Pakistan – Taking a break from crisis?


The Henry Jackson Society was pleased to host a discussion with Ammara Durrani, a noted journalist and Pakistani Public Diplomacy official. Ms. Durrani gave an in-depth analysis of the performance over the past two years of Pakistan’s new democratic government.  She highlighted the array of challenges to the strength and validity of Pakistan’s new narrative and emphasised the contrast between the nation’s contemporary experience and its historical state of crisis. Ms Durrani also relayed sense of the severity of the challenges confronting Pakistan government, and spoke about what the future may hold for the country.


Pakistan has laboured between military regimes and corrupt democratic political governments. It has a rising incidence of poverty and unemployment. It is armed with dangerous weapons and of late it has been at the centre of the world conflict against terrorism. It is the epicentre of producing a wave of extremist violence that we are pitched against. It has journeyed slowly towards a state of crisis. It was just a couple years ago when internationally Pakistan’s name started being associated with words like crisis, failed state with words like the most dangerous place on earth. And that was a crunch time for Pakistan. It was a time when many of the political, economic security and social problems. Problems that had been bubbling under the surface converged inside Pakistan. Before that there were two perceptions about Pakistan – one that its people had about their own country and one that the international community had about Pakistan. And just about two years ago there was a convergence of these two opinions about the country that something had terribly gone wrong in Pakistan and it was on the verge of breakdown. Around 2007-2008 is the time when certain radical changes in the domestic politics of country occurred, which then set a process of development going. This has directly tackled its crisis state and has set in motion a chain of events whereby ‘crisis’ is now being seen in a different context, where things are relatively calmer, more problematic than crisis. And I want to look at what was the state just a few years ago, what were the features of that crisis state, and how perhaps in the last two years, the new democratic government has taken the deliberate and very bold policy measures to tackle the crisis head on in order to create a breathing space inside the country whereby the chronic problems remain but the immediacy of the situation is tackled before long-term policy interventions are made.

Just a couple of years ago, if I were to identify the major challenges that Pakistan faced on the eve of 2008, which is incidentally a time when Benazir Bhutto, the most popular leader of Pakistan was assassinated. And by the way that assassination culminated in a series of events which led to that radical change in Pakistan. General Musharraf had been in power for 9 years and there was a militarization of the state structure. Democratic constitution had been largely tampered with and democratic institutions had been made ineffective. And there was a very strong opinion in Pakistan that democracy, as a political system in Pakistan had suffered irreversible damages because of the military interventions. And Pakistan was serving as a frontline ally in 2007-2008 in the War on Terror, but it was a role that somehow had gone terribly wrong. Military operations were going on in the tribal areas, but the Talib was increasing, and the settled areas in the Northern frontier province were now being taken over by radical Islamists, and the death toll was rising, the wave of terror was extending itself to major cities of Pakistan and there was a very distinct realization that the society as a whole was becoming a part of the violence. While in the heart of the Pakistani capital we had a big mosque and a seminary that the government had to take a military operation against because they were an extremist holdout. And that was like a wake-up call for everybody how deeply entrenched and how widespread the problem of the Talib organization had become in Pakistan. Besides the War on terror, the security that I mentioned and the militarization at stake, Pakistan was suffering from serious economic troubles; unemployment, inflation, poverty and a serious breakdown of the federal structure, a serious conflict between the federation and its units; the provinces, particularly in the Baluchistan province which is also home to an insurgency now, the separatist Movement. General Musharraf’s measures against that province’s work were having increasing unpopularity. There was crackdown on the media, with an emergency hold. The judiciary was shackled; major political parties were in exile. That was a sense of when Pakistanis also felt that something was deeply wrong, and at the same time, the international development of Pakistan becoming a failed state, of Pakistan becoming a crisis state started to register on the Pakistani mindset also. We then had Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and the 2008 elections which bought in the new democratic government. And when the government was elected there was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of lack of trust in the new political setup that it would not be able to overcome the multiple crises that the country was facing, and that the Taliban would eventually overtake the country and its nuclear arms and “the sky would fall down on Pakistan”, to quote our Chief justice recently. However, that has not happened yet, and there are specific reasons for that. When the democratic government came into power, I feel personally, it wanted for itself a philosophised strategy that acknowledged the multiple crises, acknowledged them as crises, rather than be in denial, and then immediately one after the other, it tackled them head-on in order to manage them, with some hard, very unpopular decisions. The attempt was to bring some standards of chaotic normalcy before further structural policy interventions can be made to correct in the long run what is wrong with Pakistan.

