bogged down in politics to think about the fiscal reality of Pakistan. It is a country with an abundant reservoir of national honour, and no ownership of the nation. What is Pakistan supposed to be constructed with? Flaming nationalist rhetoric? Or unerring belief in our status as God’s chosen people? (What will we say to Israel? Sorry cousins, you got there first, but we got here last?).
Patriotism, even when it is infused with a militaristic machismo, is fine. It just has to be consistent. If you feel strongly about national honour, then you should feel even more strongly about the need to feed that beast. Maintaining a nation-state costs money (especially when it is rife with contradictions, and which, by nationalist accounts, is constantly the target of conspiracies). That money doesn’t come from taxes. Because taxes too come from somewhere. That somewhere is economic vigour. Business, trade, commerce, industry, innovation. The hustle. The hard sell. The hunger for more. You can’t wear rags and expected to get into the VIP room at the swanky club.
If Pakistanis want this country to be strong and prosperous, then there has to be some kind of a realistic narrative for that strength. Whether we like it or not, that strength is economic might. The question is not how Pakistan will become an economic powerhouse. That question reeks of unrealistic and fabricated gusto. The real question is, how will Pakistan start thinking about an economic growth story?
The same week as the Davis incident, a group of 25 Pakistani entrepreneurs and businessmen, accompanied by Finance Minister Hafeez Shaikh, were welcomed by the US embassy in Islamabad. They were being honored for being the 2011 Pakistan 25 – globally recognised as the fastest growing companies in Pakistan, according to the All World Network. This, and not Raymond Davis, is where the story of a successful Pakistan will begin.

The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy.

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