Thank you for inviting me to speak here today. It is an honour to have the opportunity to speak to the best and the brightest minds in Washington DC, and I am grateful to both the United States Institute of Peace and the Heritage Foundation for affording me the time and place.
I believe we are all taking stock of the deep change going through our world today, and as I stand here the faultlines between ideas, nations, and comforting certainties cut through the globe from one end to another. Without a doubt, history will remember this time as a deeply dividing era, where a shared vision of order and interdependence has been replaced by angry nationalisms and hard red lines that exclude. This in my view, must not be the new normal.
I say this because this is a worrying moment for Muslim countries/demographic, and even more so for the millions dispossessed by conflict and deprivation. The failures of the international order, now in worse disarray than ever before, have left almost a generation without shelter and what I call guaranteed liberties. The spread of terrorism and violent extremism has redefined our lives in ways we could not imagine, with multiple Ground Zeroes threatening to burn down the rubble of our hard fought freedoms.
Such tumult either readies the spine for hard choices, or tosses commitment out the door. I for one, know which side of history some of us will stand.
Ladies and gentlemen, we in Pakistan too have fought a very hard fight for our women and men to vote, and we continue another fight now, for our millenials and children to breathe air free of insecurity, hate and extremisms. Today, when I see around me a world polarised by dangerous inequalities and tribalisms, it is troubling to see a retreat to the insular as the one defining response to a fear of the unknown and the other. This shrinks the space for moderate, progressive Muslims like myself to fight for open minds and common ground.
I speak for one such nation, known and otherized in Washington as both a partner and a frenemy. Many of you with experience and better wisdom, know that Pakistan is not one colour, let alone a purveyor of terror, which it is often reduced to in a thumbnail sketch of its identity and brand. So when in this great city, my country’s image is painted into a monochrome, I worry that perhaps the world has chosen to misjudge us, while we too have not done such a great job of telling our story.
What I do know is in this moment, Pakistan has much to say and contribute. Against a long history of authoritarianism, we as a nation of 200 million people, have put our faith in democracy and constitutionalism. Indeed for many of us, it is not a term that we take lightly. We can’t just toss it around as a five-year process that brings us to power/ but instead must nourish as that very thing, that many from my party and my family, the PPP/ died defending as the essential flame that lights our path in illiberal times.
Without buying into the victim narrative, let me just say that we in Pakistan know what it costs to fight a long war. My mother, Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s twice elected Prime Minister, led us fearlessly into fighting the next great battle of this millennium. She went into a public campaign against terrorism, and with her face to the sun, went down fighting. This is the price we pay every day, in soldiers and civilian lives, yet we have not veered from her heroic path nor walked away from commitments made to Pakistan.
As an emerging democracy, which I am proud to say my party did the heavy lift on building, we are doing everything in our power to turn a corner. We have in my father’s term, created a huge new social contract for Pakistan, in the hope of readying it for better governance, in the shape of the 18th Constitutional Amendment. This has re-tooled the federation to be more fiscally responsive to the needs of the provinces, and the people who are still desperately in need of the state’s social services. By devolving a decisive chunk of power to the national parliament and its provincial assemblies, our government paved the way for reviving the broken structures of local governance, but we have a long road ahead of us.
Am painfully conscious of all the work we have to do to make a dent in the circle of disrepair our education and health sectors have fallen into. In fact, if there’s one thing that keeps me awake at night it is the state of public health services, and the staggering demographic that is still not in schools or remains unemployed after college.
I am not one to over-sell our strategic location, but it does pivot us at a unique node of many potential regional collaborations. Yet instead of passing on the dividends of connectivity we remain trapped in its nemesis, the corrosive flame of conflict.
It is indeed a failure of the region’s leadership that South and Central Asia is unable to grow its potential as an economic and energy powerhouse. It is also a failure of the international community’s stated commitment to peace that we see no great powers rushing to nudge India and Pakistan to resolve one of the oldest dispute on the UN’s roster of forgotten flashpoints. I point to Kashmir, which is the most glaring bone of dangerous contention between two nuclear neighbours.
While it has become the norm to put it aside as an intractable problem, I see no future of prosperity or stability for the region when hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris are left behind by the march of a manufactured illiberal consensus of silence.
Afghanistan is another place which is crucial to Pakistan’s stability. We are very clear that Afghan leaders are the only people, the only people, who can craft new bargains for their government between the resistance and others. At every point since democratic governments have taken hold in Pakistan, we have strived to bring whatever leverage we have on the Taliban fighters to the table, but it cannot be Pakistan’s sole responsibility. Today we are open to playing any constructive role in Afghanistan’s sputtering peace and reconciliation process as long as Kabul takes the lead. Nothing Islamabad can do will hold as a political bargain if the Afghans are not able to triangulate the leadership of such a deal themselves. It is entirely up to the Afghans to ensure that freedoms gained by women and civil society and constitutionalism are not rolled back, but it looks very difficult for them in the absence of unity in Kabul, security in the rest of Afghanistan, and economic depth to meet the crisis that the UN is talking about since last week. For over thirty years Pakistan has hosted and welcomed Afghan refugees and students. In a world where borders are closing to distressed victims of conflict, we have never closed our doors, even when we could not afford the camps and the fallout of war that followed. Our encounter with America in Afghanistan began in the Soviet jihad, but now we are left alone to fight off its terrible harvest of terror, guns and extremism.
