Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Daily Times Editorial Sept 26, 2012

Friends, not enemies President Asif Zardari, in New York for the UN General Assembly (UNGA) session, met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss the way forward in the relationship between the two countries. Needless to say, the ‘relationship’ has passed through some choppy waters over the last two or so years. At times, it teetered on the brink of a breakdown, especially at moments like the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Nevertheless, even at its darkest hour, the relationship was saved by sensible views in both governments as well as the media and public opinion in both countries. These views recognise the commonality of interests between the two allies, while not being oblivious of divergences where they exist. Difficult as it sometimes is to reconcile the two conflicting trends, the common bedrock interests tend to assert themselves in the long run and have therefore helped to salvage a difficult and fraught relationship. Hillary Clinton celebrated the restoration of NATO supplies to Afghanistan, a closure in the aftermath of the Abbottabad raid that soured relations for months before finally giving way to better sense. She also thanked the president for the Pakistan government’s handling of the violent protests against the US in the wake of the blasphemous film that has so roiled the Muslim world. In turn the president suggested to Ms Clinton that peace in Pakistan was critically dependent on peace in Afghanistan. Both sides reiterated their determination to work towards that common goal together, with President Zardari underlining once again Pakistan’s commitment to an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, which Islamabad promised to facilitate. The president also expressed his and the entire country’s dismay and disgust at the blasphemous film, saying one or two mad people should not be allowed to hold the whole world hostage and threaten world peace. The president thanked the US for its aid, but suggested instead of spreading itself too thin, perhaps it should concentrate on big-ticket projects. He once again emphasised his favourite theme of Pakistan preferring trade access rather than aid, as a measure of the desire to stand on our own feet and wean ourselves off the aid teat. Economic cooperation and the bilateral investment treaty in the works also came up for discussion. The president invited the US to become a participant in the Diamer-Bhasha Dam project to dispel the perception that Washington only concentrates on areas of its own interest. While these lines were being written, there was expectancy surrounding President Zardari’s address to the UNGA on Tuesday afternoon. His address was expected to centre on the hurt and insult Muslims felt because of the blasphemous film, with an appeal to the world community to tackle the problem of hate speech through appropriate international legislation. Of course persuading the west, and particularly the US, to place constraints on freedom of speech, almost an iconic shibboleth for the developed world and protected under the US constitution’s first amendment, may not be easy. In recognition of the uphill nature of the task, the president remarked that he knew this would not happen overnight and may require a protracted campaign. At home Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has been saying that Pakistan would approach both the UN and the OIC to promote the idea. While the government’s stance is unexceptionable and even appreciable, a troubling question lingers in the recesses of the mind. When we ask for tolerance worldwide, should we not also be looking within at the sorry state of tolerance in our own society? The hope therefore is that while the government plugs the idea internationally, it would be well served by steps to mitigate, if not eradicate, the climate of intolerance that has Pakistani society in its grip. The way forward in this direction is to mobilise the moderate majority, liberal, democratic and progressive political forces, and minorities threatened by violent acts and killings by extreme intolerant terrorist forces. As an aside, it may also be reckoned that just as the rise of extremism, terrorism and intolerance owes so much over so long to the Afghan wars, a peace in that long suffering country may be the key to rolling back the dark tide that threatens to swamp us. Another question that springs from this one is whether the civilian president and the government speak for all Pakistan, including the military establishment? The latter has of late seemingly woken up to the threat to state and society from the extremists and terrorists proliferating in our society’s bosom over the last four decades for reasons well known. Only if the civilian and military sides of the state are on one page, that being abandoning the notion of power projection in the region through armed proxies that eventually slip off the leash and bite the hand that once fed them, there can be no peace, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan or the region or the world. That is how high the stakes are.

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