Questions for `Problemistan'

SUN JOURNAL

Envoy: Pakistan's ambassador to the United States discusses recent trends and events in her country, including the referendum yesterday on the country's presidency.

May 01, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Pakistan is an indispensable U.S. ally in the war in Afghanistan - and it's also a nation of 140 million people beset by poverty, militancy and corruption, embroiled in a nuclear-armed standoff with its much larger neighbor, India. Fortune magazine calls it "Problemistan."

Maleeha Lodhi, a British-educated former professor and newspaper editor, represents Pakistan's interests in Washington. Lodhi, 49, is in her second term as ambassador to the United States. She was first selected for the post by an elected prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who is now in exile. Now she represents - and defends - a military regime.

In a recent interview, Lodhi discussed her country and the referendum that President Pervez Musharraf held yesterday on the question of extending his term in office for another five years.

When Musharraf seized power in 1999, the Supreme Court gave him three years to return the country to full parliamentary democracy. A new parliament is supposed to be elected in October and has the responsibility to choose the president.

Lodhi was asked why Musharraf decided to hold the referendum instead. (Musharraf was expected to win an overwhelming number of "yes" votes, though final results will not be in until today.) "It's very clear that the president intends to restore democracy in October with the holding of national elections as well as elections to our provincial legislatures," Lodi said. "In the last 2 1/2 years Pakistan, under President Musharraf, has undertaken a number of policy reforms - critical reforms in the economic realm, in the area of law and order, and in terms of institutional strengthening and institutional restructuring.

"At the time that he took over, Pakistan was on the verge of an economic meltdown. Its institutions had been so badly mauled by their sustained politicization that institutional capacity of the state had eroded [along with] the state's capacity to maintain law and order and therefore security.

"Everybody knows that for these reforms really to bear fruit, it takes time," Lodhi said. "The president [asked] the people of Pakistan whether they support and approve of this reform process and the rededication of Pakistan to the ideals and the vision set out by Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who had envisaged Pakistan as a modern, progressive, tolerant Muslim nation."

Here are other questions and her responses:

Since he's running unopposed, and since the main opposition parties urged their supporters to boycott the referendum, how will he be able to conclude whether he's won?

Either people can vote yes or they can vote no. Nobody has been disallowed from asking voters to go and vote no. A yes vote will be an affirmation, of course, and will give the president the moral and legal strength to continue down the path that he has promised the people of Pakistan.

Even if the turnout is very low?

I think it's worthwhile to remember that in the '90s, in which we had general elections every three years, on average, voter turnout had been declining, and very dramatically.

Were you surprised at the extent of militant Islamic extremism that the capture of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl exemplified?

It's agonizing to see people preach and advocate such hatred and to even carry it so far as to kill. That is not what my country is about. That's not what the majority of Pakistanis are about, which is why this act was condemned by virtually everybody in Pakistan, religious leaders included.

President Musharraf wants to reform the madrassahs [the religious schools that have been hotbeds of extremism]. Wouldn't it be better to invest in public education?

We're actually doing both. We are trying to institute reforms in the madrassahs and trying to bring them gradually into the mainstream. And simultaneously, we have put education at the heart of our economic agenda. More resources [are] to be put in education, both primary as well as higher education.

Two months ago, there was a crisis between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. How has this been quieted down?

The situation in South Asia remains dangerous. A million troops are mobilized on the Indo-Pak border, [and] we continue to hear statements from the Indian side which are belligerent, threatening, provocative and which to us suggest that India continues to play a game of brinkmanship.

If there were not a guerrilla war under way over in Kashmir, wouldn't your country be able to spend far less on the military and more on human needs?

The classic bread-vs.-guns issue is one we agonize over, [but] ultimately and fundamentally, our country's security comes first. We, after all, are the smaller country in the Indo-Pak equation. We have been subjected to aggression in the past, and we do not wish to live as some kind of a satellite in the Indian orbit. The answer really lies in India responding to our offer of dialogue on all outstanding issues, including Kashmir.

Has Washington stopped criticizing Pakistan's nuclear program?

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