Irfan Hussain: Hype and Hysteria over Nothing

By Irfan Hussain
This article appeared in Dawn on October 10, 2009

Surely the Pakistani opponents of the Kerry-Lugar bill are not pretending that we are innocent on all counts? Or has the state of denial penetrated so deeply into their collective psyche that they have erased all memory of the recent past?

 Thanks to the wonders of satellite technology and cable TV, I am able to watch Pakistani news channels here in the UK. However, this is not entirely an unmixed blessing. More often than not, I find myself mesmerised by the sheer inanity of the discussions on my TV screen.


The other evening, I watched our unflappable information minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, being grilled on an Urdu channel about the Kerry-Lugar bill by a popular young anchor. Judging from her shrill tones, one would have thought the Americans were holding a gun to Pakistan’s head, forcing the country to accept their economic assistance. Words like ‘ghairat’ (honour) and ‘waqar’ (dignity) were casually tossed into the discussion. Conspicuous by their absence were ‘poverty,’ ‘illiteracy’ and ‘disease.’


To his credit, Kaira repeatedly and gently pointed out that the bill in question was a piece of American legislation, and Pakistan had no control over its text or terms. Although both the minister and his inquisitor had texts of the bill before them, it seemed they were reading from different hymn sheets.


What the young lady was getting so hysterical about were certain conditions in the bill that could trigger a clampdown on military assistance. Apparently, these same provisions have caused our generals to express their reservations at the recent corps commanders meeting. And they have reverberated loudly in parliament where the controversial bill is being currently debated.


Having gone through these conditions twice, I am still mystified over what the fuss is about. Briefly, arms transfers and military assistance have been tied to an annual certification by the American secretary of state that Pakistan is not supporting terrorist groups attacking targets in neighbouring countries; that we are fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and will act against their leaders when intelligence is provided; that Pakistan will disrupt nuclear proliferation networks; and that our armed forces are not undermining democratic and judicial institutions.


What is fuelling the debate is the perception that these conditions imply that in the past, Pakistan was responsible for nuclear proliferation; did support jihadi outfits that carried out attacks in Afghanistan and India; failed to fight the Taliban effectively; and our army did indeed subvert the democratic process.


Surely the Pakistani opponents of the Kerry-Lugar bill are not pretending that we are innocent on all counts? Or has the state of denial penetrated so deeply into their collective psyche that they have erased all memory of the recent past? The same media that not long ago accused the Americans of bolstering Musharraf by writing him a blank cheque are now going ballistic over the army being held accountable.


I can understand our generals having reservations about these conditions, but why should political parties object to the proviso that military aid could be suspended in case the army meddles in civilian affairs? And for Chaudhry Shujaat, of all people, to complain that the government is selling the country’s honour is pretty rich. Under him, the PML-Q supported Musharraf in all his actions, including his famous U-turn on Afghanistan under American pressure.


No doubt what many in Pakistan would like is a cheque for $1.5bn every year without any questions asked, much as it happened under Musharraf. But the result of this lack of accountability was that there is little to show for the billions that flowed into Pakistan’s coffers after 9/11. Now, American legislators want to monitor where their money goes.


The ongoing debate in Pakistan is mirrored in the blogs and emails zipping through cyber space, with many of them popping up in my inbox. One of them forwarded a recent article by Dr A.Q. Khan, the infamous serial proliferator who confessed publicly to transferring nuclear technology and equipment to Libya, Iran and North Korea.


Freed from house arrest by the courts, he had the gall to write a column about ‘ghairat,’ and how Pakistan sadly lacks this great virtue. I wonder if he sees the irony in somebody who has done so much to besmirch Pakistan’s reputation waxing lyrical about national honour.


What is missing in this entire confused babble is a realisation of where we really stand. By every indicator of economic and social development, Pakistan figures near the bottom of the pile. Violence and population increase are the only two areas we seem to excel at. And yet to hear many in our parliament and media, one would think we are sitting on vast treasures that allow us to say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to Washington.


Another hard reality we do not appear to have grasped yet is that everything required under the military conditions is something we would have to do whether the Kerry Lugar bill becomes operative or not. Should we not be cracking down on the Taliban and sundry jihadi groups? Do we really want to re-open A.Q. Khan’s nuclear bazaar? Do we want terrorist camps to operate in Quetta and Muridke? Do we wish our soil to be used as a launching pad for attacks on our neighbours? Is this really what our ‘ghairat’ is all about?


Barely a year ago, we were scrambling for a cash infusion to pay for essential imports and shore up a collapsing economy. Both Saudi Arabia and China were unwilling to provide the kind of bailout we were so desperate for. Finally, the IMF threw us a lifeline, attached to its usual tough conditionalities. Now that the Americans have come up with a long-term assistance package to an elected government, critics — silent under Musharraf — are raising all kinds of objections. Seldom has a gift horse’s mouth been examined so closely.


Many Pakistanis are suspicious of American intentions towards our nuclear programme. The reality is that while they have a legitimate concern about proliferation, as well as our atomic weapons falling into the wrong hands, Americans have come to terms with Pakistan being a nuclear state.


These same people are concerned that the Kerry-Lugar bill’s certification process would be used as a carrot and stick to ensure that we do not promote cross-border attacks on our neighbours by non-state actors. Finally, those itching for the army to destabilise the elected government resent the possibility of being thwarted in their ambitions by this law.


As a Pakistani, I, for one, would be happy if this bill helps to shore up democratic institutions, and to focus minds in Islamabad and GHQ.

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