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A Passage to Pakistan? Reflections on Attending an Economics Conference in Lahore

July 2, 2012

Could relations between the United States and Pakistan be any worse? As recent polls from the latter country have revealed, public opinion there remains sharply anti-American, for all of the obvious reasons: resentment about violations of the country’s sovereignty in the form of drone attacks in the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands; favoritism towards India as part of a master plan to ‘encircle’ and further dismember Pakistan, as evidenced by the war in Afghanistan and US acquiescence towards Indian nuclear weapons; and the more general perception that the United States is an imperialist power, with a history of intervening in Muslim countries (think Somalia, the Balkans, and, most obviously, Iraq and Afghanistan).

All of these resentments continue to simmer, moreover, in spite of considerable American aid towards a country which faces enormous internal security, nutrition, and ecological problems. What can seem to Americans like the intentional spitefulness of some Pakistanis towards the United States was perfectly crystallized when Shakeel Afridi, a doctor who played a key role in confirming the location of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbotabad, was arrested and sentenced to decades in prison for … treason. With friends like these (Pakistan remains a major non-NATO ally), some Americans are likely to say, who needs enemies?

Yet for all of the terrible news and the nightmare scenarios, both other countries in the region as well as the United States have a vested, even ineluctable, stake in Pakistan thriving in the 21st century. It’s true, for example, as Anatol Lieven points out in his excellent Pakistan: A Hard Country that the real medium-term threat to Pakistan’s security is not domestic terrorism (although, as he points out, anything like a US ground invasion of the borderlands would splinter the Pakistan Army and provoke a major crisis), but rather its environment – melting glaciers, and floods which presage water crises in a country whose population will reach towards 300 million people by mid-century. It’s also true, as Ahmed Rashid has written in the pages of The New York Review of Books, that even elegant Lahore – one of Pakistan’s easternmost major cities and a place that thought of itself as far-removed from the ‘wild’ frontier – has become an ever more popular site for terrorist attacks. Is nowhere safe in the country, ambitious, well-educated middle-class Pakistanis might ask themselves?

But in spite of the twin specters of terrorism and the environment, Pakistan stands at the crossroads of four major geopolitical nodes: to the northeast and southeast, the high-growth, high-population hubs of China and Northern India; to the northwest and southwest, Asia’s two largest energy deposits in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. Part of building a stable 21st century Asia demands connecting those four places with one another, not only for the sake of consumers in Delhi or the Politburo in Beijing. An Afghanistan that functions as a conduit for energy to South Asia, or as an alternate transport corridor for Chinese goods making their way from inner China to the Persian Gulf, would offer Afghans better revenue streams than growing opium, maybe. The resulting prosperity and interconnectedness of such Eurasian integration might score young men across the region jobs, and wives, and encourage them to focus on getting rich, rather than plotting attacks against Indians, Americans – or, of course, Pakistanis (thousands of Pakistani citizens have been killed in terrorist attacks in the last ten years).

A rough neighborhood?

In light of these facts, I had a good response prepared when my parents reacted to the news that I would be traveling to Lahore for about two weeks, to attend a conference on economics and development at the Lahore School of Economics, jointly organized by that Pakistani institution and Oxford faculty interested in developing a Pakistan Studies program.

‘You’re doing what?!?’, my parents’ voice crackled over the Skype connection from Los Angeles to the Basel hostel where I was spending the weekend while carrying out interviews. I promised I’d be really careful, I explained to them; I’d stick with the group all the time. Did I know how hot it was going to be there? And where was Lahore, exactly? But as I laid out to my parents, I was aware of the litany of risks they were prepared to lay out. In fact, that was partly why I was interested in going – to try to begin to develop my own picture of Pakistan, understand how a sub-section of Pakistanis (most university faculty and development types who have worked at the World Bank, the IMF and the International Labor Organization) conceptualized their own countries’ problems, and indulge in some virgin reflection about how Americans – at least this one – might think differently about the future of US-Pakistan relations. Several flights later, vistas of Moghul mosques, and meals of goats’ and sheeps’ internal organs later, I think I’m on my way to doing so.

