Whither Pakistan

I have become increasingly despondent over the state of affairs in Pakistan.  This is fairly personal for me because my family originated there (they moved to modern India just before partition; and I moved to the US for graduate school).  Perhaps the inevitable will happen.... the inevitable always happens... and things will get worse before they get better.

Occasionally, there are glimmers of hope.  None more so, than the words of Cyril Almeida, who writes in the Dawn (a leading Pakistani daily...also found at Cyril Almeida

On April 17, Cyril asked the question that everyone wants answered.

How did we arrive at this point?

And his answer is one of the most honest cracks at the question I have ever seen.  So, let me quote in full.

Trite answers abound. We're regressing. We're uneducated. We have lost our way. Perhaps. But there is an underlying problem, one that isn't sexy or simple enough to attract much attention.

Ejaz Haider first set me thinking about it a few years ago. We in Pakistan have still not resolved first-order issues of the state. The basic stuff. How is power to be divided between the various institutions of the state; what is the raison d'être of the state; what are society's grundnorms; what is the social contract on the basis of which the state and its people are to interact. Simply, we haven't yet figured out the framework within which we are to solve what we consider our real problems.

Ejaz contrasted us with India, which also fails to provide adequate goods and services to many of its people. There are still poor people in India, there is illiteracy, there is hunger, rights are routinely denied. But hardscrabble as life may be in India, the Indians have worked out a consensus on what kind of state -- the first-order issue -- will address its people's problems, the second-order issues. In India, a constitutional democracy that embraces fundamental rights is the agreed framework in which to pursue economic and social betterment.

Here in Pakistan we have no such consensus. Sixty-one years of not agreeing on how the state is to be organised has made it impossible to work on the people's problems. But that failure also always left the door open to anyone who could promise the people a better future at the cost of reorienting the state.

Charles Lemos, in one of his dairies, understated the following:

It might also help if we knew just who to trust.

Given Cyril's assessment of the problem (which I agree with, btw), one can easily answer Charles' question:  no one in Pakistan can be trusted today.  There are individuals who are sane, and honest, but the system of governance itself is broken.  Thus, absent a radical overhaul of the system, reshuffling the individuals here and there will be meaningless.  In that sense, the rise of the Taliban represents a step forward for Pakistan.

You see, Pakistan had been setup as a country where the elites get to govern, and live in walled compounds.  The rest of the people are let into the walled compounds to clean the dishes and the bathrooms, and are expected to return to their hovels once the job is done.  The raison d'etre of the state was to serve the elites.  The masses were convinced that this state of affairs was acceptable because the alternative was subservience to a secular (or worse, a Hindu) India.

How much longer could such a state have carried on ?  At least the rise of the Taliban will force the entire country back to the drawing boards.  Perhaps a new state will be crafted out, one that is better suited to serve its people.

And perhaps all that can be accomplished without too much bloodshed.  After all, if Cyril Almeida can point out the obvious, then perhaps the rest of the Pakistani elite can see it as well.

Or not!!

The tendency to blame someone else for one's own shortcomings is perhaps the only universal value.  Accordingly, the headline from Dawn blared
US created Taliban and abandoned Pakistan, says Hillary

In an appearance before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday, Mrs Clinton explained how the militancy in Pakistan was linked to the US-backed proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

"We can point fingers at the Pakistanis. I did some yesterday frankly. And it's merited because we are wondering why they just don't go out there and deal with these people," said Mrs Clinton while referring to an earlier hearing in which she said that Pakistan posed a "mortal threat" to the world.

"But the problems we face now to some extent we have to take responsibility for, having contributed to it. We also have a history of kind of moving in and out of Pakistan," she said.

"Let's remember here... the people we are fighting today we funded them twenty years ago... and we did it because we were locked in a struggle with the Soviet Union.

"They invaded Afghanistan... and we did not want to see them control Central Asia and we went to work... and it was President Reagan in partnership with Congress led by Democrats who said you know what it sounds like a pretty good idea... let's deal with the ISI and the Pakistan military and let's go recruit these mujahideen.

"And great, let them come from Saudi Arabia and other countries, importing their Wahabi brand of Islam so that we can go beat the Soviet Union.

"And guess what ... they (Soviets) retreated ... they lost billions of dollars and it led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"So there is a very strong argument which is... it wasn't a bad investment in terms of Soviet Union but let's be careful with what we sow... because we will harvest.

"So we then left Pakistan ... We said okay fine you deal with the Stingers that we left all over your country... you deal with the mines that are along the border and... by the way we don't want to have anything to do with you... in fact we're sanctioning you... So we stopped dealing with the Pakistani military and with ISI and we now are making up for a lot of lost time."

Notice something missing from the headline, and in the article itself ?  Yeah... any admission that Pakistanis themselves shoulder most of the blame.  It seems Cyril is in a minority, even though his April 17 piece generated a lot of buzz.

