Q&A With Pakistani Lawyer Asma Jahangir

Pakistani human-rights lawyer Asma Jahangir Orlando Sierra / AFP-Getty Images

With the recent foiling of a times Square bombing plot allegedly planned by a Pakistani-American, and the ongoing offensive against the Taliban in Pakistan's frontier provinces, the country and its problems remain at the center of world attention. Anita Kirpalani spoke with leading Pakistani human-rights lawyer Asma Jahangir about the chances for change in her fractious homeland:

After the Times Square bomb scare, is there a feeling that the U.S. will further pressure Pakistan to clear militant strongholds?

There is already pressure on Pakistan, and it is not a secret that there are safe havens of militants in parts of FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], particularly North Waziristan. But the person who has allegedly committed this crime is an American national, so we should also be looking at why people who live so far away get drawn in by the militants here. It is because of their effective propaganda that is misleading the youth, and that needs to be effectively countered by all governments. I don't see that happening.

The Pakistani military says it doesn't have the capacity to clear them, but at the same time it recently held exercises with 50,000 troops at the Indian border.

As I was told in Washington last week, troops that are dispatched to the eastern border have a different preparedness than the ones that can fight in North Waziristan. Our troops are not fully equipped to fight an insurgency of this magnitude. I am told they don't even have night goggles.

Do you anticipate a shift in the military's thinking about north Waziristan?

This threat cannot be eradicated through military power alone. We also need a major shift in Pakistan's foreign policy. First, our military leadership must realize that Afghanistan cannot predominantly remain under our influence. Secondly, they have to convince themselves that by using jihadi forces they are not only bleeding India, they are bleeding Pakistan.

Are you saying Pakistan shouldn't participate in the proxy war in Afghanistan?

Yes, nor in India, for that matter.

So what should Pakistan focus on now?

On itself. When you are talking of stabilization, it is not simply having an Army operation. It is stabilizing our economy to make it more workable, build a more tolerant society—not only through education but also through other means, including by supporting an independent media.

Is the government in a position to do that, especially considering that the military has a hold on power?

It is correct that the military still retains the power behind the scenes and is not likely to give up voluntarily. No military that has been in power for so long and has huge vested interests will willingly come under civilian control. The civilian authorities must use political skills to take over power. They must first take themselves seriously.

Is the recently passed 18th amendment effective in keeping the military at bay?

It is a big step. All the natural resources—gas, oil, and water—will be equally shared by the provinces and the federal government. A lot of the taxation will take place at a provincial level. So now the military will have to respect provincial autonomy and all the provinces will participate in the decision making, including on military expenditure.

Some people see this amendment as president Asif Ali Zardari's surrender of power.

That is absolutely correct. The 18th Amendment restores the parliamentary system established by our Constitution, [but] there are old and new provisions in our Constitution that are an obstacle to building a tolerant society. Earlier, the president had to be Muslim. But the recent amendments now require the prime minister to be a Muslim, too. It reflects the mentality of our parliamentarians. They continue to be apologists when it comes to religious bigotry.

What are the risks of having such an article in the constitution?

Our leaders argue there are no practical risks, as no non-Muslim is likely to make it to such a high office. But I think it just gives a depressing message: that people who are not Muslims in this country are second-class citizens.

Q&A With Pakistani Lawyer Asma Jahangir | World