Argument

The Silver Lining in 'Memogate'

The scandal over the secret memo offering to clip the Pakistani military's wings (with U.S. support) is a perfect opportunity to discuss the country's real problems.

The Mansoor Ijaz "memogate" scandal -- in which a Pakistani-American businessman claims to have secretly conveyed the elected government's plea for U.S. backing against his country's own military -- is sparking debate about everyone's favorite Pakistan bugaboos: secrecy and backstabbing, coups and the invisible hand. It's a long and resplendent tradition now; the hackneyed and voluble moral outrage are predictable. Like controversies past, this too will be seen from two extreme angles: a product of a plot hatched by intelligence agencies and their hypernationalist enablers, or of the turpitude of civilian politicians and their ultraliberal enablers.

Unfortunately, Pakistan offers such a wide array of intellectual seductions that getting serious about its long-term challenges requires an otherworldly calm -- even Sufi -- predisposition. It is always much more fun to try to figure out what one little bird said to another than to address the kinds of problems that will take a generation to fix -- violent extremism, poverty, and the anger of Pakistanis in Balochistan and the tribal regions.

Still, it is important to try to take stock of the big picture. And that requires looking at two fundamental challenges to the idea of a strong and stable Pakistan, something that is very much in the interest not only of 180 million Pakistanis, but also their neighbors and the international community.

First, and most importantly, is the civil-military imbalance. Daring to dream the impossible dream and aspiring to right this imbalance are the noblest of political acts in Pakistan. To be a successful and prosperous country, Pakistan must overcome its history of military domination. Large numbers of Pakistanis have learned the inescapable truth of this the hard way. Some understood it early on in the country's history. Others grasped it clearly following the devastating partition of Pakistan in 1971 or watching the hanging of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto following a military coup in 1977. The demons unleashed upon Pakistani society by Islamization and Afghan jihad of the 1980s convinced many more of this truth. And the disastrous consequences of the Pervez Musharraf era of military rule convinced a whole new generation that for Pakistan to be prosperous and free, an elected civilian government must rule.

Second and equally vital to a bright Pakistani future is bridging the divide between the stand-alone strengths of Pakistani individuals and the collective weakness of Pakistani institutions. Trying to address the civil-military imbalance without taking into consideration the institutions and individuals involved is a recipe for disaster. And memogate is only one such disaster.

On both ends of the political spectrum in Pakistan, memogate will inspire high-strung, virtuoso performances, dripping with both the intellect and emotion that are signs of a people fully alive to the state of their country and the challenges it faces. Some will be appalled that someone (allegedly) sought an improved civil-military balance through cloak-and-dagger means. Some will be appalled that an attempt to fix this balance may force an elected government to toe the line of unelected soldiers and spies.

But ultimately, the vibrancy of Pakistani discourse is a good sign: Despite the menacing insecurity and instability that so many Pakistanis have endured in recent years, we can still have a robust, frank discussion about our problems.

Yet, as memogate consumes the national attention, three other robust debates are taking place across the country -- and they are just as important. In Sindh, the spiritual and political epicenter of the ruling PPP, a debate rages over what model of local government should be applied to the Pakistani megacity of Karachi. In Punjab, a province with a population of 90 million, the surging popularity of retired cricket star Imran Khan and his nationalist Tehrik-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) party have captivated the national imagination with a message of hope for the future. Perhaps most heartening of all, in the Pakistani capital Islamabad this week, the much-maligned parliament, the most formal and most supreme of national institutions, just approved the Anti-Women Practices Bill of 2011, which bans and criminalizes many of the medieval customs that have so often enabled a systemic violation of women's rights. This is how politics is supposed to work, in a country where for decades it has not.

Perhaps the Pakistani political system is not so fragile after all? Better still, there are acres of space to improve, and no time at all to be complacent. Weaknesses such as an undermanned and poorly resourced civil service mean that a lot of work still needs to be done.

In weak institutional environments, individuals end up having to take on oversized roles. This helps explain an expanded set of informal responsibilities for the office of the president (think Asif Ali Zardari), the issuance of service extensions to the military and intelligence chiefs (think General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha), and an enormous burden on those that manage Pakistan's relationships with its allies and friends (think, of course, of Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani). As individuals try to fill in the gaps that weak institutions create, mistakes, errors, and rivalries are inevitable.

Luckily, Pakistan is a big, and surprisingly resilient country. It can absorb mistakes. The accumulated mistakes of recent years have conspired to create some valuable points of national consensus. Pakistan's independent judiciary is not the only accessible example. Even when it comes to memogate, there is a rough consensus out there. Among even the most extreme partisans, no one has argued against the need to address and resolve the civil-military imbalance.

No one has argued that our institutions are particularly strong. No one will dare advocate that individuals should again be allowed to run government on a whim. In the deafening cacophony of dissent generated by the cutthroat, 24-hour news media in Pakistan, it is vital to remember just how much Pakistanis agree on.

FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images

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