The rise of the Taliban represents an opportunity for Pakistan.  Given a clear choice between radical Islam, and a free society, the people will always choose a free society.  But, given a choice between radical Islam, and an elite-o-cracy, the people might waver, and choose radical Islam... I would too!  This is where Pakistan stands today.  It can turn around if the elites decide to reform the system, and offer the masses a stake in a free society, and the masses believe that the offer is being made in good faith.

As Cyril Almeida states

THANK you, Sufi Mohammad. With one speech Sufi has done more to galvanise public opinion against militancy than a hundred suicide bombings and beheadings.

Suddenly, people have woken up to the fact that the great soldier of Islam is a dangerous kook. `He thinks we're what?' `He wants to do what?' Yep, he thinks the rest of us are sick and what we really need is a dose of Sufi's medicine. Y'know, to straighten us out about our romance with infidel democracy and yearning for quaint things like basic rights, a functional economy, education, etc.

Sufi's utopia, it turns out, is everyone else's dystopia. The fact that people are surprised though has everything to do with the catastrophic, collective failure of our politicians and army.

But for the masses to turn away from the Taliban, they have to be offered a real stake in a genuinely free society.  Merely criticizing the Taliban for flogging women will not suffice.

Tags: clinton, pakistan, Taliban (all tags)



Re: Whither Pakistan

Great post. My argument is that Pakistan is a failed state not because the Taliban are knocking on the gates of Islamabad. To be frank, I don't see them as having the capability of taking power. The problem in Pakistan is that their governing elites are fractious and self absorbed. Pakistan is a kleptocracy. The state has been plundered. The elites never provided a guiding light for the country other than be an anti-India. Now mind you, I don't know what it is like to be staring at a billion Indians across the plains of the Punjab but there is more than one way to build security. Pakistan has chosen to build its security almost exclusively by amasssing one of the world's largest armies. For over 40 years, about a third of GNP goes to paying for that army. The amount spent on education is 2.6% or about half what most developing states spend. It outsourced its educational system to Saudi-funded madrassas. There are some 25,000 of them now in the country.

Pakistan has failed because its economy has failed and it can't be rescued just like that.  

And you're right, it is about modernizing elites and in Pakistan the modernizing elite is all about themselves. They forgot to include a 170 million Pakistanis in the equation and are now paying the price.

by Charles Lemos 2009-04-25 01:25PM | 0 recs

And yes, I substantially agree with your arguments.

I just disagree with you (and with myself) over how much hope there is.  I do not want to believe that things are lost, I suppose...

by Ravi Verma 2009-04-25 01:53PM | 0 recs
Re: Thanks

Hope? I have hope? I assure hope I have none. Pakistan may survive the present challenge but it will succumb to some odd calamity.

by Charles Lemos 2009-04-25 02:09PM | 0 recs
Re: Thanks

Well, I agree with that.  That is certainly the more logical state of mind.

But at the same time, I do not want to believe that there is no hope left.

by Ravi Verma 2009-04-25 02:23PM | 0 recs
Re: Thanks

The Pakistanis have to want it themselves. Blaming their situation on India, on the US, on events in Afghanistan has become a crutch and escape valve to blame their problems on others and circumstances beyond their control.

Thanks for the link to Cyril Almeida. I spent a good hour reading his columns.

by Charles Lemos 2009-04-25 03:24PM | 0 recs
Maybe you can have him on here...

as a guest blogger or something!

Would certainly be beneficial to all of us.

by Ravi Verma 2009-04-25 05:37PM | 0 recs
Irfan Hussain of Dawn writes this

And as the economy falters and stalls, the rest of the world is being asked to rescue us yet again. We are telling the Americans that we will not accept any strings to their assistance, while the Friends of Pakistan are being told that the country will collapse without a bailout. In some ways, we are holding a begging bowl in one hand, and a raised middle finger in the other. If we had a third hand, it would be holding a gun to our head. In fact, this is now our preferred negotiation mode.

It would help a lot if the government had a coherent plan to combat the militant menace. In fact, Pakistanis as well as the international community would welcome some sign that somebody in the government is doing some serious thinking. So far, we have been fed with clichés and idiotic waffle. Perhaps this absence of any sensible policy is even scarier than the continuing inaction. It seems the government is sleepwalking its way to disaster, with our leaders more interested in scoring political points than doing their duty, and fighting the Taliban threat.

We have been told that somehow, the government will separate the `moderate' Taliban from the really bad guys and talk to the former, while using force against the latter. I wonder if the abandoned and terrorised people of Swat can tell the difference.

This of course must be read in conjunction with this:

Holbrooke and Jacob J. "Jack" Lew, deputy secretary of state for management and resources, spent much of yesterday meeting with members of Congress to build support for the plan to quickly and significantly increase development and military assistance to Pakistan, and to reassure them the administration is on top of the fast-moving situation.

Which brings me back to this prevailing group-think with Washington and America in general: If you throw enough money at a problem, the problem will solve it self. Money is the answer to everything.

by tarheel74 2009-04-25 03:58PM | 0 recs


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