The story of Pakistan is the story of missed opportunity. As I began to write about the history of this land, I could not help feeling a sense of an intertwining of personal and national destiny in what was necessarily an account of my own missed opportunities, and those of my country, making me record an anecdotal account of events as l experienced them over the last forty years. The narrative that l have recorded may have interest for people living in Pakistan, the Pakistani diaspora, and among foreigners who follow and seek to understand South Asian issues.
My political journey started during the Z. A. Bhutto years, when Pakistan had been truncated, after the loss of East Pakistan. Bhutto struggled to modernize Pakistan on the one hand, while sinking it into a quagmire of controversies on the other, during the course of his five years in power. His unquestionable brilliance made him not just the voice of the downtrodden in our country but also the spokesman of the entire Muslim world. However, the Establishment in Pakistan blamed him for the loss of East Pakistan, which eventually led him to the gallows. His successor in power General Zia ul Haq, failed to prevent us from becoming embroiled in conflict in Afghanistan, which, had it been avoided, may have spared us from becoming entangled in religious conflicts and controversies that continue to engulf us right up until today.
With the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of Zia ul Haq, after eleven years in power, Pakistan obtained the gift of democracy, personified by Bhutto’s glamorous daughter Benazir, while our now wary Establishment anointed Nawaz Sharif as a counter. The pendulum of power swung, twice over, between these two young leaders after roughly every two and a half years, which came to represent Pakistan’s lost decade. During this period, democracy appeared to fail and economic failure seemed to rise, alongside of a creeping religious extremism, which started in Zia’s time but which, both Benazir, as well as Nawaz, did not succeed in reigning in.
Ousted by General Parvez Musharaf, Nawaz became recipient of hospitality from the House of Saud at Jeddah, while Benazir self-exiled to Dubai, allowing Musharaf a free hand to steer Pakistan out of stormy waters. But Musharaf, according to many, was simply not the stuff that able helms men are made of. When asked his opinion about the General who had assumed power in Pakistan, George W. Bush, who a year later was elected President of the United States, said “I don’t know the guy’s name, but I know he is on our side.” Post-9/11, Musharraf became a crucial US ally, yet he failed to serve American as well as Pakistani interests adequately. Religious extremism increased greatly and the War on Terror came to be hopelessly bogged down. Musharraf, by and large, relinquished power leaving Pakistan in a worse state than when he had assumed his role as dictator, nine years earlier.
Almost from the outset in my country, State power has been exercised in a manner that ultimately served to erode it. Greater caution and lesser commitment to power as an end in itself might have helped reduce our involvement in the ‘Great Game’ that has been played to the North West of our country, where extremism and militancy have loomed large on the landscape. As a result thereof we came to be immersed in an intolerant version of religion,with our credo, which stands for peace, almost reversing as it encountered increasing levels of violence, and brutality.
In the face of depressing realities, most Pakistanis nonetheless remain committed to the goal of achieving a balanced State, which enshrines the values for which our country was created. We may have suffered power failure in our past but our future holds promise, in view of our vibrant and well informed younger generation, who are better prepared as they appear on the anvil of moving into positions of decision making and power.
Headline image credit: Dome of Main Hall by Adeel Anwer. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.