And I would like to identify some of the major actions that the government took, which have eventually allowed it that breathing space to undertake further work. The first two crises that the government immediately tackled were the war on Terror, the extremes that the Taliban had taken over Swat and Malakand and the economic meltdown. And so the government was able to negotiate a bailout programme with IMF, and avert the default that was very eminent, and the government was able to very creatively forge a political and public consensus against the Taliban, which by the way had been missing in the previous government. We have been undertaking military operations in the area since 2004, but public opinion and media opinion remained sympathetic to the Taliban, and it was not until 2008 and 2009 with the Swat and  Malakand  crisis that the government actively got down to creating a political consensus by taking parliamentarians into confidence first and then mobilizing the media and the public who forged a consensus against the Taliban before undertaking the military operations in Swat and  Malakand which has been a huge success story, which further paved way for sustained operations in the tribal areas which continue. So that has been a major, immediate action that the government undertook seriously and that mitigated the immediacy of the Taliban crisis in Pakistan.

And once a semblance security, a semblance of relative peace was secured, then the government got down to constitutional reforms and two months ago the passing of the 18th amendment in the Pakistani constitution, which interestingly hasn’t really been picked up by the international media. It hasn’t really been a subject of international analysis. It’s a historic amendment which really rejects further military coups in Pakistan, which gives unprecedented powers to the office of the Prime Minister, and which narrows down the role of the Office of the President. And it’s done to a political consensus of all the democratic parties in Pakistan. The reason why Pakistan has become a problematic country, which eventually led to the state of crisis, was because of the frequent military coups that have occurred in Pakistan, it was because of unelected governments which pursued their own interests and denied public representation in their issues. This is something which has resulted in the growth of extremism in the country and the economic problems that the state faced and the political breakdown that the state faced. See that’s the constitutional and structural intervention that the government has undertaken. And then the government has also undertaken several confidence-building measures with the provinces, particularly Balochistan which has been particularly alienated. There is a firm belief that unless that alienation is eliminated, Balochistan would become a major problem for Pakistan. Not the last, from the law and order and security perspective. So these practical measures, which have actually been undertaken with some long-term policy interests, have now created a time in Pakistan where some commentators in Pakistan are beginning to acknowledge that the state of the crisis is perhaps a few steps behind us now. Pakistan is beginning to take baby steps away from that state of crisis towards chaotic normalcy. It is still not a boring country; a lot is happening. But we are moving from crisis to addressing chronic problems. The country has serious problems, but they’re chronic, and there’s a difference between the existences of a state of crisis and there being chronic problems.

I want to quote two events which actually happened just before I was coming to the UK and they have been back to back last week. We had an attack in Lahore, a major city in the Punjab province, the most populous province of Pakistan, a suicide attack on a minority community in Pakistan – the Ahmadi community that killed nearly 90 people and injured several. This is a community which historically has been ostracized in Pakistan. Pakistan has several minority groups but this is a community which has been ostracized, particularly because its founding father questioned the prophet-hood of Mohammed, the holy prophet, and so this group has been marginalized, as they don’t have the constitutional right to vote. They can live in Pakistan, but they can’t vote. It is unprecedented that a suicide bomber chose the Ahmadi community, which is a very quiet, keeping-to-itself community, for its target in Punjab. And that actually creates an interesting new twist to the ongoing war against terror in Pakistan. Despite the tragedy of the attack, and by the way the attacks continue in Pakistan. It has become an every-day occurrence, though now with frequent intervals, despite the tragedy of the situation, what was new about this particular incident was that for the first time in Pakistan, there was a public outcry against an act of violence against this particular community. And had this happened five years ago, people would not have been coming out with sentiments of support and sympathy for the Hamada community, such as those from the Religious Alliance in Pakistan. But the fact that Pakistan has been suffering from the effects of terrorism, and that the majority group of Muslims have lost so many people, there is now a public anger against these people.

