Pakistan : The Untold Story

By Ali Imran

Pakistan‘s Finance Minister Dr Abdul Hafeez Shaikh and Ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman will have an opportunity to tell a World Bank forum in Washington on Monday the untold story of their country – revolving around democratic gains, vibrancy of its civil society and economic rebound – aspects which get lost in the fog of Afghan war-related controversies and their coverage in some influential parts of the international media.

The event titled “Pakistan: The Untold Story” is part of a series of the Bank’s South Asian vice presidential unit planned during IMF-WB spring meetings to highlight the tremendous trade prospects in the region, which have been held back by lingering mistrust, wars, conflicts and unnecessary barriers.

The region, housing one fifth of humanity and two nuclear neighbours Pakistan and India, is considered to be the least integrated econommically but has immense potential to prosper.

The question facing the region looks all the more relevant in today’s fast-globalizing world. Current members of SAARC include :  Afghanistan,  Bangladesh.  Bhutan.  India,  Maldives,  Nepal,  Pakistan,  Sri Lanka
Can economics trump politics in South Asia, a region fragmented by decades of strife? Will greater regional cooperation and lowering barriers to trade bring harmony along with economic growth? a blogger wrote on a panel discussion on “Breaking Down Barriers: A New Dawn in Trade and Regional Cooperation in South Asia.”

According to Elizabeth Howton’s account, as posted by the World Bank on its website, most panelists expressed optimism about trade’s pacifying abilities. Moderator Barkha Dutt, an Indian television journalist, opined that “What trade does, in its very ordinariness, is modulate the emotions.”

Teresita Schaffer, former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, agreed that “Trade can provide another conversation… and provide reasons why rivalries should not be allowed to get out of hand.”

But which comes first, the chicken or the egg? asked another panelist, Nepali journalist Kanak Dixit. Clearly, he said, it’s the chicken (commerce), because other things have been tried and have not worked. He said that “chicken” will lay two “eggs”: peace and prosperity.

Others were not so sanguine, pointing out the formidable barriers that have made South Asia the least integrated region in the world. World Bank Vice President for South Asia Isabel Guerrero, who introduced the panel, pointed out that unlike many other regions of the world, there are no large-scale power-sharing agreements in South Asia, though some smaller ones are under way, including an India-Nepal power line funded by the Bank.

Ultimately, said panelist Gowher Rizvi, director of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, “Trade is like the ballast in the ship – it keeps it on balance. But the ship needs politics to make it go.”

The first of the events was, “Leveraging Partnership and Technology to Promote Equity in South Asia.”

So how do we proceed in the region, where frozen perceptions take so long to melt away, while the world gallops ahead apace ? Several politically contentious issues between member states have been divisive.

But the overwhelming question, most experts agree, is: Will Pakistan – which recently gave MFN status to India – and India – which has long advocated to put trade before resolution of political and security issues like Kashmir – rise above their domestic political expediences and move towards trade expansion, which may benefit teeming millions living below poverty line.

The two biggest South Asian economies are widely believed to hold key to steering forward the SAARC region both politically and economically. Many seasoned critics, who have followed the decades-old hostility between the two countries, feel that progress needs be made simultaneously both on political and economic issues to offer a win-win to the people in both countries and propel the region into sustained high economic gear.

Indian forces’ repression of Kashmiri protest or a bombing incident in India, traced to Pakistan-based militants, will push any fragile improvement in relations back to the square one.

Remember the oft-repeated expression on both sides during the Musharraf-era that progress in Pakistan-India relations was irreversible? What happened to that sentiment after the November 2008 Mumbai bombings and each time the Indian forces used excessive force against stone-throwing young Kashmiri demonstrators. Things came to a grinding halt and according to U.S. senator John McCain in the aftermath of Mumbai attacks India was preparing  to attack Pakistan as punishment.

 The disputed Kashmir region.

Three years later, things appear to be slowly getting back on track, albeit with little fanfare. The message that emanated from President Asif Ali Zardari’s recent meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmoan Singh in New Delhi, sounded positive.  The meetings between senior trade officials from both sides and steps to facilitate two-way trade through Wagah border, are also concrete steps.

India’s laudable economic strides and Pakistan’s resilience, despite a lingering war on its Afghan border and rocketing oil prices, as well as its vast trade potential with Central Asia and the Gulf, give hope that the two countries would find a commonality of interests and a cause for reciprocity to move from just piecemeal overtures to big confidence building measures like military de-escalation in disputed Kashmir region and focus on the well-being of their people.

Afghanistan, the landlocked country shattered by deacdes of conflicts, will benefit enormously, if security conditions in that country improve and US-led NATO come up with a comprehensive peace plan at Chacago summit next month.  Political stabllity in Afghanistan will be critical to making it a gateway for trade between South and Central Asian regions.

Additionally, China’s rise as  a global power in the neighbourhood, it’s growing economic ties with both Islamabad and New Delhi and the United States’s high-stakes security and economic interests and engagement in the region would also be important to shaping the future of the South Asian nations..  

Yet, it will take more than commonsense diplomacy for Pakistan and India to tear down barriers in the way of economic and trade cooperation. A genuine peace process based on a combination of statesmanship, extraordinary political will to tide over opposition by extremist ideologies on both sides  and sustained good-intentioned support of the international community, will stand a good chance to deliver.

 Source: MGCT, World Bank



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