Recent days have shown that Pakistan finds itself at a very crucial turning point.  The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and increased dissatisfaction with the performance of President Pervez Musharraf, have upset stability in what was already a volatile region. And Monday’s parliamentary elections, in which Bhutto’s opposition party took the majority of seats in the parliamentary throws further uncertainty into the mix.

A number of key decisions, with both internal and external consequences, need to be made in a quick and decisive fashion in order to ensure Paktistani stability and, in turn, the stability of South Asia at large. A key player not to be overlooked in all of the recent changes in Pakistani politics is Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Munir Akram, a thirty-eight year old stalwart of diplomacy, who at such an uncertain time in Pakistani politics happened to grace Columbia’s Lerner Cinema last night to sort out for students and professors alike his view of the future of Pakistan.

The soft-spoken ambassador laid out for students six different priorities that he argued would come to define Pakistan in the coming years.  Akram put forward the premise that Pakistan is a country shaped primarily by its relation to its neighbors, and thus it must undertake a “360 degree foreign policy” in which Afghanistan, India, Iran, China, and the Gulf states are all viewed as vital players in Pakistani well-being.  

Akram kicked off the night by discussing Pakistan’s role in the War on Terror.  He noted that the US has placed Pakistan in a position of leadership, particularly in fighting Al Qeada and the Taliban on the border with Afghanistan.  Akram noted the challenges in fighting terrorism on the border saying that the terrain is “difficult, with tribal structures and tribal loyalties often getting in the way.”  He reassured the audience that Pakistan is winning but must do more to consolidate political and economic strategy in that effort, especially in Afghanistan, where rampant drug trafficking and violent tribal dvisions loom large.

Another question of regional stability brought the ambassador is Pakistan’s role as a nuclear power and the dispute over Kashmir with India.  Akram expressed his faith in nuclear deterrence, but he cautioned that if the Pakistani government witnessed expansion of the Indian nuclear program, Pakistan would be obliged to respond with a proportional response in its own weapons technology program.  He suggested that stability in the subcontinent is a question of balance.  Without the Kashmir issue looked at carefully by both sides, there would be the real possibility of escalation.  To contrast this topic of escalation, the ambassador suggested that Pakistan is a real example of nuclear non-proliferation.  He suggested that Pakistan is being discriminated against by other nuclear powers, going so far to suggest that “our nuclear materials are safer than those of the United States and India.”

Akram began wrapping up his talk by suggesting the key role that the Persian Gulf states Iraq and Iran will come to play in the future of Pakistani politics.  He urged the United States not to forget Pakistani interests when charting a course for the future of the Gulf by noting, “Any solution to Gulf security will have to involve Pakistan.”  Finally, Akram moved to cover the intersection between religion and politics, noting that Pakistan is the second largest Islamic country in the world after Indonesia.  Akram raised his voice for a rare moment in the evening to declare, “Pakistan is a dynamic and strong country, able to influence events in the Islamic world.”

Before long the quiet ambassador had left Lerner Cinema, with the same degree of equanimity with which he had entered, having answered a spattering of questions from students and political science legend Jack Snyder.  A man who tends to avoid the spotlight, but a key player in the future of Pakistan nonetheless, Munir Akram left Columbia with a nugget of hope for Pakistan after Monday’s election saying that although the results carry with them a large amount of uncertainty, “The elections were free, fair, and organized.  The framework will not change because our priorities will not change.”  

Columbia students were blessed to see a real player on the international stage in his element last night, tackling the difficult questions of uncertainty that comes with security politics.  I can only hope some students were able to appreciate his brilliance and vision for a safer Pakistan.

- Pierce Stanley