There is now a definitive public anger against these people who are targeting Pakistani citizens. And despite the fact that a lot of political leaders shied away from openly coming out in support of the Hamada community, the public opinion was, for me as a scholar of Pakistan, refreshing that we have matured so much in our opinions and our tolerance. That maturity has a lot to do with how far we have gotten in the war on terror. That we’re beginning to acknowledge minorities as our citizens and that actual terrorist violence against any community, regardless of their religion or creed, is unacceptable to the Pakistani people. That’s the silver lining for me on the dark clouds that hover over Pakistan.

And then last week, the government presented its third budget, and it had a bit of good news; the economic reform plan that the government has been implementing in Pakistan, which has been deliberately kept stark and modest and cautious, is beginning to yield results. For the first time in years Pakistan has reported an increase in its GDP rate. We were expecting a 3.3% increase and last week the new Finance Minister announced that Pakistan has actually experienced a growth of 4.1%. So these are little isolated happenings which indicate that things are slowly changing in Pakistan. And for us, while people in Pakistan are beginning to sense that they are moving in a direction, they are asking themselves the questions, what type of Pakistan do we want for ourselves, what is our identity, what direction are we moving in? This is a newfound impromptu conversation that has perhaps not really gone out, and Pakistan continues to be perceived as a crisis state. So my question to myself, and which I would also want to put forward to this forum is this; we feel that we our breaking away from a state of crisis, and we want to have a conversation with our external audiences as to how they perceive the issue. We want to know whether they are aware of these seemingly disconnected, but really firmly linked developments that indicate that Pakistan is moving in a new direction. What is the precise form, and do we have the terminology for this new direction? We’re not there yet. But we are starting from a point of departure.

With regards to the movement of terrorists from Pakistan to the West, for example the arrest in Manchester last year and the Times Square bomb earlier on this year, in America, and the idea that there is a ‘tidal wave’ of public opinion that there is an international conspiracy against Pakistan, I beg to disagree, because of my own reading of the public opinion. I have monitored expressions on the Times Square Bomber especially, and I can say that there is a division of opinion now in Pakistan. There is no monolith opinion on Pakistani suspects who are arrested on terrorism charges. A predominate, and immediate reaction after the arrest was that of embarrassment, and worry, that, “Oh no, here goes another one.” The idea that the harder we try and no matter how much we try, there is somebody who gets arrested, and that brings a bad name to Pakistan. And in this shade of opinion, I don’t see the thread of blaming the West. It’s a very personal, internal conversation that a big chunk of Pakistanis are asking among themselves. People are questioning why a lot of people from Pakistan are at the centre of this? Why is it just Pakistanis? Of course there is no majority of opinion on this. For instance, an Uncle of Faisal Shahzad was quoted as saying “If you continue to throw the darts in the Pashtun belt, it’s bound to have that result.” Now that has little to do with conspiracy and a lot to do with the actual situation on the ground in that part of the world. I think that we are moving slowly but surely away from the conspiracy mindset, and people in Pakistan are generally beginning to question the situation based on information, based on facts that we are getting, not just from the Pakistani media, but also from the international media. It’s a free media environment now where people have access to multiple sources of information, and they’re putting pieces together and they’re coming up with a different perspective. It’s not just newspapers; the current media trend is live television, mostly in Urdu. It is live television coverage, full of commentary, full of analysis. It is interesting; however I would acknowledge that a lot of the influential anchorpersons in mainstream in Pakistani media still tend to use the conspiracy angle. But it is also interesting to see how the common people are beginning to tire of the conspiracy argument which seems to be running its course now, because they are seeing and getting information from other sources, and they are beginning to have their own analysis. I would be cautious. I would say that there is now a variety of public opinion in Pakistan, but it is moving away from the conspiracy theory. Many influential columnists, as well as many ordinary young people, blogging and on Facebook and Twitter, keep asking “how long will we continue to blame the West for our problems?” and how long we will keep ascribing to conspiracy theories. And that’s a new conversation.

