In Islamabad in late December, I was introduced to a new vision of Pakistan, one that diverges wildly from that typically presented by the West, including myself. It is a strong image, but like a photo removed from the developing fluid too early, it leaves an indistinct impression that is hard to interpret. And yet, I want very desperately to understand it better, and have it fulfill its promise.
I have been introduced (or re-introduced) to a country and a people whose image of Pakistan is one of hope, transformation, and possibility. This is a vision diametrically opposed to that of the West where the most common question is whether Pakistan is a failed or failing state.
Over a week, as part of an NDI delegation, I met with representatives from civil society, politicians, parliamentarians, bureaucrats, election officials and the media in Pakistan to discuss the upcoming national elections, likely scheduled for May 2013. And within these discussions many have noted a profound belief in a new path for Pakistan that could soon be realized. It is not a question of change eventually, but of change now.
These interlocutors are not dismissive of the challenges: that of holding a free and fair election next year in all the nation's provinces and districts; the lack of education and health care; the energy inadequacy; the rise of militancy and insecurity; and, of course, the country's economic woes. These cannot be ignored or taken lightly.
But it is striking that their broad positive narrative directly contradicts the predominant American one. As a former South Asian specialist in the U.S. government, I understand the lens through which America sees Pakistan; it is one that reflects American interests and concerns. In this picture, emphasis is placed on the rising levels of insecurity and militancy, on the presence of nuclear weapons and the possibility that they could be stolen. The stories that the U.S. media picks up are the negative ones: the killing of health workers or the attempted assassination of a 16 year old girl who wanted only to be educated and to help build her country.
All these are true and frightening and terrible. Perhaps particularly so when America is hit by similar terrors such as the shootings at the Sandy Hook elementary school or in Aurora, Colorado.
But despite previous visits to the country and over the years many conversations with Pakistani friends and former colleagues, I have never before heard such a strong alternate vision; a different interpretation of this picture.
On what basis do Pakistanis build their 'transformational' image?
It is in part about the elections: this is the first time that power might be handed over from one democratically elected government to another. Much emphasis has been placed on the perceived impartiality of the Electoral Commission. It is also the first time political parties can campaign in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) adjacent to Afghanistan. But it is more than this.
It is also about the people. As one interlocutor put it, "Pakistanis don't drag their feet but have a spring in their step." We all know about the high levels of violence and insecurity, but people here accept it and get on with their daily lives. I have heard stories of individuals, from politicians to democracy workers, who continue to do their job despite they and their families being terrorized. Colleagues are killed for what they believe, and yet others step in.
It is partly built on the resources of this nation. The human capital -- hard working, entrepreneurial and passionate. The natural resources -- a lush country with significant energy, mineral and agricultural possibilities. And its location -- between the Arabian Sea and Afghanistan, at the crossroads of the Middle East and Asia.
Those I met did not describe a revolution like that seen in Tunisia or Egypt. But it could be no less profound. As a visitor to this country -- a foreigner -- I am less well placed to judge than its own people. I have for too long been inculcated into the American narrative to be easily diverted. And the concerns that the West raises -- insecurity and instability, economic decline, lack of social services and infrastructure, to name a few -- are all valid.
But what if America, and the West, have it wrong, and Pakistanis are right about themselves and their country. A huge if... but if this were true, then we might see a transformation not just in the country but the region. The possibility, however slim, demands that we take a second look at that grey indistinct photo. And if this other vision is one in which we can believe, we must find ways to support it.