Not quite ‘dreaming spires’, but who’s complaining? The glorious Badshahi Mosque of Lahore

Perhaps the most useful way for me to frame my reflections comes by way of framing them within what the writer Walter Russell Mead has identified as four distinct American foreign policy traditions in his 2001 book Special Providence. Foreigners, Mead notes, often become perplexed, even frustrated and angry, when they try to dissect American foreign policy. To some, especially in 2003, America looked like a crusading liberal imperialist power, trying to impose a Neo-Wilsonian vision of the world on regions that happened to possess great energy wealth.

But look (relatively) further back in American history, and in the 1970s, in the era of détente, Europeans and American liberals had plenty to complain about, too. The Nixon White House established relations with China in spite of Beijing’s poor human rights record, maintained a strategic partnership with one of the most odious regimes in the world on torture, the Pahlavis in Iran, and normalized relations with the USSR even as Soviet Jews (not to mention many others who wanted to leave) were often forbidden from leaving the country.

Still further back in American history, Americans ambitious for manifest destiny and a foreign policy more independent of the British Empire were rebuffed by pro-British politicians who viewed the United States’ future as embedded within the British Empire’s global trading system, at least for the foreseeable future. What’s the matter with America?

Nothing, Mead argues. Rather than these flights of foreign policy fancy demonstrating some national schizophrenia, he argues that American foreign policy has remained consistent over time precisely through its balancing between four distinct positions that he labels Hamiltonianism, Jeffersonianism, Wilsonianism, and Jacksonianism. Put crudely, Hamiltonians tended to emphasize trade and globalization as the main framework through which US foreign policy ought to be conducted. A rising tide of globalization, whether conducted through European entrepôts in the 19th century or through free-trade agreements and the WTO in the 1990s, would provide the most secure guarantee of America’s long-term interests. Americans ought to learn to engage in commerce with countries, not necessarily to change them.

Jeffersonians – Mead cites Henry Kissinger as an example – thought that the USA shared a broader range of interests with foreign countries, but also held a core pessimism, or skepticism, about the ability of Americans to understand, much less influence domestic events in these countries. While it was possible to contemplate a US-PRC partnership directed against the Soviet Union in the 1970s, for example, none of this implied that Washington was prepared to attempt to reform – or even take a prominent position on – Mao’s policies towards his own people. Partnership doesn’t imply proselytizing, in other words. Americans were a virtuous people, thinkers from this school emphasized. But in an updating of Jefferson’s vision of a virtuous nation of farmers, there was less of a need for Americans to ‘export’ that virtue into countries of which they knew little.

Jeffersonian par excellence?

Wilsonianism, exemplified, obviously, by President Wilson, but also by more recent advocates of intervention like Samantha Power, took almost the opposite stance. America these thinkers and policy élites emphasized, was no ordinary nation but also an idea, an idea about freedom and liberty with universalist claims. The United States had a special moral obligation towards the oppressed people of the world, regardless of whether they were Bosniak Muslims, Chinese human rights activists, Afghan women, or Libyan rebels in Benghazi. This drive to remake, or at least reform, the world in pursuit of a universalist dream of freedom, often led the United States to engage in adventures abroad, some of them – as Jeffersonians pointed out – misguided or based on a near-total ignorance of foreign cultures. But the Wilsonian impetus for global freedom also fueled American missionaries’ laudable ambition to devote their lives to improving obscure or unpleasant locales. In this sense, evangelicals like Tim Tebow and secular liberal imperialists like Power bear a family resemblance.

Recently, Wilsonians have found themselves in frequent agreement with Jacksonians, the final foreign policy school. Perhaps unlike the other three schools, Jacksonians like John Bolton (President Bush’s maligned Ambassador to the UN) styled themselves as an anti-élite, as representatives of a certain kind of American folksiness, American national pride, and a desire to assert American dignity against any slights perceived or real. Jacksonians and Wilsonians found themselves in agreement over the US invasion of Afghanistan, for example, if for different reasons: the former because the Taliban had to be ‘taken out’ by whatever means necessary as payback for harboring Osama bin Laden; the latter because ‘backwards’ Afghanistan was ripe for reform along the lines of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Removing the unaccountable Taliban obscurantists was only one part of that bigger project.