With regards to the international community, and how it can engage Pakistan, I was at a conference during this trip, where a very prominent British media specialist commented that, a major part of Pakistan’s problem is that Pakistan’s friends are primarily responsible for the negative label that Pakistan has had for the last years. It is precisely Pakistan’s friends, who are engaging with Pakistan on issues that affect it, but who also perpetuate Pakistan’s image as a constantly chaotic country, because it serves their interests, whatever they may be. And that’s precisely my point. Instead of engaging Pakistan on the same old issues, instead of asking Pakistan the same old questions, if the international community, and especially Pakistan’s friends could start engaging Pakistan from a fresh approach – acknowledge the new developments that are taking place, acknowledge the things that Pakistan is trying to do for itself, and come up with collaborative initiatives, with fresh mind, that could help Pakistan. That’s precisely the kind of help that we need. Pakistan needs foreign investment to improve its economy. Pakistan needs international support to bring about the very necessary developments and changes that its mid-population requires. Pakistan needs that sort of diplomatic and security support and assistance, in order to tackle a problem which is global. But it has to be a dialogued engagement. It has to be understood that Pakistan is creating a narrative for itself; it has a game-plan of its own. It wants to engage the international community, addressing the international community’s concerns. But there is a perspective, a uniquely indigenous Pakistani perspective that the Pakistani people are dying to articulate. And if there are listeners, the Pakistani people would want to tell their perspective to the world. So if we could have a new discourse where Pakistan is given the chance to say something for themselves now before we move forward, before we come up with new strategies to address Pakistan’s solutions, that would help Pakistan.

The subject of military relations – that is a subject of endless interest in Pakistan, particularly for the Pakistani people because of the history that this country has. I think that many lessons have been learned as a result of what happened in 2007-2008, and many of these lessons have been learned by the military itself. Today, the biggest indicator for any actor and any political actor in Pakistan and that actor’s survival is what the people think about it. The public opinion about any political actor – whether it’s the government, whether it’s the political opposition, whether it’s the judiciary, or whether it’s the military. And the current leadership of the Pakistani military has gone out of its way to send a clear-cut message that it really cares what the public thinks about the military’s image in Pakistan, and there is a lesson learned that it wants to do its real job, which is security in the country, and not meddling in politics. And that has helped the civilian government. There are structural tensions, especially when it comes to the operational side of the war on terror. For instance, earlier when the government started its work there was an attempt to bring them under civilian control. And that was resisted by the military, and the government eventually had to give in. But I think we’ve reached a point of functional co-existence, where both actors – the civilian government and the military, have chosen for themselves the rules, through consultation and through tactical understanding, and they want to stick to those rules. And there are reforms within the military – though a lot of the times they’re not in the public eye. Yes there are elements within the military, there are problems, but there are efforts to professionalize the military, and to purge it of elements which have historically not exactly played a constructive role. I would to some extent say it’s a functional co-existence now, where both sides know what they’re roles are, and they’re trying very hard to keep the system approach, to let the democratic system work while the security objectives are met.

Concerning the passing of the 18th Amendment, because the 18th amendment has been brought about as a result of unanimous consensus by all the political parties of Pakistan, really that’s popular public will. And like I said, for every political actor in Pakistan, military included, and particularly the military, public opinion and public sentiment is now the primary concern. So if there is an 18th amendment that has passed through such a massive public support and public representation, then it has been accepted. There is minimal conversation, there are no tensions, but it has sent out a very strong message. That actually complements what the military has already made public – that it is not interested in meddling in politics any more.

