NOT A FAILED STATE, NOT YET
Published: July 5, 2011 - 13:01 Updated: July 11, 2011 - 14:52
With its evolving media, strong banking industry, aspiring youth and professionals, a rich landholding class and business community, and the military, it is unrealistic to predict Pakistan’s demise
Arshi Saleem Hashmi Islamabad
Pakistan needs a paradigm shift. Cosmetic changes to deal with militancy and ‘jehadisation’ are unacceptable to its own people and the world. It has become a cliché that Pakistan is suffering due to its dual policy. It is accused of playing a double game. However, it has always been its policy to collaborate with the US, even as it sought to protect ‘Pakistan’s interest’ (on the western border) at the same time. No doubt, this protection of the State’s interests has been at the cost of its own people — a reality that is now hitting hard both the State and the people.
Pakistan could not live up to Jinnah’s dream of a moderate Muslim State based on Islamic principles and tolerance towards other faiths — in other words, a truly pluralist society. Instead, it moved towards a socio-political system that never accommodated liberal democracy, cultural pluralism and religious tolerance, and hence, evolved ultimately into a military-dominated State.
Contrary to common assumption, poverty and bad governance did not convince Pakistan’s masses to embrace communist ideology, and the society plodded on with a remarkable synthesis of culture and religion. Despite the absence of a direct ‘communist threat’, it became the frontline State for US policy to contain the former Soviet Union. Thus, Pakistan had to shoulder the burden of the US’s cold war strategy.
What made this partnership possible? It was not the threat of communism dislodging the Pakistani State’s Islamic identity, but its anti-communist credentials, combined with its formidable military potential, which made the US weave a dream of using the country as a stalwart anti-communist bastion in South Asia. The growing demand for military assistance to compete with India was exploited by the US, leading Pakistan deep into the mess that was brewing in Afghanistan.
America’s responsibility for the current condition, and the Pakistani ruling elite’s contribution to this, can be traced to the 1950s when the two countries collaborated during the Cold War. This led to militarism, corruption and flirtation with Islamic extremism, eventually resulting in weak attempts to establish democracy, massive corruption, sporadic economic development, and accommodating radical Islamists on various fronts.
Pakistan’s problems are not just about erosion of State authority. There exist fundamental structural problems it has always faced — exclusion or alienation of different groups on socio-economic, religious, sectarian, ethnic, regional and political grounds. The ideologisation of Islam gradually institutionalised the existing unequal power constructs, especially on a sectarian basis. The current problem of radicalisation and militancy demands an enquiry into the more challenging question of systemic exclusion and depoliticisation in society.
Indeed, structural problems came up as fundamental obstacles to the consolidation of the political system and empowerment of the national identity. The issue of common identity — Islam — within the ‘power construct’ is the key factor in any discourse as a tool to maintain the existing power structures.
Pakistan experiences cyclical periods of violent expressions of ethnic and religious radicalism — an issue long discussed with reference to the erosion of the Pakistani State’s authority over different sections of society. The truth is, due to increased authoritarianism and depoliticisation in society, political space was left open to be filled by radical voices. It’s a crisis caused, fundamentally, by the struggle among different forces to participate in the country’s ‘civil society space’, and trying to redefine it.
Hence, instead of labelling Pakistan a ‘failed State’ and reducing its problems to one of the erosion of State authority, the social unrest, political violence and religious extremism should be seen as symptoms of a challenging process — the redefinition of the civil society space and public participation within it. Therefore, the issue is inextricably tied with the question of structural exclusion of people from the whole system on socio-political, socio-economic, regional, sectarian and ethnic grounds.
Contrary to contemporary world opinion, Pakistan is a little more stable than what security pundits are predicting. With its evolving media, a strong banking industry, a youth bulge with a significant percentage of professionals, a rich landholding class and a business community, besides, of course, the military, it is unrealistic to predict
However, this does not mean that things can’t go bad. The State is not failing, but is under siege from terror groups aligned together with the goal of establishing an extremist State. The military leadership is engaged in a direct war with militants and, simultaneously, an indirect war of ideology within its own ranks. With more than 1,40,000 troops engaged in operations against the militants along the Afghan border, the military is suffering heavy casualties, and around 35,000 Pakistanis, including soldiers, have died in the fighting since 2001.
The world may be worried by terrorism emanating from Pakistan, but the argument that perhaps the majority of Pakistanis support the militant worldview is overrated. Most who appear to sympathise with Taliban or Al-Qaeda in surveys would argue their position only on the basis of their disillusionment with the lack of government services. They think this is because of the State’s focus on fighting for the US, instead of caring for its people. Although this frustration is often translated into anti-Americanism and viewed as support for violence and radicalisation, it has more to do with failure of the State to provide for the basic needs of people, than their love for Islamic jehad and extremism.
One reason Pakistan will not succumb to militancy is that the people here are as much against terrorism as in any other nation. Sympathisers of Osama bin Laden and Taliban are on the fringes, made all-powerful by State patronage in the past. Now that such patronage is gone, those who fear losing their long-attained status are reacting, and
hence the internal crisis within political and security institutions.
This crisis, however, does not signal a thorough degeneration of these institutions. The world may have come to know about radical elements within Pakistani security forces after the Abbottabad operation by the US and the attack on the Karachi Naval Base, but the military had identified them long ago and begun a process of deradicalisation within its ranks.
Besides, the radicalisation that has taken decades plus to get to this mess, cannot be undone in few years. While this process of undoing the past policies is underway, those who are not happy, but know a little more than others, will continue to create problems.
Pakistan can no longer afford to ignore the writing on the wall. It is treading carefully, but expecting a drastic change immediately would be a little too much from a country with a weak economy, a huge population, and the burden of wrong policies of the past.
It would be in the interest of the region and the world to let the country deal with its structural problems gradually, while the crackdown against the militants continues. Since too much pressure from the outside would strengthen the radical Islamists, who could easily exploit the situation by framing it in an ‘Us versus Them’ (‘Pakistan versus the rest’) discourse, the world should not push the country into a situation where it becomes really difficult for the State to control the radical elements.
Arshi Saleem Hashmi is a political and security analyst based in Islamabad, Pakistan