Jacksonianism par excellence

Or consider the assassination of Osama bin Laden, or the Obama Administration’s policy of ‘targeted killings’ of American citizens suspected of plotting terror attacks against the country. Jacksonians are likely to favor these actions: scum like bin Laden or Anwar al-Awlaki knew what they were getting themselves into when they attacked, or plotted to attack the United States. So what if squeamish Jeffersonians were throwing fits about the long-term impact on US-Pakistan or US-Yemen relations? American honor had to be defended.

Throw these four schools together into a system of universities, think tanks, political patronage, and you get the foreign policy mélange we have today.

Since September 11th, and perhaps earlier, American foreign policy towards Pakistan was defined by a mixture of Jacksonianism with perhaps some Wilsonianism mixed in. It has been true, for example, that many courageous American NGO workers and foreign service officers have devoted time to encouraging the education of Pakistani women, and discouraging the horrific acid attacks against Pakistani women. (Of course, many Pakistanis themselves were engaged in similar reforms, too – it’s important to remember this is a country of close to 200 million people.) Similarly Wilsonian were the massive American aid efforts to Pakistan in the wake of the 2010 floods that devastated a country much of whose economy is dependent on the ebbs and flows of the Indus River system.

But particularly given the tortuous nature of US-Pakistani military cooperation, perhaps still more Americans take a Jacksonian stance towards Pakistan. Al-Qaeda, after all, had attacked the United States, killed thousands of Americans, and – perhaps most importantly – besmirched American honor. What was the Pakistan Army and the ISI doing potentially supporting lashkars and neo-Taliban groups who were killing Indian and Pakistani civilians and US soldiers in Afghanistan, respectively? Didn’t they care about America’s stake in this fight – even if it was taking place on Pakistani soil? The possibilities for distrust and suspicion were, and remain, enormous.

To be fair, for much of the same period it often seemed to American eyes that Pakistanis had become even more Jacksonian than Americans themselves. Lieven, in Pakistan: A Hard Country, describes Punjabis (the largest ethnic group in Pakistan – Punjab Province accounts for some 57% of the country’s  total population) as a mix between Texans and New Yorkers, while the Pashtuns of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and, increasingly, Balochistan and Karachi, come in as South or Central Asian versions of Scotsmen, many of the descendents of whom went on to populate Appalachia and the upland American South and become some of the USA’s most resolute Jacksonians.

All they want is respect

Many of these Jacksonian Pakistanis had become extremely concerned – some might say obsessed – with their country’s territorial integrity ever since 1971, when Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan in a violent liberation war. They were just trying to keep their country whole, they might say, even as they cultivated ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan. And whereas Americans and Europeans seemed quick to see in their rival India a ‘good South Asia’ of beautiful children, dynamic cities, elephants, and exotic colors and smells, those same Westerners were quick to brand Pakistan as a hub for terrorism, a dangerous ‘Muslim country’, and a failed state.  Where was their respect?

Yet what was so refreshing at the conference hosted by the Lahore School of Economics was some insight into how Pakistanis themselves thought about alternative – dare I say Hamiltonian – paradigms for their country’s foreign policy. Seeing these alternative frameworks was, moreover, particularly refreshing as a young American with an interest in the region, one trying to think about how my country could find new ways of seeing the region that go beyond the usual issues of security and terrorism.

It’s true, one ought to point out, that many of the presentations at the conference focused on what were fairly technical topics. Much of the debate at the conference centered around the issue of balancing flat-out GDP growth versus what economists refer to as ‘inclusive growth’ – growth that doesn’t also involve inflation, spikes in food prices, or growing gulfs in wealth inequality, all of which have been common in recent South Asian economic history. Some economists, like Ashwani Saith, highlighted how Indians have been looking at these questions in recent years. While India has, Saith emphasized, seen fantastic GDP growth in the last decade, food security and labor market flexibility remain huge issues in Indian cities. The country still has vast oceans of poverty in its villages. And in a democracy, it’s difficult for politicians to transition from straight-up transfer programs, or non-value adding make-work programs, for rural populations, to policies that encourage greater capital accumulation or rural investment.