The new actor which has created a new dimension to the power tussle within the Pakistani structure is not the military; it’s the judiciary – the newly independent, very independent, not impartial judiciary. The government is clearly at the moment in a very obvious conflict between the judiciary and the executive. There is a currently a raging debate in the country about judicial activism and the parameters, the limits of executive power and the limits of judicial intervention. And there are all kinds of scary scenarios we created in the case of an eventual conflict, if the judiciary takes an extreme step. In this case, in Pakistan’s case, there are a few cases that the political leadership of the ruling party is facing that could remove the president’s immunity. If that conflict comes to a boiling point, then the third actor, in this case the military would have to intervene. Now this is a scenario which some partisan commentators are bringing up from time to time. The military is being pitched as an actor in the government-judiciary tussle. And that’s the wild card. In case of a civil-military conflict, which by the way doesn’t look apparent, the judiciary would be the wild card. But in case of a government-judiciary conflict, which is very eminent, the military would be wild card. So that’s the thing to look out for, and this is a new twist in Pakistani politics.
In terms of the participation of women in Pakistani media, it is not true that there are no women in Pakistani media – quite the opposite I’d say. In fact, from my days as a journalist which was 6 or 7 years ago, and since then, there has been a tremendous increase in the sheer numbers of women journalists who have entered the workforce – especially in television media; it’s just the name of the game right now. I know that there are women camera operators; I know that there are women reporters, there are women anchors. Women have in fact tended to hold editorial posts, and senior editorial posts at that. Pakistan is one of those few countries in the region which can actually boast of women editors of major English-language newspapers in Pakistan. Our former ambassador to the US and the UK, was formerly an editor before she became an ambassador. Two of Pakistan’s leading English language news magazines are edited by women, so women have traditionally been holding very influential positions as magazine editors. Yes, the numbers of women are few for reporting hard stories. And that’s understandable for the context of cultural and social factors that Pakistan is made up of. Particularly it is true that we have few women who have covered foreign leads, we have few women who have been foreign correspondents and we have few women who have covered disaster spots in Pakistan. There is however an exception. When the 2005 earthquake struck Kashmir and some parts of the Northern frontier province in Pakistan, a lot of women reporters went out and covered that disaster. And since then, Pakistan has had a number of disasters in terms of flash floods and other earthquakes, and women reporters are there. I would say that there are women print correspondents who cover foreign and security issues but they are just a handful. So the perception is not true that there aren’t any women in Pakistan’s media. There are some very prominent anchor-persons right now who are women moving in Pakistan, and they’re certainly getting there.

With regards to the fiery anchor-persons in Pakistan who want a certain kind of public opinion in Pakistan which is actually their opinion. And this is something that we quibbled with at the information ministry on a daily basis. I think that after the first few years our fascination with 24-hour television and live coverage and entertaining talk-shows, we’ve reached a level, a certain fatigue level amongst our audiences where people are beginning to decipher between anchorpersons. People are beginning to decipher that this is an anchorperson who supports a particular viewpoint, because of his linkages with X or Y or Z political actor. Certainly there was a recent case study of a very prominent news anchor coming under the microspore for his alleged links with the Taliban. There is now a shift, where journalists are beginning to feel the pinch of public scrutiny and public evaluation of their performance. And that is precisely what we want. As a democratic government, we can’t impose restrictions on how the media behaves. This government particularly is very cautious, very afraid of taking any measure which may be construed as a clampdown on media freedoms, because in today’s Pakistan there is now an understood principle that if you tackle the media’s freedoms, it means that democracy is gone. So this government has been very careful, especially when they started military operations in Swat and Malakand. We had a huge challenge in front of us – how to bring the media onto the same page as others in terms of security interests. We actively encouraged them that they should have their own code of conduct rather than us handing down a code of conduct, and they warmed towards that. So we feel that is something that the media itself has to tackle. A democratic government cannot tell the media how to behave. I think that o recent there is now an internal debate going on within the media circles of media responsibility, of media ethics, of media professionalism, and that will be taken in due course. I also understand where you’re question about restrictions on international media; particularly international radio broadcast is coming from. You’re referring to the specific case of BBC I understand. That is an institutional decision of the regulatory authority, under the purview of which international broadcast comes. I agree that if there is a decision to restrict certain operations of a certain radio station, it is important for the democratic government to at least explain what the parameters are for that decisions or what are the justifications are. In my personal capacity I’ve always advised for that to happen. So let’s see. But that’s an issue which is currently under discussion.

