Thursday, May 5, 2011

The President’s Speech (that wasn’t)


I speak to you today as Pakistan finds itself under siege from an extraordinary set of
internal and external challenges. By now, all of us have heard about the dramatic US
operation that led to Bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad.

I would like to begin my address today by apologizing to the people of Pakistan. As
President of the Islamic republic of Pakistan, I personally let this country down by not
speaking out when the country needed its leaders to stand up and clarify Pakistan’s
role and position on Osama’s death. 

With this speech, I hope to change all that.

The truth is that my advisors warned me against publicly discussing Pakistan’s role in the hunt for and eventual death of Osama Bin Laden. I was warned that Osama’s death could spark a series of spectacular terrorist attacks in Pakistan that could result in the death of hundreds if not thousands of civilians. This was a decision that I could not take lightly.

You will all remember that I lost my wife to a terrorist’s bullet. I know the pain of losing a loved one and I didn’t want my people to suffer the same.

But today, we face a collective choice as a country. We can bury our heads in the sand or we can stand up to the challenges that confront us. I’ve made a decision that we can no longer afford to bury our heads in the sand.

I have always argued that democracy is the best revenge and I refuse to keep you, the citizens of this country, in the dark about your government’s actions.

The truth is that Pakistan is at war with militants who have declared Jihad on the Pakistani state apparatus and by extension, the Pakistani people and our way of life. We did not start this war and we don’t want to fight this war.

It’s not easy for any of us to see the Pakistani military killing fellow Muslims, no matter how violent their ideology is.

After the attacks on 9/11, America declared war on Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan chose to side with America in this war, without any significant conditions attached to our loyalty.

If I could go back in time, I might have been firmer in my negotiations and not compromised our sovereignty in a wholesale deal. But we can’t go back in time… I can only deal with the cards I’ve been dealt.

Today, Pakistan is at war with militants who threaten our way of life. This is partly because we chose to become allies with the United States in its “War on Terror.” And partly because our state has been playing a strategic double game; supporting militants who could become our allies in a post-US Afghanistan and confronting militants who are directly threatening Pakistan’s security. 

Our double game has been criticized by many “experts” who observe it in isolation, without historical or regional context.

Today... let me publicly reveal why we started this double game. Our security establishment calculated that the US is a fickle partner and would leave Afghanistan and the region at a timeline determined by their domestic political considerations. The US has done this before when it abandoned Afghanistan and our region in the late 80’s, leaving Pakistan to clean up after its mess. We didn’t want to be caught off guard when history repeated itself.

Unfortunately, our double game has back fired.  

We had never expected these “Muslim” militants to start blowing up Pakistani girls in their schools or open fire on teenage boys as they prayed Juma in Rawalpindi. We had never expected the militants to attack the Sri Lankan cricket team, our country’s official guests.

These militants have used Islam as a cover and America’s occupation of Afghanistan as a justification to orphan our children and turn countless Pakistan women into unaided widows.

Enough is enough.

As I told the world in my Washington Post article, more Pakistani soldiers have died in the war than all of NATO’s casualties combined. Two thousand Pakistani police officers, 30,000 innocent civilians and a generation of social progress in Pakistan have been lost in this war.

Despite our country’s sacrifices, the Americans didn’t consult us when they chose to take out Bin Laden. We were later told that this was because the US didn’t fully trust Pakistan. They were worried that some elements within the Pakistani state might tip off Bin Laden.

We have no one to blame but ourselves for this spectacular demise in our international credibility.

And while there is plenty of blame to go around, as the democratically elected President of Pakistan, the buck stops with me.   

The time has come for us as a nation to raise our heads from the sand and confront head on the task that lies ahead of us.

Today… I’m announcing the news of an all-parties roundtable summit to be held later this month in order to build consensus on how together, as Pakistanis, we can fight the challenges that confront us.

I’m also inviting members of the civil society, the academia and our business community to contribute their ideas and take ownership of a counter militancy strategy that has a strong emphasis on economic empowerment, education, an end to double games by our security establishment and re-calibrating our relationship with the US.

