First Wednesday: The problems facing Pakistan and its leadership

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By Rosie Scammell

The Forum opened to a full house on Wednesday evening for a clash of opinions over the problems facing Pakistan.

With BBC journalist Owen Bennett-Jones acting as chair, the government and military soon took centre stage, a relationship described as “A power struggle that has characterised Pakistan since its inception,” by Chatham House associate fellow Dr Farzana Shaikh.

Anatol Lieven, a professor at Kings College London, was quick to dismiss the suggestion of another military coup, and described the army as “with all its dreadful faults, a comparatively efficient institution”.

Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan Director at Human Rights Watch, made no effort to hide his disagreement, “It’s a corrupt behemoth that is holding the country hostage. I know that Professor Lieven tends to have a rose-tinted view of the Pakistani military.”

Journalist Omar Waraich backed up this view of the military by describing a string of human rights abuses at the hands of the Pakistani army, including disappearances and torture.

Despite differences of opinion, there was broad agreement of the military’s negative role in vetoing cooperation with India, severely impeding the country’s development prospects.

In the face of such an overbearing military, Shaikh described the “extraordinary measures” taken by the government in recent years such as constitutional amendments, although said the government had perhaps been too preoccupied with political survival over passing legislation.

“It’s important to see these achievements, modest though they may appear, in the context of a country that is also at war; that is mired in conflict,” she added. Hasan agreed, citing mechanisms for a transition of power, devolution to the provinces, and improvements made to women’s rights legislation as key markers of change.

Open to the floor, the Forum buzzed with questions from nuclear weapon sales to Imran Khan’s election prospects.

The people of Pakistan at last made their debut in the debate, described by one audience member as a “resilient” populace – a term which was quickly questioned by Shaikh.

“Because the ordinary person is resilient, he or she can take anything, and nothing will break Pakistan. That in a way is troubled because in a sense it gives license to violence which is inflicted at every level on the assumption that people are resilient.”

As attention moved to the oft-forgotten Balochistan region and its prospects for autonomy, Hasan said the situation was not comparable to Kashmir, as “you can’t use patriarchy as an excuse for military abuses”. In response Lieven denied saying anything of the sort and called on his fellow panellist to correct himself.

It was left to Bennett-Jones to prevent the Pakistan debate descending into its reality, silencing the speakers and reminding the audience that it is the government’s ability to hold onto power until the 2013 election that determines Pakistan’s future.