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Malala and Pakistan's missing middle

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23 October 2012 15:56

'Can Malala Bring Peace to Pakistan and Afghanistan?' asked The New Yorker earlier this month in a blog post by Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani journalist whose words are followed more closely than any other commentator in the region.

Ahmed described the strength of public revulsion at the Pakistani Taliban's attempted assassination of 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, which came to the fore in marches, vigils and their social media equivalents. With demands growing for the army to launch an assault on the Taliban strongholds of North and South Waziristan, he saw in it a moment of opportunity for a military that has often sponsored the very Jihadists that pose such a threat to the country.

'Since 9/11 the Pakistani military has failed to adopt a comprehensive strategy toward terrorism and extremism,' he wrote. 'Is this the moment for one to develop?'

In a country whose international image has largely been defined by its military and militants, the attack on Malala has prompted Pakistan's 'missing middle' to assert itself more strongly. Members of the educated middle class, who have often been bystanders, have reacted especially angrily. As the BBC's M Ilyas Khan notes, it was 'one of those rare incidents that seems to be galvanising public opinion against the militants'. 

Public anger has led to military action in the past, most notably in 2009 when some 80,000 troops swept into the Swat Valley to flush out extremists after a video had been aired showing the Pakistani Taliban flogging a woman. What now?

For years, the Pakistan military has been ignoring American and NATO demands for a similar clamp down on the Taliban in Waziristan. But the generals, for all their contempt of democracy, have found it hard to resist the will of their own people when it is expressed so strongly. In a sign that the military was attuned to public feeling, the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, visited Malala in hospital before she was airlifted to Britain: 'We refuse to bow before terror,' he said afterwards. 'We will fight, regardless of the cost. We will prevail.'

Maybe. By the end of last week, Declan Walsh of The New York Times, another long-time Pakistan watcher, was reporting that the 'Malala moment' had passed. '[T]he backlash against Ms Yousafzai had already started in earnest,' he wrote. 'The religious right attacked the wounded schoolgirl, circulating images on the Internet that showed her meeting senior American officials and implying that she was an American agent.'

On the political front, Walsh also noted that the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement was the only party to organise rallies against the Taliban: 'A stark contrast with the violent riots that seized the country weeks earlier in reaction to an American-made video insulting the Prophet Muhammad.'

The 'Malala moment' poses an interesting, if often neglected, question for western policymakers: what can be done to boost Pakistan's moderate middle? How can the people so outraged by Malala's shooting be given a stronger and more lasting voice?

In a recent essay for The Washington Quarterly, Reversing Pakistan's Descent: Empowering its Middle Class, Xenia Dormandy, a senior fellow at Chatham House, addresses this precise issue. Among other initiatives, she calls upon the State Department to harness Pakistani diaspora groups in America, to encourage a greater number of exchanges under its International Visitor Program and to open up the US textile market to Pakistan firms, which would bolster the ranks of the middle class. 'The middle class has both the desire for change,' she argues, 'and, in time, the potential to bring greater influence to bear on the elites to effect this change.' The problem, she says, is that Washington has played the short game rather than the long and dealt with the military rather than devoting enough effort to achieving wider societal change.

Empowering the middle class could certainly help end the country's India fixation, which lies at the root of the military's support for Jihadist groups who have been such useful proxies in the 'Great Game' power struggle with Delhi.

In one of my happier assignments in the country, I saw this for myself at a one-day cricket international between India and Pakistan in 2004, a game that marked the end of the cricketing drought between the two rivals that started after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001.

Pakistanis, rather than going in for the usual face-paint nationalism, turned up with the flags of both nations daubed on their cheeks. Many carried aloft banners with messages such as 'We Wish Friendship Forever'. Someone had sewn together a massive flag combining the Indian and Pakistani colours, featuring the slogan 'One blood'.

Most remarkable of all was the near delirious response to the scions of India’s most famous political dynasty, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, who appeared in the stands joyfully brandishing the Indian tricolour. This in a city that their grandmother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had bombed during the 1971 war. It was almost as improbable as watching the Bush twins turn up at a soccer match in Baghdad and receiving a standing ovation.

 The optimism that I left the ground with that evening proved short-lived. In the eight years since, Pakistan has become more radical and dangerous. It looks as if the Malala moment has proved just as fleeting. As the BBC's M Ilyas Khan notes: 'At a time when the US is talking about an endgame in Afghanistan, the attack on Malala puts the Pakistani government in a difficult spot. If it deals a decisive blow to Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, some elements within the establishment fear they would lose any leverage they might have in the future settlement of Afghanistan.' For the Pakistan military, regional 'Great Game' politics will always win out.

Photo by Reuters. 

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