Rashid Amjad, of the Pakistan Institute for Development Economics (PIDE) continued to elaborate on some of these themes in his presentation. In spite of absolute growth in the last five years, food poverty and inflation in food prices has caused the number of people living in absolute poverty to rise from twenty percent to close to fifty percent over roughly the last decade. A surge in remitances from Pakistanis living abroad since 2000 helped greatly. But as Sakib Sherani noted in his later presentation, Pakistan’s remained a highly unequal economy, where the lack of tax collection and high wealth inequality made ‘inclusive growth’ a distant dream. Only 61 percent of Pakistani parliamentarians reported any income tax, for example. And a series of urban surveys done in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, he noted, turned up 776,000 people who had cash assets, owned property, had traveled abroad, and owned more than one car – but still did not appear on any tax registries in Pakistan. The situation, noted one conference participant, had become so ludicrous that Japanese development workers selecting young Pakistanis for scholarship programs had begun to demand to visit the applicants’ home addresses. Stories of parents in Lahore and Karachi suburban mansions with multiple BMWs and Mercedes weeping to the Japanese agents that they were just barely scraping by had become sadly common.

It’s just a lease, I swear!

Yet the presentations that I ultimately found most interesting were those focusing on Pakistan’s regional trade. Given how much we hear, particularly in American media, about Pakistani’s obsession with territorial security (expressed in paranoia vis-à-vis India and other countries’ engagement with Afghanistan), it was extremely refreshing to hear educated Pakistanis put forward an alternative vision for how their country could interact with the region. (There is some backstory here: in November, Pakistan granted India most-favored-nation trading status, seen by many as a step towards broader trade relations between the two countries, which, in spite of their proximity and intertwined history, trade little with one another, or engage awkwardly in trade through intermediaries in the Persian Gulf.)

In one penetrating presentation, Ijaz Nabi tried to put recent developments into a longer historical narrative. Historically, Nabi noted, the land that today comprises Pakistan served as a trade corridor between four worlds: the Persian-speaking lands to the west, the Turkic regions to the north, the Subcontinent to the east and southeast, and China to the northeast. Traders either disembarked with goods on the Arabian Sea ports to travel up the Indus River Valley to China, or went from Persia to India along East-West trade routes that ran through cities like (south to north) Sahwin Sharif, Multan, Lahore, and Taksila. Partition in 1947 disrupted those regional trade patterns: instead, the dominant trade pattern in the newly-constituted Pakistan shifted to a bidirectional trade corridor between Karachi, Multan, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, and Afghanistan. In a world where China and India were poor, and the scars of Partition were still fresh, Pakistani control over this trade corridor was enough.

Several of the LSE presentations emphasized the need to move beyond a territory-obsessed mindset, towards a trade-focused mindset

This paranoia persisted as late as the 1990s, according to one presenter, Hafeez Pasha. Pasha, an economist, advocated MFN status for India, noting that Pakistan could save something in the neighborhood of $25 million dollars by importing concrete from India as opposed to distant Romania, then the major exporter to Pakistan. For making this suggestion, Pasha noted, he was accused of being an Indian spy. More than that, the status quo of trade benefitted several multi-national corporations doing business in Pakistan. As Ijaz Nabi noted in questions and answers after his paper, when he worked in finance in the 1990s and was advocating for MFN status, several foreign Ambassadors began to pressure the Pakistani government against expanding trade: the entrance of Indian firms into the Pakistani economy could disadvantage European and American firms with a foothold in certain sectors.

Fortunately, the changing dynamics of Asian trade in the 21st century are breaking down those mentalities. As noted above, with explosive consumer growth to the east (India and China), and the necessary energy resources to the west (Iran and Central Asia), a paradigm obsessesed with regional security that confined Pakistani influence to only the Indus Basin and Afghanistan wasn’t going to cut it. This realization in recent years on the part of the Pakistani business community – plus the confidence that they could find big markets for their goods in India – led to a breakdown of relations between Pakistan’s military and commercial élites. This, in turn, made it politically possible to build the consensus for the MFN deal.

