November 20, 2008, 9:00 am - July 8, 2019, 6:15 pm


1761 N Street NW
Washington, 20036 (Map)


In the keynote speech of MEI’s 62nd Annual Conference, Aitzaz Ahsan describes Pakistan as one of the most compelling battlefields in the war against terrorism. Against the backdrop of rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan Ahsan says that losing public support means losing the war. Ahsan points out five realities about Pakistan that the new US administration must bear in mind to avoid mistakes of the Bush administration. These realities, he says, prove that an independent judiciary is essential for political stability and economic prosperity in Pakistan must be achieved in order to contain terrorism.

Event Summary

Aitzaz Ahsan began his remarks with an optimistic assessment of the results of 2008 US presidential elections. Ahsan says “the promise of change in Washington’s air is associated with a new era of optimism and hope by the entire world,” and signifies a change in rhetoric and policy regarding the war on terror.

Citing groups like the Irish Republican Army, Spain’s ETA, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers and Germany’s Red Army Faction, Ahsan argues that terrorism should not be exclusively equated with the Middle East and with Islam. Ahsan suggests that the legitimacy of intervention should be re-evaluated by the American policy makers and says terrorism has more to do with a sense of injustice and occupation.

In Ahsan’s view, American policy makers have mistakenly believed the war on terror can be won by collaborating only with elected or non-elected local elites. Ahsan argues that the war on terror cannot be won without the support of the local population. If the US loses support of Pakistani people, he warns, it will lose the war on terror.
Ahsan says he shares the views expressed by president-elect Obama and vice president-elect Biden regarding the war on terror. In contrast to the Bush administration, Obama and Biden emphasize civilian aid and people-friendly policies. Ahsan says these measures will be vital to gain credibility with Pakistani people and show them this is a war against a common enemy and not against Islam.

After general assessments of America’s approach to the war on terror, focuses on the lawyer’s movement in Pakistan. He describes the movement as “perhaps the only liberal, modernist, utterly non-violent, peaceful, tolerant, democratic, plural and hugely popular movement in the history of the entire Islamic world.” He touches upon the accomplishments of the movement, emphasizing how it weakened the rigid power of President General Musharrraf and forced him to open a dialogue with the civilian leaders living in exile like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Ahsan criticizes the Bush administration’s tolerance of Musharraf’s authoritarian regime at the expense of civilian alienation and frustration. Ahsan indicates that when the chief justice of Pakistan was under house arrest for five months, few in the US administration expressed concern. He says the US cannot launch a successful war against terrorism if it fortifies a regime that locks up judges and subverts the legal process.
Ahsan points out five important realities about the lawyer’s movement that the new administration should bear in mind.

First, he asserts, Pakistan is not a Middle Eastern but a South Asian state. Different from the Arab world, Pakistan “shares a deep and indelible aspiration for an independent and utterly autonomist judiciary.”

Second, the existence of an independent and functioning judiciary is crucial in Pakistan because it is in a war-zone. Independent judges safeguard against terror and, Ahsan argues, without an independent judiciary, extremism cannot be contained in Pakistan.

Third, the independent judiciary is integral to successful democracies; no democracy will survive without the rule of law. Ahsan says a truly sovereign parliament is only possible with fearless and independent judges.

Fourth, the lawyer’s movement is entirely non-violent and peaceful. The pluralist nature of the movement can be understood from the diversity of its participants and supporters such as men and women, old and young, poets and writers, farmers and urbanities, students, professionals, the secular and the devout.

The final reality about Pakistan is that the state must have a functioning independent judiciary in order to win the war against terrorism. Ahsan says the rule of law is essential to attract outside investments—a crucial component to Pakistan’s economic development. Ahsan believes the biggest challenge to Pakistan’s war on terror is the unemployed youth. Combating the economic challenges is key to preventing new terrorist recruits.

Ahsan expresses his appreciation of the Biden-Lugar bill to boost development aid. He also emphasizes the importance of international investment to provide the tools of prosperity, which he sees as critical to winning the war against terrorism. Ahsan underlines the importance of an independent judiciary to achieve both economic development and political stability in Pakistan. For these reasons, he concludes, it should be unconditionally promoted by the new US administration.

About this Event

Aitzaz Ahsan gave the Keynote Address of the Middle East Institute's 62nd Annual Conference, Washington DC November 21, 2008.


This Event Summary was written by Zuhal Kuru, a Research Intern at the Middle East Institute and a graduate student at George Mason University. It was peer-edited by Sarah Golkar, a Communications Intern at the Middle East Institute, and senior at the University of Texas at Austin.

Disclaimer: Assertions and opinions in this Summary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not reflect necessarily the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.