Pakistan has paid a very heavy price in this war, with our blood and with our livelihoods. I don’t promise that I have the capacity to solve all our problems. But I do promise transparent decision making in our government.

I would like to end my address by remembering the 30,000 Pakistanis who have lost their lives in this ugly war. Let us make a promise to them today… that we will not let their sacrifices go in vain.

From now on, no more cover ups and double games. For better or for worse, your government will be honest and transparent in its communication. Come what may, we are in this together.

Pakistan Khappay! Pakistan Zindabad!

P.S. The idea for “The President’s Speech (that wasn’t)” was inspired by a blog post
written by my friend and class mate Ahmed al-Omran titled “The King’s Speech (that
wasn’t).” Ahmed blogs on

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Re-envisioning a Mosaic of Shattered Dreams

Pakistan’s obituary has been written more times than Kamran Akmal has dropped catches. But this country continues to solder on, despite the dropped catches, the odd terrorist hide out and a multitude of other problems.

Take the case of Pakistan’s economy. Our economy is a beautiful mess; it’s too weak to survive without IMF bail outs but resourceful enough to prevent wide-spread hunger or large scale food riots, even after a devastating flood that displaced 20 million people.

On the security front, our country is held hostage by a similar set of contradictions. Bombings & blasphemy are an everyday occurrence but most of us can go about our normal lives without even noticing that we are at war with ourselves.

I remember a particularly revealing conversation I had with a friend in LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences). Both of us had grown up, relatively sheltered, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. We were about to graduate and it was time to choose between going back to Riyadh or staying in Pakistan.

“I prefer living in Karachi because it has more freedom and opportunities for younger people compared to Riyadh,” I remember telling him.

“But what about the bombings?” he asked.

This was the spring of 2008, when Musharraf was clinging to power and there were daily bombings in the country, targeting urban centers with lethal force.

“The timing of my death has already been determined by God,” I told him like a good Muslim boy.

“I’m not worried about dying,” he shot back. “What if I lose my hands or legs?”

That was a good come back. I was genuinely caught off guard by his honesty… since most of our discussions were usually arguments for the sake of arguments that went nowhere.

Fast forward three years and it’s time for me to move to Karachi again. Things are slightly better back home but the situation is still pretty grim.

What gives?

Why isn’t there anyone in Pakistani society outlining a vision for the type of Pakistan that ordinary citizens want to live in.

Usually, political leaders in a society outline competing visions and the citizenry makes a choice between these visions by voting one of them into power. The irony is that Pakistan actually has a civil society strong enough for politicians to tap into and champion their vision but we don’t see that happening.

Historically, our political leaders have tried to inspire us by talking about Pakistan generically as a “modern” “democratic” “progressive” “Muslim” state. Even our dictators have used the same language to inspire us.

But there is a fundamental disconnect between those words and my life.

If a magical genie were to appear all of a sudden and grant three wishes for what I wanted to change in Pakistan… what would I wish for?

Granted this is an exercise in naivety, but lets cloak it under the garb of escapism and indulge ourselves. Afterall, this has been a tough week for Pakistan, even by our standards.

What would you want to change about Pakistan overnight?

This is my wish list:

1) An end to senseless violence. From stray bombs to the bullet of a mobile snatcher, I don’t want to call up family and friends after a bomb to ask if they are okay.

2) A mutual respect for differences in opinion. I want conservative and liberal Pakistanis to argue and fight, without anyone getting hurt in the process. Once we learn to respect each others opinions, we can finally have a candid discussion on our problems, rather than indulging in conspiracy theories.

3) I want people to pay their taxes and be rewarded with a responsive, transaprent government.

Now for the reality check. No genie is about to magically appear in front of me… but the exercise of forcing myself to write the top three things I want to see in Pakistan helped me understand what really matters in life, as opposed to the jargon and ideologically lofty positions I usually take.

What if our political leaders were to talk about divisive and conspiracy theory generating issues like militancy, Osama's death or blasphemy in simple, non-ideological terms like breaking the culture of violence and helping people feel safe again?

I’m not sure if this would help us solve our problems but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot.