WAKE UP TO THE AWAKENING

Civilians are caught holding the proverbial bag: between American drones, Taliban suicide bombings, and the dubious empires of their corrupt leaders and generals. It's time for an Arab Spring in Pakistan

Neetu Mahil Washington DC

2011 started with a bang. January saw Sudan split in two; February, great upheaval in the Middle East; March a trifold disaster in Japan. April, always a hectic month, saw historic numbers of tornadoes in the US but also the resolution to the civil war in Cote D'Ivoire. On May 2, President Barack Obama declared that Osama Bin Laden had been caught and killed in Pakistan right under the noses of the US's so-called partner in the military town of Abbottabad.  

In so many ways, 2011 has been about waking up: awakening to the lifespan of dictators, the real dangers of nuclear energy, the proximity of the effects of global warming. Importantly, the youth of the Middle East, and their parents behind them, finally reached critical mass in their belief that change was possible and they could speak for and make it themselves. These revolutions are as much about the awakening of the people to their own power as they are wake-up calls for the regimes under which they suffered. Despotism, given the right mix of youth, anger and joblessness, will always fail in the end. Time is essentially on the people's side. It is now time for the remaining stalwarts of the world to awaken - none more so than the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)/military complex.

They have been called many names in the wake of events which revealed that Osama Bin Laden, the US's public enemy number one, lived for years in a compound within earshot of Pakistan's military academy in Abbottabad. Were the Pakistani military and its intelligence arm incompetent or complicit? The Pakistanis cannot get US military aid meant to help them find Osama and yet not come under severe heat for not finding him when he was in their very own backyard. But that's exactly what they seem to expect. Speaking before the Pakistani Parliament, intelligence chief Shuja Pasha condemned the raid against Osama and emphasised that the US's violation of Pakistani sovereignty was unacceptable. At the close of the 11-hour meeting, even those members of Parliament most sceptical of the ISI fell in rank behind Pasha. His offers to resign have been turned down. 

While Pakistani officials brew with anger at the US intrusion, they are not asking themselves the really important questions: why did the US keep the ISI in the dark about the raid in the first place? Why was Osama found in Abbottabad and why are many other Taliban leaders such as Mullah Omar still living in peace in Pakistan? 

The short answer is that Pakistan's ISI and military is caught in the middle. On the one side is the US that expects  results, and on the other are huge sections of fundamentalists in Pakistan who are sympathetic to the Taliban and hate the US. To maintain their power and legitimacy, the Pakistani leadership must play a double game.

But they are walking on a very dangerous tightrope by trying to at once use the Taliban and other violent groups as leverage against foreign powers, especially India, and accept US military aid to fight these very same elements. The stakes are high for the military; we know that this group of leaders financially benefits from their position at the apex of Pakistani society. According to Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, "The Pakistani military runs thousands of businesses worth tens of billions of dollars, ranging from street-corner petrol pumps to sprawling industrial plants." 

Corrupt and self-deluding, Pakistan's leadership either doesn't know (which suggests incompetence) or doesn't care (which reveals complicity) that their double game is played with the lives of Pakistan's numerous innocent civilians. Killing of civilians anywhere is always wrong. 

Yet, the self-denial of President Asif Zardari, Prime Minister Yousef Gilani, and Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani runs so deep that they don't realise how precarious their position is. They allow themselves to believe that they are protecting the very people they spy on. They convince themselves that they must remain vigilant against India by fomenting insurgencies against it. They tell the Pakistani people to trust them, for they alone can save Pakistan. Yet, more than the fact that India has never invaded or tried to invade Pakistan, the truth is that in order to maintain their power, they must maintain and convince their people of the existence of a foreign enemy. The people of Pakistan have been bamboozled for too long into believing that India presents a real and present threat.

It is true that ever since the Partition of 1947, India and Pakistan have been locked in a lifelong conflict over water, land, and people - ironically all the things partitioned by the line drawn by British officer Cyril John Radcliffe, a man who spent a total of three months in India, never to return. India has generally watched with genuine fear and apprehension the escalation of tensions and coinciding arms race with its neighbours, reacting with policies and military spending that reflect this fact.

Still, because the military and ISI in Pakistan play a crucial, if slightly contrived, role in fighting violent terrorism, the US helps them scale up there efforts by increasing military aid. Maybe as Bill Maher, American comedian and talk-show host, poignantly suggests, US military aid should be based on results. The US shouldn't pay Pakistan in the hope that it might deliver, but rather when it actually does. According to Christine Fair, a specialist on South Asia at Georgetown University, while US economic aid used to be "demand driven" - local groups and governments applied for grants, and funds were matched to needs - this hasn't been the model for decades. Maybe it should be again.  

When it came to the Arab Spring, many believed that it was the people of Egypt and Tunisia that finally awoke. While it is true that what they have accomplished peacefully and in little time can been seen as a kind of awakening, haven't the people of these countries always known that they lived under autocratic and corrupt leaderships? Indeed, there always existed infinite Egyptian jokes to this effect. 

The real awakening occurred in the minds of those autocratic and corrupt leaders, when they woke to the idea that they were not as loved or needed as they had believed for decades. Ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, surprised that the Egyptian people despised him, had a heart attack. In Tunisia, tryant Ben Ali and his ridiculous wife and family fled. 

The leaders of Pakistan are the ones who must now awaken to the reality that what is happening in the Arab world might soon happen closer home. Despotism's time has come; the forces that are in play now will not stop and will only be quelled with an extreme brutality that is harder and harder to get away with in today's age of fast-moving information and endless news footage reproduction. The people will win and those still clinging to repression will, in history's rear-view mirror, fade with time.

The people of Pakistan deserve a better leadership, competent and free of corruption. The paranoid dolts currently churning out nuclear weapons and abetting Osama Bin Laden have failed their people with record inflation, corruption and unemployment. They must wake up to the fact that their actions affect their subjects hardest of all. Mired in poverty, lacking education and general security, the vast youth population of Pakistan has dim economic prospects. 
Civilian Pakistanis are the ones trapped holding the proverbial bag: caught between American drones, Taliban suicide bombings, and the dubious empires of their corrupt leaders. As much as the Pakistani people must wake up to this fact, so too must their nightmarish leaders.    

Neetu Mahil earned her Master of Arts in International Affairs and International Economics from John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She currently resides in Washington DC

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2011