Another presentation by Naved Hamid, the head of a special policy research unit at the Lahore School of Economics, focused on Pakistan’s ‘other’ major regional trading partners besides Europe and the United States – namely, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates, and China. By 2010, Hamid noted, trade with these three countries alone would amount to more than a quarter of Pakistan’s exports, more than to the USA or Europe individually. In all three countries, he noted, there was room for optimism. Even the most optimistic Pakistani businessman could see the advantages Dubai held in terms of connectivity and financial institutions. The number of flights from Dubai to Pakistani cities had soared in recent years, and while there remained the perpetual fear that the UAE would serve as a place for tax-averse Pakistanis to park their cash, trade between the two countries was booming.

As for Afghanistan, he noted, merchants in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa were familiar with the economy, and their goods would have a meaningful advantage over natively-produced Afghan goods. The real challenge was changing the mindset of government élites from one focused on security and ‘encirclement’ to one based on economic integration. China, more than a strategic partner, was also a huge neighboring export market, particularly for Pakistani agriculture and (non-intuitively, until one thinks about the geography) seafood, although many Pakistani businessmen complained about how free trade agreements with Beijing had undermined their position. Many ordinary Pakistanis, moreover, felt that Beijing had not invested ‘enough’ in Pakistan, and that Chinese firms did not employ enough Pakistanis. At the same time, Pakistan’s proximity to China had second-order advantages. Turkish businesses, Hamid noted, viewed Pakistan favorably as a place to invest, since – so long as they had enough physical and investment security – it could work as a low-labor cost site for exporting goods to both India and China.

Af-Pak relations: less Taliban, more trade?

True, one had to note – this was only an academic conference, and given the generally parlous state of US-Pakistani, to say noting of Pakistani-India relations, the world that these economists was setting out is still a long way away. But I wonder: what would it take on the American side for policymakers to embrace a more Hamiltonian vision towards the country as well as the South and Central Asia region? Even with the world’s pre-eminent military, and many young Americans willing to serve in dusty locales like southern Afghanistan, it seems to me that our ability to influence security on the ground in inland Asia is inherently limited. Surely it is in our interest to promote a regional order that makes it impossible for groups like al-Qaeda to murder Americans again.

But perhaps less Jacksonianism, and more Hamiltonianism and Jeffersonianism is necessary here. I’d put more faith in the promise of jobs – and, frankly, the informal security measures of Pakistani businessmen anxious not to see their goods shipments from Afghanistan to a more open India screwed with – to make this region more peaceful and less problematic from the point of view of American interests. With several friends deployed in Helmand and Qandahar Provinces of Afghanistan as I right this, we’re still a long way away from that world, but I appreciated the chance to visit Lahore enormously as a baby step towards imagining what it might look like. Maybe even American servicemen, diplomats, and policy planners can even play a small role in helping to urge it into existence.

Looking forward to future visits … !

‘It’s so refreshing’, said a Pakistani friend to me as we walked back towards the center of Oxford one cool summer evening after a barbeque, ‘to talk with an American who’s finally pro-Pakistani.’ I paused for a second, thinking of how to react: in some parts of the United States, being  ‘Pro-Pakistani’ could be taken to mean something else entirely. ‘Thanks’, I responded – but also took caution to note that I didn’t think it was productive to think in terms of being ‘pro-Pakistani’ or ‘anti-Pakistani’. Americans – but especially not Afghans, Pakistanis, or Indians – can’t afford to inhabit a mentality where being ‘pro-Pakistan’ means being ‘anti-India’, or vice-versa.

Given the stakes – a region housing more than a fifth of the world’s population, rising temperatures in a region whose climate already alternates between a tandoori oven and a pressure cooker, and the potential collision course of increasing consumption, battles over energy resources, and dwindling water supplies – it would be a shame to see, thirty or forty years from now, the region’s borders marked by militaristic showdowns, drone attacks, and existential border disputes rather than by more benign customs checkpoints. While it’s in America’s interest to see that regional order succeed, it’s even more in the interest of people who actually live there. While the trip to Lahore was only a first visit – probably terribly naïve, self-indulgent, and not terribly well-understood by this outsider – here’s hoping that one day in the future I’ll be able to come back to live out the day that colleagues described: ‘Breakfast in Kabul, lunch in Lahore, and evening tea in Delhi …’

From → Foreign Policy

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