Pakistan on the Brink: F B Ali

Sic Semper Tyrannis 2007; October 22, 2007

Amid all the noise and commotion surrounding recent events in Pakistan most of the commentary in the media is either sensationalist or confused. Though it is not easy, even for close observers, to predict how the future is going to unfold, it is possible to discern possible outcomes and the underlying factors whose interplay will determine what actually comes about.

Pakistan is now a fragile structure, riven by many fissures and under severe internal and external pressures. It is a land of four major (often rival) ethnicities, each based in one of its provinces (with a fifth centred in its largest city, Karachi). There is an increasing gap between a small rich upper class and the bulk of the people, who live in various levels of poverty and deprivation. There is a burgeoning population, fed by a high birth rate. Many aspects of everyday life are controlled by a huge government bureaucracy that is both corrupt and inefficient, and works mostly for its own gain and for those who can buy or influence its goodwill.

There are, however, certain commonalities that affect Pakistanis across these dividing lines and counter their centrifugal effect. There is the common aspiration of the downtrodden and dispossessed everywhere for a better life and future for themselves and their children. There is a deep attachment to Islam, for many to the religion of the Islamists but, for the large majority, to Islam in its utopian guise as the source of all answers and solutions. There tends to be a sense of one Pakistani nationality among the people of the Punjab and most people in urban centres in other parts of the country.

Another widely held sentiment is strong anti-US feelings; these are not directed against Americans but against the US government, and are based on what is perceived as its destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, its condoning the destruction of the Palestinians and Lebanon, its war on terror that appears to be a war on Muslims, and now its sabre-rattling against Iran.

These various commonalities do not significantly foster national unity but they do create common attitudes and responses to certain events and situations. All these forces, both positive and negative, operate beneath the surface but, though pervasive and powerful, do not have the capability to move events on their own. This can only be done by the two major repositories of power in Pakistan : the army and the people.

The army has ready-to-use, mobilized power. The people possess potential power that needs to be mobilized to produce its effect. This cannot be done through elections because they are conducted and controlled by the corrupt and pliable administrative machinery (that is why Benazir Bhutto, even though she believed she had the votes, was forced to make a deal with Gen Musharraf in order to ensure that they would not be nullified in a rigged election). She, as well as some other politicians, have the ability to bring large numbers of people out on the streets, but these demonstrations wield no effective power; a “whiff of grapeshot” can scatter them (actually, a little tear gas will do the trick).

This people power can, however, be effectively mobilized and projected by a dedicated and well-organized group. It is instructive to examine one case where this was successfully done. ZA Bhutto, then prime minister, had the 1977 elections rigged (he didn’t need to as he could have won a comfortable majority in a fair vote, but his vanity demanded an “overwhelming” victory). This blatant rigging resulted in a popular protest movement led by the opposition, which included the religious parties. When the police could not suppress this agitation, Bhutto, through his hand-picked army chief, Gen Zia ul Haq, declared martial law in several large cities and ordered the army in. The troops used deadly force and many people were killed, but the dedicated and organized cadres of the religious parties managed to keep the public demonstrations continuing. After more civilian deaths, several brigade commanders, responding to the feelings of their troops, refused to order any more shooting of demonstrators. This crack in the army’s cohesion and discipline created such alarm in the high command that the corps commanders forced Gen Zia to end the turmoil by unseating Bhutto. The rest is history.

The notable lessons to be learned from this episode, lessons that are still very much applicable today, are :
• The religious parties can mobilize people power by joining a people’s movement and using their highly-motivated and disciplined cadres to organize and sustain it. But they can do this only for a cause that the people themselves feel strongly about; they cannot do it for one of their own causes (as they have failed to do time and again).
• If the army is used against its compatriots it imposes severe strains on its discipline and cohesion. If these are felt to be at risk the generals will act decisively to end such action, by whatever means are necessary; this is a red line they will not cross.

The critical situation in which Pakistan finds itself today is because, under intense US pressure, Gen Musharraf has sent in the army to seize control of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and bloody battles are raging there. In the West these are seen as operations against Taliban and terrorists; to the soldiers involved they are fighting their own countrymen (and women and children). The strains are already manifesting themselves; it was till now unimaginable that hundreds of soldiers would allow themselves to be taken captive without a fight. There is real danger of a catastrophe. If Musharraf keeps forcing the army to continue fighting this war it may fracture; all it will take is one crack, since the strain on the whole edifice is so great that this would be enough to break it apart. Even if the army is pulled back into token operations, the tribesmen are so incensed that they may not cease fighting, and the strains will then continue.

Meanwhile, the impact of this war, and the ongoing low-level insurgency in Baluchistan, is destabilizing the country. Religious fundamentalism is spreading and terrorist attacks and bombings occur frequently. The US hope that Benazir Bhutto can somehow stabilize the country, defeat internal extremists and mobilize the people against the “Taliban” is based on almost complete ignorance of the country and its dynamics. Even if she becomes prime minister, the war in the tribal areas will be controlled and fought by the generals, not by her. She cannot mobilize people power to fight the religious parties or the extremists (even when her father was hanged, when she was twice thrown out of office, and then imprisoned and later exiled, her party could not organize any significant public protest).

If the army cracks, the country could break down into anarchy, or another military dictator, with a very different orientation, could take over. Even if the army holds together, the country faces increasing instability and unrest. The growth of religious fundamentalism in society cannot help but infect the army, and there is a small but real danger of a coup being mounted by such elements in the military. If Pakistan founders, Iraq will seem, in retrospect, to have been a rather rowdy picnic, and Iran just a pushy braggart.

Critics of the Bush administration point to the invasion of Iraq as its greatest blunder. History may well record that an even bigger blunder was its policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Knowing that al-Qaeda was the real enemy, that they were based in Taliban Afghanistan, and that the Taliban themselves had come to power out of their bases in Pakistan, it focussed its attention instead on invading Iraq. It let the al-Qaeda leadership get away; when the Northern Alliance routed the Taliban it did nothing to ensure that they found no sanctuary in Pakistan. At that time, a little prodding could have got a subdued Musharraf to neutralize the religious parties and take control of their madrassahs (which were the support networks of the Taliban) and deny the latter sanctuaries in the border cities and tribal areas. But the lure of Iraq and a reordered Middle East drew them away, leaving huge unfinished business.

Compounding this initial blunder, the US administration is now trying to salvage US-NATO operations in Afghanistan by forcing the Pakistan government to undertake a war upon its own tribal people. It has no comprehension that in seeking this tactical gain it is risking a strategic catastrophe. In its blithe ignorance and wishful policy-making it pursues the chimeras of Benazir Bhutto’s promises that, if the US helps her become prime minister, she will take care of everything and sort out all the problems. Ahmed Chalabi once sold them an identical bill of goods, and led them into the Iraq quagmire. Now they follow Benazir Bhutto’s siren song into an even bigger disaster in the making. Some people never learn.


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