• February 23, 2024

Opportunity costs

Call it a legacy of loss or the curse of Sisyphus, Pakistan’s history is replete with counterfactuals — the coulda-woulda-shoulda of our past. There is something genuinely bitter about knowing that you repeatedly came this close to success before losing your way often because of an act of self-sabotage.
Please do not dismiss me as a brain-addled conspiracy theorist if I mention that the timing of each act of self-sabotage or prolonged crisis can be viewed as a part of a broader context where all our efforts are frustrated just before their logical culmination point or closure. I have a firm belief that no accident, no crisis and no conspiracy can rob you of your agency or responsibility. Even where a conspiracy leaves behind proof of its existence, you cannot absolve yourself of responsibility. It is a part of your enemy’s job description to conspire against you, and it is your job not to let them succeed.

I know some of you might want to go back and re-litigate the fall of East Pakistan, especially because India’s role in fomenting the crisis is an extricable part of our unquestioned lore. But even there, you cannot present one variable as a substitute for decades-long mistakes, neglect and insensitivity on display against your fellow citizens. But I do not want to dwell too much upon this chapter of our history because (1) I have already written and said enough about it, and (2) I consider it ancient history because it was before my time.

The two examples I want to produce here are important because that is when we truly came close to victory, and then just like that one fine morning like Forrest Gump, we turned around and forgot all about progress.

The first example comes from the cold war and its immediate aftermath. Please bear in mind that while these episodes are primarily about geostrategic matters, the missed opportunities I want to underscore are economic in nature.

In the cold war era, Pakistan played such an essential role in the fight against communism that many in the Islamic Republic still think that the country is singularly responsible for the defeat and eventual demise of the Soviet Union. But before Pakistan could capitalise on its success, the architect of the country’s cold war response was gone. Please ignore his unsavoury person and unnatural demise and focus only on the hot mess left behind. Some believe he planned to defuse the radicalism bomb after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Others tell them to stop hallucinating. But as soon as the war ended, the country plunged headlong into crisis.

Remember how the right wing in Pakistan blames the US for its betrayal after getting what it wanted out of the relationship? They point to the Pressler Amendment as the American parting gift. But here is what was going on at that time. Its internal divisions seriously undermined Pakistan’s lobbying efforts. For a decade after the cold war, we were fighting each other. Initially, it was a fight between the civilians and the military establishment. Then the civilians further got divided between three poles headed by Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Ghulam Ishaq Khan. When the movers and shakers would have to lobby for themselves, who would take care of the national interest? Opportunity cost?

The economic well-being of the people. While this game of the musical chairs of power was being played and the country was constantly sinking in the quicksand of reactionary radicalism, India picked up its shattered economy and, within a decade, made itself into the business behemoth it is today. Even our closest benefactor, China, turned its economy around simultaneously. We could have used the goodwill generated in the West to attract enough investment and economic activity in the country to start a human development revolution. But sadly, we had no time for what was good for us.

Now let’s go to the next milestone — the war on terror. Much had changed this time. The country had gone nuclear (literally) and even fought a limited war with India at Kargil. But its economy was in a shambles. Then after 9/11, the country made the right choice and escaped a gruelling punishment. But that was that. The newly found gratitude towards Pakistan soon became gratitude towards one man, the country’s military ruler. When you are a dictator who is suddenly trying to secularise a highly radicalised polity and therefore face a pushback which can potentially put you out to pasture, you do not mind to capitalise on what Fareed Zakariya once called FOTA (fear of the alternative). Hence Pakistan became the picture of our political Dorian Gray, aka Musharraf.

India, in the meantime, was having a field day. Both Pakistan and China were being viewed as part of the problem and potential threats in the West, and India was the vanguard of democratic values in the region. A couple of Indian billionaires went and invested a few billion dollars in America’s tech industry and then showed their inability to hire workers at competitive prices. That’s how they almost monopolised technical visa programs like H1B. For one year, techies would be brought from India and before their term was to expire, some Silicon Valley would permanently adopt them. India got the best of both worlds. We got our suicide attacks and endless blame. Musharraf could not put an end to terrorism. But Gen Raheel Sharif, during Nawaz Sharif’s government, almost did. Remarkably in the last one year of Khan’s rule all these gains were just thrown away. When we ask why this was allowed to take place, we are told such tall tales which make zero sense. Taliban’s Manchurian candidates suddenly start obscuring like crazy.

I hope in the above examples, you have found enough proof of our tendency to self-sabotage. Now, look at the ongoing crisis. Forget for a second this assertion that had one thing gone right, our fellow citizens wouldn’t be waiting in long queues to get bags of flour this Ramazan. Have you thought about what opportunities we are missing now? How many times have we discussed in this space alone that the world is already being reshaped by AI, technology and why even agriculture? And look at what we are doing. The question then arises whether the architects of this long crisis be allowed to go scot-free.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2023

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