With regards to the idea that the local population has yet to decide what side they want to be on, i beg to differ with this reading of the local population. I think that the local population actively decided last year by supporting and actually calling for the government’s assistance in Swat and Malakand. There was a very interesting sequence of events before the military operation. There was implementation of the Sharia Rule, the controversial Sharia rule in the NWFP Province and that was done at the behest of public will. But when that did not work out, there was a political consensus, completely backed by public opinion that this government needed to take them on. It’s not a question any more of how the public views these people. I think that there are clear-cut indicators, and clear-cut evidence, that the sympathy pockets are decreasing every day.

With relation however, to development schemes, and what needs to be changed on the ground, this is the new question. That is an area where I think that despite its announcements of major development schemes and packages for the tribal areas, for Swat and Malakand, progress on their implementation has been slow; not least because Pakistan is still facing scarcity of resources, not least because a lot of pledges that were made by Pakistan’s friends to support it in its war on terror have not been fulfilled. So there are those issues. But on public opinion, I would say that has drastically changed. In fact I want to point out another very interesting dimension. It is precisely because government’s actions in the Northern areas have gone through that we are now focusing on exterminating this problem from the Punjab province. It is coming to the fore. And the new debate now is how to take on extremists in other parts of the country, so things are shifting.

Concerning the media in Pakistan, Facebook, is a very interesting case study. And I must say that it is the first real cause for concern for the government which has been proudly claiming to have the freest media in the world. And it’s interesting that it was the court, Lahore courts, that ordered the government to block the site, and this was unique court order, considering the ongoing facility between the judiciary and the government on a lot of corruption issues, that the government quickly carried out. The government wasted no time in blocking Facebook and blocking YouTube and other websites. And there’s a reason behind that. There was a very quick and careful calculation, that if the government would not act quickly, there was a danger of a repeat of the riots that we had some time ago. And the government simply cannot afford at this time, when we are in the thick of a war, we can’t afford for people to come out on the streets on this particular issue, so the government felt that it had to carry out the ban. What’s interesting for me, as a scholar of Pakistan is how the closure of these websites brought out an instant public opinion, an instant public outrage at this action; outrage not only at the government, but outrage also at the judiciary, which so far has been backed by popular support. There is a clear division of opinion now on anything to do with religious sensitivities, and the debate has now entered a new phase where respect for religious sensitivity is pitched against the right to information an access to information. So now you have a polarity of opinions where the debate has gotten complicated. That is something which we are experiencing and watching.

With regards to the Tribal Areas; first we need to understand that the Tribal Areas aren’t a very populous region – it’s just 3million people. That said the military operations have been undertaken after ensuring that there is little local resistance – that there is local consensus and consultation – that safety procedures and safety measures are in place before the military goes in and carries out its operations. I’m not sure though, if the same can be said about the drone attacks. There is a definitive public opinion – a very vocal public opinion against the drone attacks and what they’re doing in the Tribal Areas. So the military operations are not under criticism, it’s the drone attacks which are being questioned. And I just mentioned the incident of Faisal Shahzad’s uncle saying that, “if you continue bombing the Pashtuns, then what else do you expect?”

Allegations of corruption – I actually touched on these when I mentioned the civilian government and the role of the judiciary. It’s actually at the centre of this. Corruption is the centre of discussion right now in Pakistan. There is an incredible debate in Pakistan about accountability and about corruption, and this is one area in which the government finds itself vulnerable. There is talk of new legislation; there is talk of greater transparency – it’s rolling with the punches. One of the arguments that the government uses to deflect criticisms or allegations of corruption, is that the debate about accountability has somehow just centred on politicians. Whereas, accountability has to be across the board, and that includes other actors like the judiciary and the military. So there’s a bit of a tightrope that the government is walking along right now, and the debate is maturing. It’s a complex debate; it’s an ongoing thing and definitely something to watch out for.

It has been a pleasure. Thank you.


Lost your password?

Not a member? Please click here