Islamic extremism is not a tap that can be turned on and turned off. It leaves entire countries in chaos, struggling with scant resources to fight off the narrative and the conflict, the guns and the narcotic trade that such wars bring with it.
I am always amazed at the narrow lens through which a country like Pakistan is viewed here in policy circles, and when an impossible task is not “completed” or ticked off as mission accomplished in a box, we are told that failure came down because we pulled the rug.
That is not a serious view of a world undergoing serious conflict, especially where the advance of groups such as Daesh, or ISIS, as they are known is a factor we all have to contend with. Any counter terror plan, or CVE initiative, needs sustained partnerships, implicit trust, and a willingness to see the strategic landscape as complex, changing and long-term. But in Afghanistan we saw billions of dollars poured down a huge multi-country effort as a long war with no end, with constant shifting goals and strategies. At every point, as the neighbor with the open border, we said don’t do this, don’t play favourites in Afghanistan, because we learnt not to do that the hard way. But no one heard us. We were just the partner who could be held responsible when nothing else worked.
Afghanistan makes its own decisions. Because when someone else does that, whether donor or hegemon, the results are almost always disastrous.
Where do we go from here with Pakistan-US relations going through a new cycle?
It’s a new cycle because I get the sense we are the dispensable ally once again. All I want to say is that whenever the international community has called on Pakistan to take a stand, at every turn of history we have given our shoulder to the wheel of jointing effort and manpower. But I don’t want to make today’s intervention about our bilateral relationship, because it will go where it will go. These are uncertain times in America’s policy establishment as well, so it is best to see which way the leaves fall.
I know you all eager to hear about what is happening in Pakistan today. WE are fighting the largest inland war against terrorisim and violent extremism, and it seems that we are doing this entirely on our own. This always has to be coordinated national effort, and the PPP has always led this fight even when no one in Pakistan was ready to even talk about these challenges. We led the military offensive on Swat in the spring of 2009, when the Taliban were advancing in a dangerous new attack on Pakistan’s terrain in the north. We were actually able to forge a national consensus in parliament and jointly to take this battle to its logical conclusion. At no point did we imagine it would be over in a decade or even longer, but we never imagined that we would be left to fight it all along our borders as well as inland.
We leave partisan politics at the border, but I do believe that we need to do better on the civilian component of fighting violent extremism. The military has been busy clearing terrain in North and South Waziristan, and in the south, the province of Sindh that my party governs has been fighting back with unprecedented resolve, but we still need clarity and focus on pockets of the Punjab.
The famous National Action Plan that all political parties committed to after the heinous attack on Army Public School in Pehsawar by the Taliban still needs much work, and more resources. It needs the federal government to face off against militants who have gathered strength since the days of General Ziaul Haq and the Soviet jihad with more decisive action. This is not the time for anyone to give up fighting this war, and in fact it is time we took the fight to next level, which is concerted leadership against extremists, against hate speech, against people who make bargains with militants.
It is with this in mind that I say democracy is the answer for Pakistan, where no majorities ever vote in extremist religious parties, but it seems the world is shrinking the space for the constitutional protections we all hold dear. We will not tap into hate as a vote-getter, we will always strive to fight for protections for women, for minorities, for the most vulnerable, whether they inherit the earth or not. In a planet that is under severe stress by conflict and climate change, I am very clear for instance, that we have to lead the way in educating our people in the value of this earth’s depleting resources.
For Pakistan, and even India and Asia, climate change is a very real danger, with my country actually on the frontline of recurring natural disasters, flooding and draughts. As one of the ten most water-stressed countries of the world I know Pakistan cannot afford to be cavalier about shared resources, so I hope the current government in India does not repeat its threat of using of human entitlements such as water, as a weapon. Some of you may recall that one of the world’s most successful water treaties actually holds down the distribution agreements between India and Pakistan, brokered by the World Bank in the 1960s, enduring several wars, as well as the fog of cold peace. Threatening this Treaty’s abrogation is one example of how extremist postures in the region are failing the people of South Asia, blocking us from realizing our potential as an engine of Asian and global growth. Our sheer population explosion in South Asia, already home to one-fifth of humanity, puts us in no position to normalize the language of war and exclusion as a policy tool, yet temperatures are rising all round.
I know that the world is facing multiple traumas, many of them from economic or social turbulence. Countries such as China are stepping into economic leadership forums in Asia, projecting the kind of soft power that the United States once invented. In Pakistan we welcome all such investments in our economic growth, and hope that this enduring relationship is not seen as a site for great power competition.
Without putting too fine a point on it, I do want to say that we in Pakistan are not the problem. In fact, we see ourselves as part of a future where solutions are joint, inclusionary and sustainable. The United States is our largest trading partner, and has been a beacon of freedom and democracy for many of us growing up in a dystopian world. I only hope that this new millennium does not bring with it darker times for the growing world disorder, where humanity is not often seen as a core value, but trumped too often by security as a negotiable side-show.
I honestly believe that it is easiest to be generous when there are no challenges to comfort or peace. A nation’s character only gets tested when it is under stress, and must make serious choices. It is those choices that will lay out the way we will deal with each other as nations, as states and as individuals. I am confident that through the democratic process, despite its imperfections, Pakistan will find its way through the dark.
Thank you for listening so patiently. I look forward to interacting with you through the hour.