Mixed Signals


The President of Pakistan, General Parvez Musharraf, met US President Bush in New York last Sunday evening. Earlier, he had addressed the UN General Assembly. Given that after sending democracy into temporary limbo he became an international pariah a scant two years (and a month ago), for the Pakistani President the visit has been a triumph of sorts, for the personal risks he has taken in the last 60 days it brought only mixed rewards. In meetings en route in Teheran, Istanbul, Paris and London, Parvez Musharraf scored heavily in getting effusive support for Pakistan as a frontline state in the “war on terrorism”. But it was the last stop that counted. Under dire pressure from the frenzy building in the streets, the Pakistani intelligentsia had high hopes that the US would take concrete and tangible measures to reverse the Pakistani public perception that the US is friendly with Pakistan only when it has use for it, and then leaves Pakistan to fend for itself in paying the economic and political price for the privilege of that rather limited (by need) friendship.

As a symbol of tangible support, Pakistan needed debt relief that would be more like debt forgiveness, something that would more than offset the political and economic fallout being acutely felt in Pakistan because of the US attack on Afghanistan. Pakistan suffered economically (and continues to suffer) because we were then left in the lurch after the Afghan War in the 80s, sad experience shows that the present aid package announced for Pakistan is meagre compared to the economic hardships that the present Afghan War is now forcing on Pakistan. US$ 1 billion is hardly peanuts, but in the context of what we really need it may as well as be chicken feed. One must be grateful for small blessings however, for even the US$ 1 billion aid package that we did get will ameliorate to a small extent the burden of the war which is being increasingly felt in the streets and homes of Pakistan. In material terms it may be in lost man hours and in export manufacturing orders, in emotional terms the cost cannot even begin to be counted.

As one of those who has given absolute support to the President, and by extension to the US in the “war on terrorism”, as one of those who have been in a diminishing minority in a rising crescendo of anti-Americanism that is deep-rooted and one is viewing with increasing alarm, the US show of support to the Pakistani President has been disappointing. No matter how good a face the Pakistani official line puts on the US visit, for those of us who not only like Americans but have expressed it openly at some individual risk in the media, both print and electronic, the letting down of the President is of great concern. Here is a man who took a stand for what he thinks is right, a man whose every instinct wants that he should be popular, but for the sake of the country and what he believes is good for the world, he has steeled himself and taken what happens to be a highly unpopular decision. It is not that he went out with a begging bowl, that is against his nature but the promise of aid is not even a slice of what friends of the US in Pakistan expected in the present political and economic environment. Perhaps we were wrong to expect that much. In comparison to what Egypt got in 1991 after the Gulf War for putting in far lesser number of troops into the Coalition than Pakistan did, it is nothing (incidentally Pakistan got nothing for that). At the very least, we expected that the US would give a clear signal for “debt forgiveness” amounting to about US$ 3-4 billion in “G” to “G” loans. This would have been a precedent for the balance US$ 9 billion that we owe to other countries like Japan (about US$5 billion), etc and reduced greatly the debt repayment burden on us, allowing us to stand on our own feet. Most of this debt in any case has been acquired in the last 2 decades, a direct economic result of the last time we blindly supported the US as a frontline State. One must also add that our then leaders were neither far-sighted nor honest about their responsibilities. We have continued to suffer because a million or so Afghan refugees never went back, their effect on our socio-economic infra-structure across the board, but it is the social disintegration that has led to religious and political upheaval, etc, this cannot be counted in US Dollar terms alone. The memory that we were left to fend for our own at the end of the last Afghan War was bad enough to add to mass anti-Americanism, what really made the public see red then was what followed, viz economic and military sanctions because of any number of reasons, all of which were known in 1981 to the US when Pakistan was encouraged by word and deed to become the frontline State against communism, albeit for many geo-political and emotional reasons of our own.

Parvez Musharraf has put himself at great personal risk for what he believes is good for this country. By doing so he has sealed his immediate future behind a security cordon that is not in keeping with his normally ebullient personality that enjoys freedom of movement. He has gambled his own future not only for the sake of this country but for the sake of the civilized world. The world is a witness to what ignorance can resort to if it finds itself besieged, what could those with skilled expertise and know-how do given the same set of conditions? Instead of opting for cheap popularity by riding the wave of anti-Americanism, Musharraf opted for “Pakistan first” against the tide of mass public opinion. For Pakistan, Musharraf’s decision was a very defining moment. While one has to be grateful for crumbs even, this man has been let down in getting Pakistan only the bare minimum economic means to survive the human and material tragedy within and beyond our borders.

The equation is simple, what can be accomplished by US$ 9-10 billion by economic means cannot be accomplished by US$ 100 billion plus in military means. If the deepening recession in the US can have a direct cost, it will be many times trillions in US$ before the US will be brought back to the pre-Sep 11 economic keel. Why is it so hard for the US to make a tangible economic gesture to shore up this outstanding leader keep his country seesaw-ing from disintegrating into political chaos as a residual of what now looms as a real economic crisis, and vice versa?

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).