Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
I am going to break a self-imposed rule and recount my latest conversation with a Pakistani taxi driver. His parents live in Lahore, so we got talking about his main worries about Pakistan. The answer - lack of clean water and dengue fever. I am somewhat parodying the tired journalistic device of “my taxi driver said” here (I promise not to do it again) – since you can quote a Pakistani taxi driver without even going to Pakistan (London minus the extra airfare) – but here’s my point. People don’t always, or even often, talk about the stuff that makes headline news – like relations with the United States, the war in Afghanistan, Islamist militancy, drones, civilian-military competition and political confrontation. Pakistan (190 million people or more) is also cultural, social, economic and historical; it is religious but not only religious, traditional and urbanising; it is the most parochial country to be obsessed with the outside world; the most feudal to be driven by a web-savvy and growing youth; its issues include music and education, the price of onions and the fear of dengue.
To capture some of that, I have decided to start, on an experimental basis, a round-up of some of the latest articles in the Pakistani blogosphere. Apologies to anyone who feels they were unfairly ignored this time around but 1) I notice more those on my Twitter timeline (@myraemacdonald), 2) I am looking at themes that would be worth exploring further 3) I have tried to exclude those about The Big Political and Geopolitical Issues and 4) This is a personal choice rather than a scorecard. I have, however, included blogs from the diaspora with some reservations - inside the space created by the internet, and particularly on Twitter, diaspora/Pakistan conversations appear seamless (especially, for reasons I have never understood, when Manchester United is playing); outside the internet, real world influences are different in ways that are not always obvious.
I shall refine/amend/drop this series depending on what people have to say. But to get started, here are a few blogs/themes that caught my eye.
First up, urbanisation. This is important since much of the support for Islamist groups and for the kind of “stability” which some think can best be provided by the army has come from the urban middle and lower-middle classes. As has been the case in India, anger against corruption has also been driven by the urban middle classes who want a bigger share of the pie, while being presented rather disingenuously as concern for the rural poor. And urbanisation is an essential subject to master for anyone who wants to invest in Pakistan.
In his book “Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination“, an edited collection of his Chapati Mystery blog, historian Manan Ahmed complained about the United States’ past support for former president Pervez Musharraf, and its refusal, at the time to trust Pakistan with democracy. In an entry written in 2007, he described Pakistan as the “the not yet nation” - a country for which democracy might be a good thing in the long run, but was in American eyes not yet ready.
“We fear the multitudes on two fronts. One is that we conceive of them as masses without politics – forever hostage to gross religious and ideological provocations. Masses which do not constitute a body politic or act with an interest in self-preservation or self-growth. Faced with that absence of reason, we are forced to support native royals to do the job (from Egypt to Pakistan). We justify it by stressing that we may not like these dictators but we know that if we did not have them, the masses would instantly betray us to the very forces of extremism that we seek to destroy,” he wrote.
I have never read “Three Cups of Tea”, Greg Mortenson’s book about building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I tried to read the sequel, “Stones into Schools” and gave up not too long after the point where he said that, “the solution to every problem … begins with drinking tea.” Having drunk tea in many parts of South Asia – sweet tea, salt tea, butter tea, tea that comes with the impossible-to-remove-with-dignity thick skin of milk tea – I can confidently say that statement does not reflect reality.
So I have always been a bit puzzled that the Americans took Mortenson’s books so much to heart. Yes, I knew he boasted that his books had become required reading for American officers posted to Afghanistan; and yes, there is the glowing praise from Admiral Mike Mullen on the cover of ”Stones into Schools”, where he wrote that “he’s shaping the very future of a region”. But I had always believed, or wanted to believe, that at the back of everyone’s minds they realised that saccharine sentimentality was no substitute for serious analysis. Just as hope is not a strategy, drinking tea is not a policy. (To be fair to the Americans, I have also overheard a British officer extolling the virtues of drinking tea in Afghanistan.)
In a report this month calling for faster progress on a political settlement on Afghanistan, the influential UK parliamentary foreign affairs committee was unusually critical of the dominance of the military in setting Afghan policy.
