Karachi – The killing of Osama Bin Laden on May 2 in a covert operation by the United States has prompted strident calls by many in Pakistan to see it as a lesson for the country to stand on its feet, say no to foreign aid and shrug off the title “hired gun of the U.S.”
One of those voices belongs to the chief minister of Punjab province, Shahbaz Sharif, who said his government would stop accepting U.S. aid, and proceeded to cancel six agreements with the U.S. in the fields of health, education and solid waste management.
Sharif has vowed to “break the begging bowl” which he said undermines Pakistan’s sovereignty.
While many say he is “playing to the gallery,” the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest province and home to 60 percent of the 180 million population, has articulated a sentiment growing among different sectors – academics, economists, politicians, the media and the ordinary Pakistani – clamouring for a stop to the entry of foreign funds, and not just from the U.S.
Pakistan is one of the top recipients of U.S. aid along with Egypt and Israel. In the last decade, Pakistan has received 20.7 billion dollars in assistance from the U.S., two-thirds of which has gone to the military.
“We need to take one deep plunge, and at least try to be self-reliant,” says religious scholar and writer Farah Moazzam.
“What do we have to lose?” she asks and strongly believes foreign aid is the root cause of all of Pakistan’s woes.
“In the bargain, we are facing political slavery and colonisation. Too many years have passed by with us being brainwashed into believing that if aid is curtailed, we will not be able to survive. But we are, aren’t we!” she says.
Munaf Lakda, a finance analyst in a multinational company, believes it is time Pakistan stood on its own two feet. “And we can survive too, if we stand united,” he adds. However, there is a catch, he says. “Our leaders will have to tighten their belts, which they won’t, as they have an altogether different agenda.”
Rasul Baksh Rais, a Lahore-based economist, believes Pakistan’s dependence on foreign aid interferes with “our rationalisation of development priorities and issues of public policy in defence and development.”
The only way to reduce this reliance, he says, can be through raising taxes. “The real trouble is not the defence burden, it is the loan burden.”
Rais points out that nearly 55 percent of Pakistan’s national budget goes to debt servicing, and the government continues to borrow because “our ruling groups benefit from this policy.”
“Defence at 28 percent of the budget is pretty high and we need to bring it down, but that cannot be done so, until we revisit our national security paradigm,” Rais explains.
Many feel the nation has been short-changed and the trade-off has been unfair.
Almost 30,000 Pakistanis have been killed since September 11, 2011, including 5,000 soldiers, police and intelligence agents.
“Yes of course we have been short-changed. Our people don't even know how cheaply their lives have been sold to foreigners—yes Americans, but nothing compared to Saudis,” says Haris Gazdar, a political and economic analyst.
However, Gazdar maintains, “Most of our people have been murdered not by the U.S. but by Al-Qaeda and their allies. Saudis are the biggest financiers of terrorism in our country, yet our people think of them as benefactors.”
Despite a huge defence budget, the country is still regularly ripped by terrorist attacks and is viewed from outside as the most dangerous. In the process, however, the cash-strapped health and education sectors have been stunted.
Recently, and especially since the bin Laden operation, many in Pakistan have begun to question the millions of dollars that have been swallowed up by the military, which has been accused of providing safe havens for terrorists and militants. And thus, to Gazdar, the biggest lesson for Pakistan from the bin Laden debacle is not Pakistan learning to stand on its own two feet, but its military refraining from playing “double games and abandon jihadis,” and leaving foreign policy to those “constitutionally mandated to run foreign policy.”
Rais explains that following 9/11, Pakistan was thrown into the deep end because there was “hardly any other workable alternative to Pakistan’s participation.”
“For us, it was not a participation of choice but of necessity owing to our past links with the Taliban and our geographic circumstances,” Rais points out. “There is no way of finding out if the death and killings of Pakistanis at the hands of terrorists would have been lower had we remained neutral in the war—a neutrality that no one in the world would have accepted or thought credible.”
“Was there any practical option available to Pakistan following the 9/11 attack? Could Pakistan have continued to support the Taliban and faced no consequences?” asks Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defence analyst, saying the situation should be viewed more clearly “by staying away from emotionalism.”