When former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said this weekend that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are not safe under President Asif Ali Zardari, he almost certainly did not mean that the nuclear arsenal is not secure. The nuclear weapons have little to do with the civilian government; they are guarded ferociously by the Pakistan Army both against terrorist attacks and any foreign or U.S. attempt to seize them, and, as a matter of pride for Pakistanis chafing at any American suggestions otherwise, safeguarded to international standards.
Rather it was a rhetorical device to attack the government at a rally where Qureshi announced he was joining the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) , the party of former cricket star Imran Khan, a rising force in Pakistani politics. Qureshi’s assertion tapped into growing anti-Americanism, and a populist view that the civilian government led by the Pakistan People’s Party, to which he once belonged, had somehow sold the country’s honour – in this case symbolised by nuclear weapons – in return for American aid. (Pakistan first agreed its uneasy alliance with the United States under former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.)
Yet it is a measure of how distorted and narrow political discourse has become within Pakistan that Qureshi might use the safety of nuclear weapons to attack the government. That political discourse, difficult even at the best of times, is likely to become even narrower in the fury which has followed the NATO airstrikes which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the border with Afghanistan on Saturday.
The attack, which Pakistan says was unprovoked and NATO described as a “tragic, unintended incident”, has outraged Pakistanis who have already endured thousands of casualties in a war they believe was forced on them by the United States.
Underneath the confusion about the aims and course of the Afghan war, lies a deep sense of hurt that Pakistani lives are somehow less valued than American lives, and a painful loss of pride over the country’s inability to defend its territory from attacks by a foreign, and apparently hostile, power – whether from airstrikes, drones, or even the May raid by U.S. forces who killed Osama bin Laden.
The result is a society which is being shaped by the Afghan war in ways which neither Pakistan’s neighbours, nor western powers, would choose. The airstrikes, coming soon after the forced resignation of Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani for allegedly seeking American help to curb the power of the military, have added fresh oxygen to a combustible mix of anti-Americanism and religious nationalism enveloping Pakistan. Haqqani denies the allegation, but the so-called “Memogate” scandal has badly weakened the civilian government, while the airstrikes have rallied the country behind the army.
In such an environment, there is little room for a discourse that might suggest Pakistanis should also be outraged at the deaths of civilians blown up by suicide bombers sent by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and therefore discuss ways to turn decisively against Islamist militants. Nor is there space for a realistic political debate on how Pakistan should manage its foreign relations that goes beyond a hatred of America and an illusory faith in China’s readiness to ride to the rescue.
Before the latest crisis, the government had been pushing through legislative reforms to help democracy take root in Pakistan. It is difficult to see these making much more progress now as the government fights for survival. The tedious mechanics of documenting the economy, as a first step towards increasing the tax base and raising revenues, dropped off the political agenda long ago.
Expectations that the civilian government could become the first in Pakistan’s history to complete its term and be replaced by another democratically elected government are being lowered by the day as the politicians descend into the kind of internecine feuds typical of the 1990s. That decade ended in Musharraf’s military coup in 1999.
The next casualty of the rising tide of nationalism could well be Pakistan’s warming ties with India – one of the few relationships in the region that until now had been going well. The civilian government had eased itself into the driving seat in pushing for improved trade relations with India, though no one would suggest that it made the progress it did without the approval of the Pakistan Army. It has a particular interest in better ties with India - the army has drawn its power from a perceived need to defend the country against an Indian threat, contributing to Pakistan’s civilian-military imbalance.
So when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani joined each other in early April to watch the Pakistan-India cricket semi-final in the town of Mohali, they discussed a Pakistani appeal that India drop its opposition to an EU duty waiver on Pakistani textiles exports. By the end of April, it was becoming clear that improved trade ties could be a game-changer. (Pakistan had earlier resisted improving trade without first settling the Kashmir dispute.) By early November, New Delhi agreed to the EU duty waiver and, more significantly, Pakistan granted Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India.
That mood has changed. Reports have begun to surface in the Pakistani media that the army has reservations about granting MFN status to India. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the humanitarian wing of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, and an organisation close to the military, has launched protests against granting India MFN status, saying that the Kashmir dispute must be settled first.
After the NATO airstrikes, a JuD protest to mourn the Pakistani soldiers killed turned quickly into a protest against improved trade ties with India. While the government may yet be able to push ahead with its India agenda – albeit on a very tight military leash – the signs are not looking good.
Progress in relations with India had become – quite unexpectedly – one of the few release valves left to ease off the pressures building up within Pakistan. On its western border, the United States and its allies are pushing ahead with an agenda in Afghanistan which has already integrated the possibility there will be no early peace settlement with Afghan insurgents - an idea long sought by Pakistan. And while Pakistan won some initial sympathy from foreign governments over the NATO airstrikes, its decision to boycott next week’s international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, will - at least symbolically – highlight its isolation. It is beginning to look like a country turning in on itself in dangerous ways.
We have always known there was a risk that Pakistan could become to Afghanistan what Cambodia was to Vietnam - a country horribly destabilised by an American war spilling across its borders. We are not there yet. Perhaps those who say all will be well when the United States leaves the region will prove right – American influence for decades has tended to be toxic to Pakistan.