“We conclude that there are grounds for concern over the relationship between the military and politicians. We further conclude that this relationship has, over a number of years, gone awry and needs to be re-calibrated … we believe that problems in Afghanistan highlight the need for a corresponding cultural shift within Whitehall to ensure that those charged with taking foreign policy decisions and providing vitally important political leadership are able to question and appraise military advice with appropriate vigour,” it said.
All countries are unique and comparing two of the world’s most populous Muslim countries, Egypt and Pakistan, is as risky as comparing Britain to France at the time of the French Revolution. But many of the challenges likely to confront Egypt as it emerges from the mass protests against the 30-year-rule of President Hosni Mubarak are similar to those Pakistan has faced in the past, and provide at least a guide on what questions need to be addressed. In Pakistan, they are often summarised as the three A’s — Army, Allah and America.
Both have powerful armies which are seen as the backbone of the country; both have to work out how to accommodate political Islam with democracy, both are allies of America, yet with people who resent American power in propping up unpopular elites.
In one of the more anguished posts about the murder of provincial governor Salman Taseer, Pakistani blogger Huma Imtiaz wrote that his assassination ”is not the beginning of the end. This is the end. There is no going back from here, there is no miracle cure, there is no magic wand that will one day make everything better. Saying ‘enough is enough’ does not cut it anymore …”
It was a sense that permeated much of the English-language commentary about Taseer’s killing in Islamabad by one of his own security guards. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Taseer, governor of Punjab province and a leading politician in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was killed because of his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. A sense that the forces of religious intolerance are becoming all but unstoppable; and that those who oppose them by promoting a more liberal vision of Pakistan occupy an ever diminishing space.
The fall-out from the fake WikiLeaks cables in Pakistan continues to be far more interesting than the real WikiLeaks cables. To recap, several Pakistani newspapers retracted stories last week which quoted WikiLeaks cables ostensibly accusing India of stirring up trouble in Baluchistan and Waziristan, cited U.S. diplomats as ridiculing the Indian Army, and compared Kashmir to Bosnia in the 1990s. Since the anti-India narrative presented in the stories chimed with the views of Pakistani intelligence agencies, the alleged cables were then dismissed as fakes and most likely an intelligence plant.
However, just to complicate matters, some of the information in the “fake cables” is also in the “real cables”. For example, the real cables do contain allegations of Indian support for Baluch separatists, largely sourced to British intelligence, according to The Guardian. The British newspaper, which had advance access to the cables, also cited them as evidence that India practiced systematic torture in Kashmir.
Manan Ahmed has a piece up at Chapati Mystery which should be essential reading for anyone interested in the current state of Pakistan and its prickly relations with the west, particularly with the United States.
Starting off with a re-reading of Salman Rushdie’s “Shame” (one of those books that I expect many of us read in our youth without properly understanding) he returns to the original inspiration for the title – “Peccavi“, Latin for “I have sinned.” According to an apocryphal, yet widely believed, story of British imperial conquest, “Peccavi” is the message that General Charles Napier sent back to Calcutta when he conquered Sindh (nowadays one of the provinces of Pakistan) in the 19th century. He then discusses how the modern-day view of Pakistan is defined by shame, or by a perception which over-simplifies it to “Peccavistan”.
One of the more troublesome aspects of the current situation in Pakistan is how subdued – at least relative to the scale of the deaths – are protests against suicide bombings on Pakistani cities. Travelling from Lahore to Islamabad last month, my taxi driver winced in pain when I told him I had a text message saying the city we had just left, his city, had been bombed again. Yet where was the outlet for him to express that pain, or indeed for the many grieving families who had lost relatives?
I was reminded of this reading Nadeem Paracha’s latest piece in Dawn on the outcry over Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist jailed in the United States after being convicted of shooting at U.S. soldiers. She has been claimed as the “daughter of the nation” who must be rescued from an American jail.
One of the arguments that comes up frequently for helping the victims of Pakistan’s floods is that otherwise Islamist militants will exploit the disaster, and the threat of terrorism to the west will rise. It’s an argument that makes me wince every time I read it.
It implies that wanting to help people simply because they are suffering from hunger, homelessness and disease is a hopelessly outdated concept; that until these hungry, homeless and diseased people turn up at a bombing near you, then there is no reason to give them money. (For a great take on this, do read Manan Ahmed’s “I am a bhains” at Chapati Mystery).